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Secure happiness by giving up control


About Philosophically

I think, therefore I am.


In my quest for happiness, here's what I've learnt about control.

I've never met anyone who does not want to be happy. While happiness can mean different things to different people, we all want it. I most certainly want it.

It pays to recognise what you can and can't control.

It pays to recognise what you can and can't control. Picture: Shutterstock

In my experience, far too many of us think that to be happy we need to take control of our lives. We look at wealthy, famous, successful people and assume they are happy because they are in control of their lives, and then seek the same for ourselves.

Read more by this author: Live your life, not someone else's

There are three serious problems with this line of reasoning.

Firstly, the alignment between wealth, fame, success and happiness is tenuous. Many successful people are miserable.

Secondly, it assumes that there is a link between control and happiness. No such link exists.

Thirdly, there is an underlying assumption that control is possible to be in control of one’s life. It is not!

I have long been attracted to the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

There are some things we should take full control of, including our diet, our level of exercise, our drinking and smoking habits. Then there are things we can't control, like the weather, the behaviour of others, what people think of us and the behaviour of Donald Trump. Then there are those that sit in the grey area, including our attitude, our perceptions and beliefs.

The fact is, we have a great deal of control over what we do with ourselves day to day. Sadly, too few people take responsibility for having the discipline to exercise this control. We are often lazy when it comes to applying discipline in our daily behaviour. And we often fall victim to the desire for self-gratification. This will hinder the quest for happiness.

The fact is, people sum you up with in 30 seconds of meeting you and, while you can influence them in that 30 seconds, after that it is very difficult. Diminishing returns set it.

I also don’t give a shit what people think of me, because I understand that it is beyond my control. Trying to control the uncontrollable does hinder happiness.

The fact is, we are all outcomes of the environment we grew up in and, as such, when it comes to our everyday behaviour we lack absolute control. No one has any say in what they believe and only a limited influence on how they see the world. 

It seems to me that the quest for happiness is best served when we are disciplined enough to control the things we have a say over, and accept the things we can't. Finally, the quest for happiness is best served when we understand the grey area.

I work very hard to be as disciplined as I can in terms of my daily habits --  including reading, listening, learning, planning and executing -- as I can be. In fact, I have become extraordinarily intolerant of my failures in this area and hope to become more so.

At the same time, I no longer worry what other people think of me. I no longer care.

This is a matter for them and I can't control it. I also can't control who wants to be my friend, who wants to help me, whether the sun will rise tomorrow and so many other things. So I don’t try, and I hope to care even less in the years ahead. I just accept what comes my way

Finally, while I am not as good as I would like to be in terms of knowing the difference between what I can and can't control, the application of objective and highly critical thinking has helped to make me better. I plan to become even better.

The grey areas are problem areas for me. But I'm understanding them better in my quest for happiness.

I hold some passionate beliefs and understanding that no one chooses theirs has made me more accepting of diversity in this regard. Understanding that I have limited impact on my attitudes towards various things have made me more impervious to platitude-based management speak on the subject of attitude and less self-critical when I don’t deliver.

I am not yet sure what happiness is and at 60, I am hoping I find out before I fall off the perch.

But I am increasingly convinced that whatever happiness is, deciding to control the things you can and let go of those you can't is pivotal.

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