Take Control

The idea of only concerning yourself with that which lies within your ability to control is one of the primary tenets of stoicism. This tenet may be the single most useful concept within the stoic philosophy and can be utilized to create a life of greater happiness even today, thousands of years after the beginning of stoic practices.

Think about some of the stressors that cause anxiety, frustration, or unhappiness in your life today. Here are a few of mine: getting passed over for a promotion (dealing with this as we speak), getting sick and missing out on pleasurable activities, the general situation surrounding the Covid-19 virus and ongoing uncertainties and disruptions of “normal” life. Seriously, if you are reading this and your goal is to generate more happiness, actually write down 3-5 things that make you feel unhappy, or at least keep a mental list.

How many of those things are within your control to change? If I look at my list I can come up with a few solutions: speaking to my manager or applying for new jobs may alleviate issues surrounding the lack of a promotion, taking better care to get adequate sleep and nutrition might bring me back to health or prevent future illness, as far as Covid, well, not much can be done there. So yes, some degree of control lies within my hands, but at the same time I am limited in my ability to affect certain outcomes. I can’t give myself a promotion, I can only set myself up for the greatest chance of success, but the actual outcome lies in the decisions of others. I can take preventive measures to stay healthy but the truth is that people get sick, and sometimes getting sick disrupts our lives – it is somewhat inevitable. And Covid? Don’t get me started – few situations I have observed in my life have ever presented themselves as more out of control, and I learned a long time ago that stressing over the virus itself or other people’s decisions surrounding the virus.

Do the things that cause you unhappiness, or that are preventing you from realizing happiness lend themselves to being influenced by certain actions, thoughts, decisions, or behaviors on your part? If the answer is yes, do something about it. If not, learn to let it go and accept that you are not an omnipotent being with the power to bend heaven and earth to your own will. The worst thing you can do is do nothing, and simply wallow in misery – trust me, I have done that and it only leads to a negative spiral of deeper and deeper despair.

The reason I bring this up today is that over the weekend I was reading “The How of Happiness” by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Doctor of Psychology at UC-Riverside who has spent her career studying Happiness. Dr. Lyubomirsky’s has performed and observed studies indicating that only 10% of our happiness is due to circumstance, 50% is due to genetic predisposition (a shocking figure worthy of future discussion here), and that the remaining 40% of happiness is within the control of the individual based on certain thoughts and behaviors.

My guess is that the average person would believe that circumstance plays a much higher role in happiness than a mere 10%. Dr. Lyubomirsky points out that this figure is because most of us are looking for happiness, or trying to create happiness, from the wrong things. Her research and those of others indicates that happiness doesn’t come from wealth, luxury, cleanliness, or comfort. The recurring traits of the happiest people include: strong social connections and relationships. they express gratitude, they have lifelong passions and goals, they exercise, and they practice optimism.

These traits are worth practicing as they will build a foundation of positive thinking and the creation of happiness. Regardless of one’s circumstances, we have the power to create – to a large extent anyway – a life of happiness if we know where to focus our energies.

Be mindful of this the next time you feel anxious, depressed, or stressed. Take the time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings and determine whether what ails you is within your control. Do not become upset over circumstance, but remember that happiness lies in your behavior, attitude, and decisions – things that are always under your own control.

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