Intro 2: Our Thoughts create our Unhappiness

It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.

In last month’s post we saw how it is hard to retain happiness and how this concept might be even misleading; how trivial things can spoil our life and finally how our own thought process  can help us to get closer to our goals and to a life worth living.

In this post we will continue our conversation and will look at one of the most famous Stoic quote:

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”

Epictetus

This short sentence is one of the cornerstones of Stoic philosophy, let’s see how:

Image how small events can make us unhappy.

  • A single drop of bleach has forever ruined your favourite dress
  • It’s raining again and you don’t carry an umbrella 
  • You lost your favourite cup in the meeting room, it’s now nowhere to be found

All events listed are what we will refer to as externals, thus events that are connected with us, even personally, but are not part of us. These externals produce a reaction to us. Following a somewhat similar action/reaction phenomenon:

What happenedHow we react
It start rainingWe are worried
Our dress is ruinedWe are angry!
We lose our favourite cupWe are inconsolable

We assume, almost as a given, that these events ought to give us a negative feeling and that we have to give and express a reaction. Because, we reason, those misfortunes are the cause of our unhappiness. 

Why is it so? This is because we assume that we don’t have to lose our cup, ruin our dress. If someone is driving slow on the road, we are angry because, this is not they way to drive and we have place to be and thing to do and look at this guy, who is wasting my time, etch etch,

The common thread among all these examples is that we gave an assumption for how things ought to be, and this is precisely  the judgement that is making us unhappy and not actually the event.

Therefore, we can rewrite the schema seen before as:

What happenedOur judgmentOur reaction
Bleach has ruined
the dress
The dress was not
supposed to be ruined!
We are upset
It start rainingI hate rain,
I’ll get sick now!
We are worried
We lose our
favourite cup
I was not supposed to forget it.
Nobody gave it back to me,
people are the worst!
We are angry

What we have done now, is to add a step in between the event and our reaction. This is the most important step of your life. That you have to cross constantly.

If we start to approach life differently, our life will be different. 

There is a quote that I love from Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Personal growth and freedom:

Why personal growth is related to how we see the world? 

Image the worst thing possible: death, disease, poverty, etch. 

All things we want to avoid. But plenty of people don’t run away from them: Soldiers volunteer for war, doctors go to cure people with plagues, parents make themselves poorer for the good of their children, etc. 

These examples prove that by framing the events in our life differently we can change how we feel about them.

Why is it important?

I’m a human, shouldn’t I have these feelings and act emotionally? 

My answer is: where is growth on that? Your problems are caused by the judgement you have of them. Hardship and adversity are not a matter of if, but of when. How will you face them?

What about freedom? 

Sartre in an assay wrote that “man is condemned to be free” (an easy explanation). This means that whether we are aware or not, we are always responsible for our actions, inactions and reactions. A perfect Stoic, that is aware of his/her judgment and accept any consequence is truly free. 

Surely, being aware of our judgement all the time is not easy. And turn happy once we figure out our faulty judgement even less.

Personally, when I hear advice like: man up!, smile! Choose to be happy! I start to get angry for real. 

So, I’m telling you to do a different exercise: 

Next time you are facing an external, try to reduce it to its minimal component, for what the event really is and what we can do about them.

So, we rewrite the table as:

What happenedOur judgmentOur action
Bleach has ruined the dressMistakes are unavoidable.
I have a wardrobe full
Pick something
else or just wear it. 
It start rainingIt’s just water.
Rain is just a natural phenomenon
I can try to cover
myself or find a place to wait
We lose our favourite cupI knew that it could have lasted forever.
It’s just pottery
Go to the cupboard
and take another one.

Second exercise for the month comes from [link to book]

This is another micro-journaling exercise to do periodically, at night before bad is probably best.

Try to answer the three questions that Seneca and Epictetus proposed in their books:

SenecaWhat bad habit (physical action)
did you work on today?
What vice (mental action)
did you work on?
In what respect are you a better person
Epictetus What did you do wrong today? What did you do right today?What you should work on in the future?

To these we can add the one who has developed Richard, one of the most present member of Cambridge Stoics:

When you find yourself angry, upset or feeling down about something:

  1. Get the situation in perspective: how much out of a score of 10 is this upsetting me compared with everything else in my life?​
  2. What is my current interpretation of what just happened: why am I upset, and what am I feeling?
  3. What are the actual facts supporting my current interpretation?
  4. Is there another explanation for what just happened?
  5. What would your best friend say to you having just witnessed what happened? 
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