Over the past few weeks, I’ve been facing a number of challenges, both personally and professionally. These challenges led to much reflection about how to deal with times of difficulty. It comes to no surprise for regular readers, but I have some thoughts on the topic. Not surprisingly, my favorite philosophers, the Stoics, give us guidance.
A core tenant of Stoicism is also the key to dealing with troubling times. As Epictetus (a slave for much of his life) began his book, “The Enchiridion (Handbook),” “Some things are in our control and others are not.” Once you fully understand and embrace this simple point, dealing with difficulty becomes much easier. While space does not permit extensive discussion of what is and is not in our control, one thing not in our control is abundantly clear. The past is not under our control – a simple, but often forgotten fact. Once something has happened, you can’t un-ring that particular bell. All you can do is deal with what is; you can’t go back and change past events. Much unhappiness results from forgetting this obvious reality.
Interestingly, the Stoics also believe that unhappiness is the result of ignorance; specifically, of how to use reason to deal with negative emotions. In other words, we’re unhappy because we don’t know how to deal with unhappiness. A simple, yet profound idea. Humans possess the ability to reason; in fact, some believe that this is part of the nature of humans, to use reason to make sense of and deal with the world. So, using reason equals living according to the nature of being human. Some believe that the only path to true, enduring happiness is to live according to nature (the nature of being human). Putting these together, we see a double benefit from using reason: it helps us deal with upsetting situations, and also helps move us closer to true happiness.
So, the first step to dealing with troubling times is to accept that some things are out of your control. Reason tells us that there’s little sense in anguishing over something that you can’t control. Let’s go a step further. While some things are not up to us, some things are, and there are some things over which we have some, but not total control. I want to focus on this last category. Once your reason kicks in, you should try to identify what IS under your control (even if only partially under your control). This is where you put your energy and focus: in controlling what you can.
In addition to being effective in dealing with negative emotions, this approach is also very empowering. Once you let go of what you can’t control, and identify where you can have an impact, you have a clear path of action. Much of our frustration, anxiety, and angst come from feeling that you’re powerless, that you can’t have an impact on things. By focusing on what you can control, you shift attention from what you can’t control, which simultaneously decreases feelings of helplessness and increases feelings of power. This is critically important; you decrease something that brings unhappiness (helplessness), and increase something that brings positive feelings (empowerment). Reduce the negative, increase the positive – sounds like a good combination to me.
This approach works; I speak from experience. As many of you know, I lost my first wife to cancer. After the initial shock wore off, we focused on what we could control, not on the fact that she had cancer. We couldn’t go back and keep her from getting sick, we could only deal with the fact that she was. I won’t go into details; I’ll just say that the focus on doing what I could greatly reduced my sadness, anxiety and frustration. Of course, I couldn’t perfectly apply these principles; few can. You’re going to be unhappy sometimes; that’s life. But, this approach can, and does, reduce the frequency, duration and depth of negative emotions.
Understanding these principles isn’t difficult, but consistently applying them takes effort. Aristotle’s notion of practice is useful here. First, you have to understand the principles, then you have to consciously apply them. Through continuous practice, applying them becomes habit. Then, eventually, using reason to deal with troubles will become part of who you are. You’ll simply be a person who knows how to deal with the trials and tribulations of the world. It’s a long road, but what better destination than happiness? FBN
I’m happy to lead Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to over 3,400 students, and faculty and staff who are happily dedicated to the success of those students and the economic development of Northern Arizona. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: email@example.com, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.
By Craig Van Slyke