Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule, and learn to distinguish between what you can and can't control, that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible. - Sharon Lebell, author of Art of Living
Nothing causes us more suffering than attempting to control what we can't. It drains our energy, pulls us out of the present moment, and fills us with toxic emotions like fear, resentment, stress, and doubt.
You can't control what other people think. You can't change what's already happened. The one thing you do control is your behavior and responses to your circumstances.
If you intend to live what Pamela Slim calls a full-color full contact life, you have to come to terms with the fact that shit happens. Sometimes really bad shit happens.
But our suffering isn't caused by the event itself. It's caused by the stories we all tell ourselves. We turn a temporary circumstance into a permanent identity:
- Instead of being heartbroken, we become unlovable.
- Instead of having a financial setback, we say, "we're poor."
With every word that comes out of our mouth, we shape our life experience. As the authors of The Three Laws of Performance say, "As you label an object, so it appears."
By understanding one basic principle, you can become a much happier person.
Everything You Are Attached to Imprisons You
Everything you fight has power over you. Everything you accept doesn't. Think about your attachment to a goal like a million dollars or the love of your life.
Now imagine if a briefcase with a million dollars was literally attached to your wrist with a handcuff. You can't take it off and you have to carry it with you everywhere you go. You are imprisoned by the thing you've always wanted. Now think of everything you can't do because of this. Once you make the list, you'll begin to see quite clearly just how much your attachment imprisons you.
Do the same thing for the love of your life. Imagine being joined at the hip with this person. Now you can't do anything without them. You are imprisoned by the thing you wanted so badly.
The scenarios above are absurd but can help us to understand the kind of impact our attachments have on us. As an older mentor said to me, "You can not go any further than that which you are attached to, so let go."
Attachment to any outcome is an attempt to control the uncontrollable. It's a recipe for profound disappointment. I learned this the hard way during the Audience of One book launch. What should have been one of the happiest days of my life made me miserable because I was so concerned about books sales. The irony, of course, was that I wasn't following the advice in my own book.
Four Words that Make You Miserable
"I'll be happy when", insert goal, life experience or event that hasn't happened yet. Every time these words come out of your mouth, you plant the seeds of discontent.
People who don't optimize their life enough and suffer from the disease of more are always going to be dissatisfied with their lives. When you live this way, you put yourself in a self-inflicted prison of conditional happiness. You live with a mindset of scarcity instead of abundance, dissatisfaction instead of gratitude.
When your happiness is dependent on external circumstances, you risk making decisions out of desperation that are out of alignment with your values. You settle.
What You Want so Bad Will Eventually Become Your New Normal
We overestimate how happy we think something amazing will make us. We underestimate how sad something terrible will make us. But nothing you accomplish will permanently alter your self- image. And great art often comes from great pain.
Eventually, whatever you achieve will become your new normal. This is because of hedonic adaption. The nicer car, the book deal with the publisher, the hot significant other will eventually just be part of your day to day life, and the goalpost keeps moving.
There's always another level. And someone is always ahead of you. To spend your life chasing the next level of accomplishment is a fool's errand that might cause you to get to the end of your life and wonder what it was all for.
Focusing in What You Control Will Make You a Happier Person
When you stop trying to control the uncontrollable, you can redirect your time and attention to what's in your control:
- You can't control how someone responds to your creative work. But you can control whether or not you decide to show up and do it.
- You can't control what other people think of you. But you can control what you think of yourself.
Make a list of everything you've been trying to control but can't. Then replace it with what you can control. You'll not only be more at peace but much more productive. Remember, if you focus on the process instead of the prize, you're much more likely to win the prize.
You can't bullshit your brain into believing you're a millionaire when you're working at McDonald's or barely making ends meet. But your brain isn't going to resist gratitude for what you already have. And gratitude is within your control.
When we practice gratitude, we start to notice small things. A few months ago I was on a Spirit Airlines flight to San Diego. And if you've ever been on their flights, you know their tagline should be, "All we're offering you is a seat." Because my stewardess didn't have my first drink order and forgot to get me a second one, she didn't charge me for anything.
The next day when I was writing my list of good things that happen in the last 24 hours this was one of them. I had gratitude for an experience on an airline that customers usually hate.
We take it for granted when there's no traffic, a line at the grocery store, etc. We expect so much and as a result, we don't appreciate these little things.
The moment you stop trying to control the uncontrollable, you'll not only be happier. But you'll be free to put all that energy and attention to what's in your control. You'll be on the path to living a more artful and meaningful life.