A Guide to Happiness
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A Guide to Happiness

Life is full of difficult and unpleasant circumstances. But you don't have to be miserable whenever life gets tough. By using this guide to happiness, you can face life's challenges with equanimity, and remain happy most of the time. Epictetus, the great stoic philosopher, who was born a slave, had this to say about happiness:

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can't control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.

Broadly speaking, and as Epictetus taught, there are only two types of problems: those you can do something about, and those you can't (See Table 1). An example of a changeable situation is having an unpleasant job or career. An example of an unchangeable situation is having been jilted by a lover.

Table 1
Situation that you can't change
Situation that you can change

Most of our unhappiness comes from forgetting Epictetus's valuable lesson. All of us, from time to time, make ourselves miserable by whining about things that are outside of our control and can't be changed. But all the whining in the world can't undo what's been done. The other mistake that we commonly make is to do nothing about situations that we have the power to change; we sit and stew over our predicament instead of getting off our backside and doing something about it.

In 1932, taking a leaf from Epictetus, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of the Union Theological Seminary, NYC, composed what has come to be known as The Serenity Prayer.

God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed;
Give me the courage to change things which can be changed;
And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other

The Serenity Prayer introduces us to the second way that we make ourselves unhappy. We not only fail to distinguish between changeable and unchangeable situations, but we often react to them in self-defeating ways. Broadly speaking, there are only two ways of dealing with problems: in a helpful way, and in an unhelpful, self-defeating way (See Table 2).

Table 2
Deal with problems in an unhelpful way Deal with problems in a helpful way

Dealing with problems in a helpful way means acting calmly and courageously (as per The Serenity Prayer) to either accept or change our circumstances. Dealing with them in an unhelpful, self defeating way means feeling angry, guilty, or depressed over things that can't be changed, and procrastinating or avoiding doing anything about unpleasant situations that can be changed.

We've seen that there are two types of problems and two ways of dealing with them. When we combine these ideas we end up with a matrix that can act as your guide to happiness.

Guide To Happiness
1. Situation that you can't change, dealt with in an unhelpful way. 2. Situation that you can't change, dealt with in a helpful way.
3. Situation that you can change, dealt with in an unhelpful way. 4. Situation that you can change, dealt with in a helpful way.

The Guide To Happiness has four quadrants. Each quadrant shows a different type of problem and a different way of dealing with it. Two quadrants (2 & 4) show the path to happiness and serenity, and two (1 & 3) show the path to misery. An example from each quadrant would be as follows:

  1. Sitting at home stewing, feeling depressed and angry over being jilted by a lover.
  2. Feeling disappointed about being jilted but getting on with life and seeking a new partner.
  3. Whining and complaining about your job to anyone who'll listen, but not doing anything to change careers.
  4. Actively seeking a new job.

The Guide suggests that happiness, in the face of difficult circumstances, is a two-step process. Firstly, make sure that you are on the right level. Are you whining about or trying to change an unchangeable situation? Are you doing nothing about a problem that you could change if only you would apply yourself to it? Secondly, make sure that your response to your situation is helpful and not self-defeating; make sure that you are in one of the right-hand quadrants.

To learn how to move from left to right – from an unhelpful to a helpful method of dealing with your problems - we return to Epictetus, who said:

Things themselves don't hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. … We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.

In other words, you feel and act the way that you think. Thinking unhelpful thoughts leads to misery and defeat; thinking helpful thoughts leads to serenity and happiness. Howard Young provides an everyday example of how this works:

Suppose two young children are playing in the ocean, and a big wave knocks them both down. One child might run to his mother crying and be quite frightened. The other child may be quite thrilled and decide to stay in the water until the next wave comes along. The facts, as you can see, are the same. The wave hit both children; however, it was their evaluation that was different. Thus, it was not the wave that caused the different reactions, but rather the different attitudes of the children about the wave.

The good news is that your thoughts are under your control; they are one thing in life that you can change. You can choose what to think, and consequently, how to feel. But before we look at how to change your thoughts, let's look at the four types of thinking that lead to unhelpful, self-defeating reactions in difficult circumstances.

  • Demanding: You take a useful principle or guideline and turn it into an absolute rule that everyone must obey. When you use words like 'should,' 'must' and 'ought' it is as though you are creating a Law of the Universe that must always be observed. Another way that we demand is to take our preferences, our goals and desires, and turn them into needs e.g. "I really need a new job."
  • Awfulizing: You make a mountain out of a molehill by telling yourself that your situation is awful. Instead of regarding your circumstances as unpleasant or unfortunate, you think and act as though it is the end of the world.
  • Intolerance: You tell yourself that you can't stand things the way that they are. Undoubtedly, you will face many difficult circumstances throughout your life, but only one of them kills you. When you tell yourself that you can't stand what's going on in your life, you're telling yourself that this is the one that will do you in. In most cases, this is plainly false and a huge exaggeration.
  • People-Rating: You start by evaluating what you (or someone else) has done, and then you give the same rating to the person involved. If you do a good (or bad) thing, you tell yourself that you are a good (or bad) person. People-rating is like judging a book by its cover. One good (or bad) act does not make a good (or bad) person. We all do some good and some bad things, so judging the whole person by one or two actions doesn't make sense.

Take another look at the Guide To Happiness

Guide To Happiness
1. Situation that you can't change, dealt with in an unhelpful way. 2. Situation that you can't change, dealt with in a helpful way.
3. Situation that you can change, dealt with in an unhelpful way. 4. Situation that you can change, dealt with in a helpful way.

When you find yourself in one of the left-hand quadrants, there are 6 steps you can take to move across to the right-hand side.

  1. Ask yourself how long you want to continue feeling the way you do, and acting the way you are. This will force you to quickly realize that you are in control of your feelings and your actions, and that you can change them by changing the way that you think.
  2. Ensure that you are on the correct level. Is your situation one that you have control over or not? If you are reacting to something that has already happened, then obviously you cannot change it. If it's happening now, or about to happen, then you might - but not necessarily - have some control over it.
  3. Ask yourself how you would prefer the situation or your circumstances to change. If you had a magic wand, what would things look like?
  4. Now that you know what you'd like, ask yourself if it is compulsory, or absolutely necessary for you to have what you want. Is there a law of the universe that says things must be the way you want them to be?
  5. Ask yourself how bad it really is if you don't get what you want. Is it the end of the world? Will it kill you if your wishes aren't met or your circumstances don't change? Don't gloss over how bad it is, but don't exaggerate either.
  6. Rate the situation, not the people involved. By all means recognize that things could be better, but don't make the mistake of judging people. Christians have a saying that God loves the sinner but hates the sin. In other words, He distinguishes between people and their deeds. You can do it too. You can draw a distinction between people's actions, and their worth as human beings.

By using the Guide to Happiness and following the 6 steps outlined above, you can stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable over anything and remain calm and happy for most of your life.

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