❝People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.❞ -Epictetus
Walking up to the checkout line, I can't believe how many people are here. I only had to go to the grocery store for a couple of things that I forgot earlier in the day, and I'm kind of in a hurry. Luckily, they have six lines open to handle all the people, but all six lines are long. Being in a hurry, I picked the one that looks like it's going to be the fastest. Of course, it wasn't the fastest. As I watched all the people who were at the same place in line in other lines move forward, I became frustrated. Then, when I was next in line, the person in front of me need a price check on an item and left the line to get something that she forgot. Now I'm angry. Why is it that every single time I pick a line, it's the slowest line?
Several years later, I've learned that the checkout lines’ speed is outside of my control. More importantly, it's mathematically improbable that I'm ever going to pick the fastest line. If there are five lines open, I only have a one-in-five chance or a 20% chance of being in the fastest line. If there are 10 lines open, I only have a 10% chance of being in the fastest line. I come to realize that this is a stupid thing to get angry about.
And just like that, almost like magic, I have not gotten mad in the checkout line for years.
Unable to apply these lessons to other areas of life, I find myself driving across town to meet a friend for breakfast. On the way there, not only is there road construction on the road that I chose, but there must be an event somewhere because I've not seen this much traffic on a Saturday before. I can't believe it. Why are there so many damn people on the road? Why can't we move any faster? I'm going to be late for breakfast, and it's the fault of everybody else on the road.
Traffic took me longer than checkout lines, Prime now able to take responsibility for my role and being late for breakfast. I have no control over traffic. I have control over which route I take and how early I leave, though. I also have control of how upset I get at the traffic that's outside of my control. I'm not all the way there, but I don't get nearly as angry sitting in traffic as I used to.
Even though neither of these two examples is financial, they highlight how easy it is to switch off our anger. For that matter, how easy it is to switch off other negative emotions. There are times when negative emotions are helpful, but often negative emotions arise because we are viewing our setbacks incorrectly.
The best way to get over negative emotions is to avoid experiencing negative emotions in the first place.
Setbacks Will Happen
Setbacks are guaranteed in life. This could be a longer than expected line at the grocery store, heavier traffic than you expected, or any other thing that is unexpected and represents a challenge. Setbacks are guaranteed, even though we don't know exactly what the setback will be, when the setback will occur, how long the setback will last, or why the setback occurred. Those facts are irrelevant. We should expect setbacks. Some will be significant setbacks, some will be small setbacks, but our lives will be better when we learn to expect them and deal with them when they do occur.
Setbacks and Negative Emotion
When setbacks happen, it is far too easy to become angry, sad, resentful, or otherwise feel bad about our situation. Often, this process into a feedback loop of feeling bad about ourselves represents a vicious cycle that's hard to break. Hijacking this feedback loop, either by recognizing the loop for what it is or preventing the feedback loop from happening in the first place, will give us much more life satisfaction.
Hijacking Setbacks with Gratitude
There’s an old saying in the field of Behavioral Finance that says it's never as bad or as good as it seems. That is, we as humans are horrible at predicting how events will impact our future happiness. Additionally, we are hard-wired with a negativity bias that places more emphasis on the bad aspects of our lives than the good aspects of our lives. Gratitude is the antidote for this.
Gratitude is recognizing that things are not as bad as you think. Things can always be worse. This recognition is our starting point. It's common to see quotes floating around social media telling you that gratitude is worthless because it seems on the surface to be denying your problem. I propose this is incorrect. You can deal with your problems after first recognizing how lucky you are.
An example might be having a water pipe burst in your home. It's very easy to get upset at this happening. After all, not only do you not have water where you wanted, namely in your sinks, but you now have water where you don't want it, that is, all over the rest of your home. Gratitude can hijack the negative Emotion by first recognizing how lucky you are that it was the freshwater pipe that burst and not the wastewater pipe. Having clean water leaking all over your house is infinitely better than having sewage leaking all over your home. Nothing about this says that you can't work on the problem of fixing the pipe. You should go turn off the water. You should call a plumber. But you don't have to be miserable while doing it.
In Stoic philosophy, there's an idea called negative visualization. Negative visualization is the process of briefly thinking about things that you have that could go away. This could be your job, pension, vehicles, or other material possessions, and even your relationships. Recognizing that losing your job is in the realm of possibility, but you haven't, helps you appreciate what you have.
We can go a Step Beyond visualizing something that you have that you may lose and think about things that you have that you may not have had if you re Round the Clock. Perhaps the job that you love happened because of a chance encounter with somebody at a coffee shop. Therefore it's very possible and even likely that you might not have that job in another world.
Negative visualization is not about dwelling on bad things. It's about appreciating them. Negative visualization is expert-level gratitude. It's the best tool that we have for not taking our lives for granted.
The Last Time
The idea of The Last Time is that all the things that we do will happen for the last time, and many things have already happened for the last time. This is helpful when you are in the middle of something that you don't particularly like doing in the day today, but that you can imagine looking back and missing. If you've ever raised a puppy, it can be frustrating to go outside all the time, no matter what the weather is like, to train it to relieve itself outside. That can be considered frustrating. It's also what time people look back to with their old dog and reminisce about what it was like having a puppy. Recognizing that there will be the last time that you have to go outside with your puppy helps you appreciate this time you have with your puppy while your dog is a puppy.
You can apply this too many experiences in your life, but the idea is to focus your attention on the idea that our experiences are finite, and we ought to appreciate them while they're happening. To do otherwise is to introduce negative emotion into our lives unnecessarily.
Preventing Setbacks with Reframes
Framing is effectively telling the same story differently. This is a very powerful phenomenon in the world of psychology. The way we hear something framed influences how we think about it. For example, hearing that meat is 90% lean feels different from hearing that it is 10% fat. Hearing that a particular drug as a 5% mortality rate feels differently from hearing that the same drug has a 95% survival rate. Even doctors, among the most educated among us, fall for framing when they hear one treatment framed as having a 90% chance of saving 95% of affected patients and a different treatment framed as having a 10% chance of killing 5% of affected patients.
All of these examples are the exact same thing. How we frame things matters...a lot.
Opportunities for Growth
We need adversity to grow. If you have never experienced hard times, struggles, challenges, or failure, then you are quite literally unprepared to deal with life's setbacks.
Therefore, if the second we recognize a setback is upon us, we can view it as an opportunity for growth or an opportunity to learn. We will approach the problem more positively.
In other words, there are only successes and lessons. The only failure is leaving a setback without learning something.
"I Get To"
How do you feel when you tell yourself that you have to do something? If you're anything like me, it feels forced, and it doesn't feel like something you want to do. Instead, telling yourself that you get to do something, that feels a lot differently.
This is similar to The Last Time meditation in that you recognize the finite nature of life. We only get a certain number of experiences, positive and negative. Framing setbacks as something you get to do instead of something that you have to do changes how you will be that problem.
Framing setbacks as challenges is the single most powerful way you can overcome negative emotions from things not going perfectly. The moment that you realize a setback, telling yourself this is an interesting problem to solve changes your mindset. It takes practice, but it is very powerful.
Some people use a poker analogy. That is, you don't get to choose what hand you were dealt, only how you play the hand. In other words, a problem occurred, and you can't do anything about it. You can't change the past. But you do have to do something about it. So instead of dwelling on the hand that you were dealt - the problem you are faced with, focus on the best way to play the hand - figure out a solution.
Others imagine this as being a test from God. in this view, God only gives you challenges that you can handle, and recognizing this as a test that you have the capability of completing, helps you come up with a better solution.
Others do a similar thing with the universe instead of God. The universe provides challenges to see if we can handle it. Viewing them was tests eliminates a lot of the negative emotion that can come with problems.
To be clear, nothing in this message is suggesting that you push away negative emotions. This is not about choking it down. This is not about pretending you don't feel negative emotions. This is quite literally about training yourself not to get upset at things you don't need to be upset about. You are not likely to come up with the optimal solution when you are feeling bad. Preventing those bad feelings will help you come up with better solutions.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Happiness Lab Podcast: Rising to a Challenge
Sam Harris: Waking Up
William Irvine: Guide to the Good Life
William Irvine: The Stoic Challenge
Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary, Daniel Kaufman: How to Live a Good Life
Waking Up Conversations: The Art of Living (subscription required)
Waking Up Conversations: The Science of Happiness (subscription required)
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at or thought about while writing this article. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced my thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.