Focus on What You Can Control
Want to lead a good life? Nurture a healthy mind.
Living a good life does not mean coasting along, problem-free.
You will still need to deal with hardships and challenges. There is no other way because, whether you like it or not, life without problems is just not possible.
So what can we do about it?
In big part, it means learning how to best deal with the problems that will inevitably come our way. It's becoming skilled at navigating the ups and the downs of life like a sailor sailing through choppy seas.
A Healthy Mind
So how can you learn to better navigate?
Socrates believed that a good life was to be found, not by seeking material wealth or external recognition, but by paying close attention to the quality of our minds.
Why is that?
Much of life's suffering is not a result of physical pain inflicted upon us; it’s actually the result of how we perceive, judge and narrate the events we experience.
All too often, we interpret things in a way that leads to feeling negative emotions such as anxiety, frustration, fear, disappointment or anger.
These are emotions that cause us unnecessary suffering. They are symptoms of an unhealthy mind.
Think about it another way: the quality of your thoughts determines the quality of your life.
If I were to ask you now to rate the quality of your thoughts, what would you say?
It's a hard question, right?
That's because our thoughts tend to emanate from below the level of our conscious awareness. (I also talk about this in my post on habit creation, Play the Long Game).
All too often, our thoughts are reactionary patterns that were sculpted by past experiences. We never really consciously chose them and many are probably not helping us anymore.
That's why a healthy mind is built upon an awareness of current thought patterns, followed by questioning whether they are helping us live the lives we aspire to.
What do you tend to think about? How do those thoughts tend to make you feel? Are your thoughts working for you, or against you?
Philosophy as Therapy
One way of working through this is to use philosophy as your therapy.
This is not a new idea. In fact, it goes back to the roots of philosophy. (The word itself comes from the ancient Greek and means the 'love of wisdom').
In this light, philosophy is the pursuit of figuring out how to best live life — something this newsletter is all about!
Epictetus, for example, believed that the philosopher's role was akin to that of a doctor for the mind. By this, he meant that it's their role to help us examine and question our existing beliefs.
Philosophers who were part of the Stoic1 school of thought did this through many thought experiments that did just that.
The Dichotomy of Control
The Stoics speak a lot about how everything in life falls into two distinct buckets: one is filled with things that are under our control, and the other is filled with everything else.
What do we have complete control over? Our thoughts, our beliefs and our values.
What do we not control? Everything else.
The Stoics went on to say that much of our mental turmoil comes from not having a clear understanding of the difference between these two competing areas of control.
For example, we tend to wish/want/desire/expect things to be a certain way, all the while failing to realise that those things are actually out of our control.
We act with the belief that we have the power to change something then get despondent when it doesn't.
It is worth remembering that, no matter how rich or powerful you become, you don't get to choose how healthy you will be, who will love you — or won't — and you have no control over how your time on earth will end.
We are not masters of our show.
Focus on What You Can Control
The good news is that what you do control — control over your thoughts, beliefs and values — is all you need to navigate the waves of life.
It may not sound like much, but the perspective you choose to adopt in the face of external events makes all the difference.
This is not to say this is an easy thing to do. It isn't. (In fact, it takes a life of dedication and there is no finish line).
The first step is to learn to distinguish if something is under your control or not.
If it is, great! You can do something about it.
If it isn't, ask yourself if you're still trying to determine its outcome. Are you holding certain expectations you might be unaware of? Know that doing so will lead to a lot of stress and turmoil.
The second step is to accept what you cannot control and figure out a way forward in spite of that. Learn to swim with the current rather than against it.
This is not a passive or defeatist statement.
You shouldn't ignore what lies outside of your area of control and you certainly should try to affect things that are important to you. That said, do it consciously and with the right attitude.
Never expect a certain outcome, and never tie your sense of self-worth or happiness to it. Doing so will strip you of your power.
Instead, build your power by learning to accept things that aren't in your control and focus your energies on those things that are.
Think action, not outcome. Internal motivation, not external validation.
And above all, think self-love; not outside adulation.
The Dichotomy of Control is just one thought exercise the Stoics came up with to help us question the quality of our thoughts. There are plenty more.
So join me again next week where I'll share other ways you can develop your psychological immunity to life's challenges.
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The Stoics are a school of philosophy originating in ancient Greece and Rome during roughly the 1st Century AD, and which is still very much alive today! Epictetus, along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, are the more well-known Stoic philosophers but there are plenty more.