Usually, when we think of becoming happy and fulfilled with our lives, what most of us think of doing is changing our outside circumstances.
We wait to fulfil our dreams and desires or resolve all of our problems before we allow ourselves to be happy. Yet, even people who seemingly have it all in terms of material wealth, great relationships, conveniences and comforts somehow never seem to be satisfied for long.
However, it doesn’t need to be that way.
In this blog post, I’d like to let you in on a little secret and share with you a much faster route or perhaps the only route to long-term happiness and fulfilment. So keep reading.
The story of Victor Frankl
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist living in Austria when the Nazis invaded the country. As a result of being Jewish, he along with his wife and parents were deported to a Nazi ghetto.
Between 1942 and 1945, he was in 4 different Nazi concentration camps under horrific and inhumane conditions including Auschwitz (the deadliest Nazi concentration camp).
Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died. However, Frankl narrowly escaped the deadly gas chambers and survived; in April 1945 when the war ended, he was finally free.
When he was in the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl lived out the idea that he later imparted to the world in his best-selling book Man’s Search For Meaning,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.
He goes on to say,
You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
Now none of us will ever have to endure the kind of circumstances Frankl had to go through during his time in the concentration camps and most if not all our problems and worries would pale in comparison.
Yet the grand truth remains just as it did for Frankl for every one of us - that we can always choose a positive perspective over a negative one under any given circumstance.
Everything is neutral
We have the tendency to automatically attach meaning to everything that happens in our lives.
However, if you ponder over it, all the events in our lives are merely neutral. Nothing is inherently positive or negative, nor have any in-built meaning; it all depends on the perspective with which we are viewing any event.
The author Ryan Holiday, puts it this way,
“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.”
We are often quick to jump and label certain events and experiences in our life as negative. But you may never know what gifts the seemingly negative experience or obstacles may hold for you.
Steve Jobs was devastated when he was forced out of Apple, the company he had started. He felt like a failure and felt as if the world was closing in on him.
But decades later in his Stanford commencement address, he said the very same event had taken on a very different meaning for him.
"I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life".
Since all events and circumstances are neutral and have no fixed meaning, we are free to view them according to any perspective of our choice.
Why perspective is the secret to long-term happiness?
If you attach your happiness to other people and outside events, you can guarantee that long term happiness will remain elusive because you can’t always control life or other people.
But one thing we have complete control regardless of our circumstances as Victor Frankl's story shows us is our perspective. But it’s something many of us seldom choose to exercise control over.
But why does perspective matter?
Outside circumstances don’t make you feel a certain way, but it is your thoughts and perspectives about your circumstances that cause you to feel a certain way.
The key to long term happiness then is keeping a positive perspective to whatever life throws at us.
Now you may be thinking if it was only easy to maintain a positive perspective in our daily lives. And you are right being positive simply doesn’t come naturally to us.
The brain’s negativity bias
One of the biggest obstacles to our happiness lies in the nature of our brains.
Numerous studies show that our brains are wired to focus and pay more attention to negative details than positive ones, a phenomenon referred to as negativity bias by psychologists.
As humans, we tend to:
Remember traumatic experiences better than positive ones.
Recall insults better than praise.
Think and dwell about negative things more frequently than positive ones.
Respond more strongly to negative events than to positive ones
For our cavemen ancestors paying attention to the bad and negative threats in their environment was a matter of life and death. Those who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive.
As a result, the human brain developed a built-in negativity bias. And even though most of have a safe life, the bias still operates in the same way it did millions of years ago.
How to overcome negative bias and keep a positive perspective
The good news is that there are ways you overcome the brain’s negativity bias and train yourself to keep a positive perspective even when everything isn’t rosy.
Here are five powerful things you can do to enlarge your perspective and consequently enhance your life experience and be happy even when you are going though challenging or difficult times.
Reframe your thoughts
When you catch yourself thinking negatively or labelling an event as bad here’s something to keep in mind.
Always remember your thoughts on what a situation, event or your life circumstance means is nothing more than a point of view. It is just one of the many perspectives with which you can see the situation. It is not the absolute truth. Since everything is neutral and devoid of meaning, you can reframe the situation and choose to see it through a different lens.
You don’t need to agree or accept the automatic negative interpretation of your mind on something (an event, situation, life circumstance).
There are infinite ways to look at something that is happening in your life. Reframing your thoughts is about choosing a perspective that pleases you, feels empowering and brings you comfort.
You can always choose an empowering perspective than a one that feels bad. And a positive perspective is just a thought or a decision away, and it’s always under our control.
Adopt a learning mentality
When we are going through challenging and "negative" experiences in our lives we can shift our perspective to them approaching them with a learning mentality. Under such circumstances, here are few questions you can ask yourself,
What is this experience trying to teach me?
What all qualities are these experiences instilling in me?
How is this helping me grow?
What advice would you give your best friend?
When trying to overcome an obstacle or facing a challenging situation in our lives there is great power in detaching our self from the situation to see things objectively suggests Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle Is The Way.
When we are stuck inside our head we tend to magnify the seemingly negative events or situations and blow it out of perspective. And we become blind and oblivious to all that’s good and positive in our lives. Our emotional attachment to our situations can make it difficult to see things from a positive lens.
Imagine if your friend was going through the same situation as you, what advice would you give him/her?
As Holidays says, "When we look at other peoples’ problems, we don’t get so worked up about them and perceive them objectively. That’s what allows us to see a lot clearer, react accordingly and give much better advice (to ourselves) on how to tackle them".
Keep a gratitude journal
Keeping a gratitude journal is a powerful way to train our brain to focus on the good that is always present in our lives, which may get obscured when we dwell on the negative or when we let our minds run on autopilot.
What’s great about keeping a gratitude journal is that when we focus and cherish what we already have in our lives, it makes us less prone to compare, complain and dwell on what we don’t have - all of which can bring down our mood and make us feel negative.
Keeping a gratitude journal simply involves jotting down five things you are grateful for and describing why you are grateful for it. Doing this, preferably each morning can be immensely helpful in creating and maintaining a positive outlook in our daily lives.
This next one may be the hardest to put into practice, but at the same time applying it into our lives could make the most positive impact of all the methods listed here.
In the default setting of our mind, we feel entitled that life should conform to our wishes and desires. As a result we easily tend to get upset when things don’t go our way.
But what if you were to choose the perspective that everything that’s happening in your life is for your highest good? That’s what the concept of Amor Fati is all about.
Amor Fati is a latin phrase that translates to “a love of one’s fate”. It’s adopting an attitude in which one sees everything that happens in one's life, including suffering and loss, as good or, at the very least, necessary.
Now in choosing to adopt such a perspective to a given situation your outer circumstances may not magically change. But it would make all the difference in how you are feeling inside.
Instead of thinking something shouldn’t be occurring, Amor Fati is about making the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided. To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it.
Or as the blogger Erik Barker puts it “To not only accept everything that life brings you, good or bad, but to love it. To embrace it. To revel in it. Every single bit of your life. Yes, even the truly horrible, awful, regrettable, don’t-ever-want-to-think-about-it-again moments.”
Ultimately, it is about living with a sense of gratefulness for everything that occurs because the seemingly bad and negative can always turn into good or even help us to grow with the passage of time.
As Walt Disney once said, “All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me... You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
You may have often heard that being happy is a choice. This may seem rather simplistic, but at the deepest level, there is profound truth in this statement. After all, our perspective is something that we can choose deliberately, and it is what determines how we feel.
As the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius profoundly remarked almost two millenniums ago,
"Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking."
However, to grasp the truth of this statement an intellectual realisation will not merely suffice. Therefore, I’d encourage you to start applying this knowledge in your daily life and watch your life transform.
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