Stop Choosing to Suffer and Take Charge of Your HappinessFeb 06, 2023
"Look around at what you have with appreciation. Be happy with it, and if you aren't, reach a little higher," he said as we sat around the fire having a surprisingly deep conversation.
Let me rewind.
This was about 5 years ago. I was fresh out of a break up and a few months into what I was terming my Blind Quest for Happiness. I went to Alaska to spend some time with one of my best friends, Natalie.
She decided to take me to Petersville, where she had spent the previous winter. Petersville is a tiny little legitimately off-the-grid community. They generate their own power. If they need it, they do it or make it. They hunt moose from their front doors and park their cars for the entire winter, relying on snow machines to get around instead. They are survivors, modern-day frontiersmen (and women).
We planned to just stop in for lunch with Bruce and Demi, but they insisted we stay the night. They opened their home, and their tight knit little community embraced us.
These Alaskans are the hardiest and heartiest people I've ever met.
One of them, Ernie, reminded me of my dad, and I felt an instant kinship with him. Which brings me back to the fire. As the light waned and we were hanging outside, chatting and sharing a meal with the Petersville people, Ernie and I talked about living in Alaska, relationships, and happiness. That's when he shared his simple, yet profound wisdom.
In the years since, I've found myself drawing on psychological science to help my patients, friends, and (especially) myself get unstuck, combat negativity, and be happier. I'm leaning on science and theory to do what Ernie knew intuitively: Change your outsides, change your insides, or suffer.
Psychological Limbo Land
I call it psychological limbo land. That spot where you're not satisfied with your circumstances, but you're not doing anything about it. You're just complaining, venting, and, ultimately, being miserable.
You want a new job, but you're not looking for one.
You want to make friends, but you're not putting yourself out there.
You want more energy, but you're not going to bed earlier.
You want financial security, but you're not saving anything.
You want...but you're not...
What it really boils down to is three choices - and yes, they are choices that you are responsible for making:
1. Change your circumstances.
2. Change your attitude.
Change Your Circumstances
Make a decision or take action to change something in your environment, your day-to-day experience, or your life circumstance. In other words, change your outsides.
Before you start to tell me all the reasons why you can't, I need you to pause and consider. Is it that you can't, or is it that you are unwilling to pay the price?
Yes, there are some limitations that our circumstances place on us. I am not in the business of denying reality here. I've just seen too many people tell me they can't make a desired change when that's just not factually accurate.
You can't leave your job? Really? Or can you absolutely leave your job IF you are willing to pay the price of uncertainty or financial cut backs or the discomfort that comes from others' perceived judgment or disappointment?
You can't meet new people? Is that the truth, or are you just unwilling to endure the discomfort that comes from trying, stepping out of your comfort zone, or risking rejection and disappointment?
You absolutely CAN make hard decisions IF you are WILLING to pay the price.
If you're not, that's ok. It absolutely is. I implore you to be precise with your language, though. "I can't" robs you of power, leaving you blameless but also a victim. "I'm unwilling" might force you to be honest with yourself about the choices you are making, which can be painful, but also empowering.
Change Your Attitude
There are times when you are unwilling to pay the price or truly can not make the desired change. It's not a willingness issue. It's a real constraint out of your control or choosing. You still have choice here, though. You can change your insides.
I see so many people who want to feel in control yet readily give it up. They want to control things they can't - others, outcomes, the future - but refuse, intentionally or simply because they don't know it's an option - to control the things they can, things like attention and attitude.
For example, let's say you want to lose weight but are unwilling to learn how to eat for your body's needs and to change sedentary habits. Or perhaps your unwanted weight is the result of hormones or genetics or something that you can't really control or change. Fine. That doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to psychological limbo land, hating your body. You can work on acceptance.
In psychology, acceptance means taking things as they actually are. It's recognizing without amplifying (the whole just because life gives you a cactus doesn't mean you have to sit on it thing. "I have a cactus. Period." = acceptance. "I have a cactus. I don't want this cactus. It's ugly and prickly. I didn't ask for it. This sucks." = sitting on said cactus, causing more pain = non-acceptance and suffering. The choice is yours).
Acceptance doesn't mean approving of or liking. It just means that you're not struggling against it any more. You're saying "It is what it is" and being indifferent, unaffected by it. If you can't or won't change your circumstances, then accept things as they are... and take it a step further by adjusting your attitude.
If you've decided that you absolutely are unwilling to quit your job, cool. You can choose to go to work each day with a grumbly grinchy attitude, letting your built in negativity bias run unchecked. You can complain about everything that is unfair or unpleasant.
You can adjust your attitude and make the best of it. You can actually force your attention to focus on the parts of your job that don't suck. You can practice gratitude. You can try to learn something new. You can try to connect your work with a bigger meaning (is it to provide for you family? Be able to have luxuries in life? Take care of customers?). You can simply choose to put a smile on your face (which can impact your mood, according to research).
The bottom line is you do have choice and control here, just maybe not over what you want.
Suffering is a choice, too. Let that sink in.
We often choose, albeit unknowingly, to suffer. When we hang out in psychological limbo land, that's really all we're doing.
There's a Buddhist teaching that holds that pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
Pain is inevitable. It's going to happen. Physical pain. Emotional pain. It's a part of life. What we do with that pain, however, is what leads to suffering.
Getting stuck in psychological limbo land, refusing to take action, refusing to accept or embrace reality, giving up control of the things over which we actually have it, yearning for something that doesn't exist or isn't possible. That's the path to suffering. It's ours to take.
I just wish more people wouldn't.
I know it's hard not to. Believe me. I've had the luxury of decades of psychological training and experience, of walking on healing journeys with thousands of people, and of figuring out my own trudge out of psychological limbo land and learning to accept vision loss. I spent way more time in (unknowingly) self-imposed suffering than I care to admit. I know how hard it can be.
Yet, I also know that we make it harder on ourselves than it has to be by denying reality and wallowing. We want different choices. We want it to be easy, pain-free, fair. We want the rules to be different, to play a different game than the one we're in.
Change your outsides. Change your insides. Or suffer. Which will it be?
"Look around at what you have with appreciation. Be happy with it, and if you aren't, reach a little higher. "
- Ernie, the Alaskan
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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