❝People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.❞ -Epictetus
My family is in town in late October, and we are going to a haunted farm. It's cold out as we wait in line, and we're getting frustrated that the line isn't moving very quickly. Add to this that we are standing next to some obnoxious people. As time goes on, I can't wait to get onto the haunted trail just to escape these people. I'm getting quite restless.
Eventually, the line moves, and I'm excited to start making progress. But my sister is standing in my way and not moving. In my frustration, I ask what's wrong with her; why is in my way and not moving when she can clearly see the line moving. I'm frustrated with her.
Then, she calmly tells me that she's sorry, but her knee badly hurts, and she's struggling to walk.
The situation reminds me of David Foster Wallace's famous speech called This is Water, where he asks us to consider the possibility that perhaps those people aren't in our way but that it is perhaps us who is in their way.
BAD THINGS HAPPEN
Unexpected things will happen. That's part of the beauty of life. We don't always know what's coming next. Some of these unexpected things will be bad things. There will be problems that we have to solve. This is the human condition.
But it's not just bad things that happen. Good things happen, too. Often, we don't notice the good things because of our negativity bias. So we have a situation where many of us don't want bad things to happen in a world where we are more likely to notice when those bad things happen.
Expectations matter, and if we go through the world expecting nothing to go wrong, then we will be disappointed when the inevitable bad thing happens. Not everything will go according to plan, and hoping otherwise is a source of suffering. For example, if you need to drive somewhere and expect that there's going to be no traffic and no dangerous drivers, then you will be upset if you run into either. On the other hand, if you expect bad drivers and bad traffic, it's nothing out of the ordinary when you come across it.
It's easy to believe that outside events cause our feelings, emotions, and behaviors. It feels like something happened that made me angry or something else happened that made me raise my voice. Experientially, this is how it seems.
Ancient Stoic philosophers like Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius have long said that people are not disturbed or troubled by the things that happen in the world. However, people are disturbed or troubled by their interpretation of what has happened. These interpretations represent our beliefs about these events. Our values and our upbringing color them.
For example, two people might go to the grocery store and encounter long lines at the checkout. One person gets incredibly irritated and angry for having to wait so long. This person gets mad at the store for not having more cashiers and fellow customers for taking too long.
Another person in the same store at the same time might make it through the checkout process in a calm and almost Zen-like state.
Two people in the exact same situation have completely different reactions. The insight here is that their reactions aren't related to the event itself but instead to their interpretation of the event. The first person believes there should be no wait or inconvenience. The second person believes that this is how grocery stores work.
The idea that we respond to our interpretation of things and not things themselves can be profound. It can even be more profound to learn what default intent assumption tends to be when it comes to other people's actions.
When we see other people behave, especially if it involves us, we make up a story. To say this a different way, when other people see us behave, they make up a story about us. Most of the time, these stories that get made up aren't even close to the real reason something happened. We simply can't know what's going on in the minds of others. Yet we make up these stories anyway.
Assume you are driving your car in an area where you know you will lose the left lane. You are in the right lane when somebody drives past you and tries to merge in front of you. Do you let this person in?
One assumption is to assume negative intent. You can assume the person knew the lane ended and are greedily trying to sneak forward in line. Another assumption is to assume positive intent. You can assume the person is from out of town and is nervous driving in a bigger city and simply didn't know the lane ended.
Whether you assume negative intent or positive intent, the reason you come up with is probably wrong. But if you assume positive intent, you're less likely to become irritated.
CHALLENGING AUTOMATIC THOUGHTS
With practice, we can learn to recognize the story we're telling ourselves in these situations. We can learn to recognize what types of events we are most likely to overreact to. But most importantly, we can check in with these automatic thoughts and ask ourselves if holding on to that automatic thought is helpful or not in this particular situation.
Challenging automatic thoughts is not the same thing as challenging our feelings or emotions. If something riled you up, you shouldn't run away from these feelings and emotions, and at the same time, you should check in with them to see if they are being helpful. You can ask yourself if there's evidence for your automatic thoughts or if there is evidence against it. You can ask yourself if there may be a different way of looking at this or if you might be missing something. Or you can imagine a close loved one going through the same thing and asking yourself what you would say to that person - we don't tend to treat ourselves with as much care as we treat others.
We can build resilience by challenging our automatic thoughts and interpretations about what we're going through. This isn't the same as saying we're happy to be going through what we're going through. Instead, it allows us to take a new perspective on whatever is going on so that we can choose the most effective way to cope with life's adversities.
You get one life; live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Emmons, Robert: THANKS!
Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus
Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness
Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient
Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain
Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life
Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face
Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge
Lukianoff, Greg & Jonathan Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind
Pigliucci, Massimo: How to Be a Stoic
PositivePsychology.com: Realizing Resilience Masterclass
Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor
Sinek, Simon: Leaders Eat Last
Wallace, David Foster: This is Water
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by 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.