The Things We Cannot Change

There is often a great power in quotes.

When someone can distill an idea or a philosophy into a short, memorable collection of words, it can become a kind of mantra for people. It can be a reminder of how they want to live their life and how to be their best selves.

One example of this is the Serenity Prayer.

The Serenity Prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups where people are working on self-improvement. Internalizing the message of the prayer has become a powerful guiding force for those working towards recovery.

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

The Things I Cannot Change

The key to the Serenity Prayer is the recognition that there are some things that are within our control and there are some things that are not.

This is, of course, not a new idea. It was one of the guiding principles of Roman Stoicism. Indeed, the first line of The Enchiridion, Epictetus’s short handbook of Stoic advice, is “Some things are in our control and others not.”

In Epictetus’s view, the things that are in our control are our actions, our thoughts, and our pursuits. Pretty much everything else is outside of our control.

We can control what we choose to do. We can control how we choose to do it. We can control how we interpret the actions of others. We can control how we view and perceive the world around us.

We cannot control how people react to our actions. We cannot control what people think of us. We cannot control any of the outside forces that are brought to bear upon us.

This may sound trite when phrased that way. It may be obvious. But recognizing this distinction and having the serenity to accept the things you cannot change is a key to achieving real happiness.


Whatever way you look at it, worrying about things that are outside of your control is a terrible drain.

I cannot control whether or not it will rain on my wedding day (although I can control whether or not the DJ plays Alanis Morissette). I can set up contingency plans in case it does rain, but any worry beyond that is a waste of time in which I could be doing something productive.

More important than the time-wasting element is the happiness-draining element. If I am worried about something outside of my control, then I will be stressed, upset, angry, frustrated, sad, or any other of a wide variety of negative emotions. And to what end?

I cannot change the outcome of something that is beyond my control, so those negative emotions serve no benefit. They bring me down without having any upside.

In addition to bringing me down, they affect everyone around me. My family, my friends, and my coworkers who interact with me feel that sadness. That negativity. They get that drain imprinted onto their day, as well.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Okay, so maybe you’re convinced that these negative emotions in response to things outside of our control don’t serve a purpose. But how do we stop emotions that come up naturally?

Like a lot of the things that I talk about here, slowly and gradually over time.


There is no shortcut here. You need to retrain your instincts.

The first step is to work on the last part of the Serenity Prayer – the wisdom to know the difference. Whenever possible, take a step back and try to determine whether something is within your control or not. That alone is a tough habit to build.

Once you’ve got that down, you want to start paying attention to your reactions to things that are outside of your control. You will probably have instinctive negative reactions. We all do. It isn’t something to be ashamed of or to kick yourself for. Just recognize it.

Next, continuously remind yourself that those negative emotions aren’t helping the situation. At first this will feel like shouting into the void. You may not even notice a difference in your reaction.

Stick with it.

Eventually the lengths of time over which you feel that sadness, that anger, that frustration will shorten. You will be able to live a life of less sadness. Less anger. Less negativity in general.

A happier life.

Maybe one day we will get to the point that Epictetus pointed to. The point where we can “make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.”

It may not be easy, but it is worth it for a happier life.

21 thoughts on “The Things We Cannot Change”

  1. Nice post, Matt! Reading your post reminded me of Epictetus’ famous quotes – “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

    How we perceive things that happen outside of our control has a lot of to do with how respond to them. Having a positive attitude and consider events as an opportunity to learn and become better can go long ways to help us lead a happier life.

  2. I’ve become much better at this as I get older. The worry in particular – I come from a long line of worriers. And the only way I’ve gotten better is to ask myself “Can I control this?”, if not I let all worry go. I’ve had a lot of practice with this since my son started driving. 🙂 You’re right, Matt, it’s not always easy, but totally worth it.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Debt Free Story: How one couple achieved debt freedom for retirementMy Profile

  3. Awesome post, Matt!!! I definitely struggle with worrying about things that are outside of my control. I have a tendency to try to play every scenario in my head and have all the answers before I arrive. It is very draining at times and quite frankly a huge waste of time. I know there are things that I should be doing that are much more productive but I haven’t quite been able to do so. But I am making strides at this point.
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…An Oldie But A Goodie: Investing Like Warren BuffetMy Profile

  4. Ah, the resident philosopher of our blogging community strikes again! The Serenity Prayer, Epictetus, and a properly constrained wedding DJ–what a great freakin’ post. For a while now, I’ve had one mindset when dealing with my fellow human beings: I don’t expect kindness or above-and-beyond effort. And because I have adopted this mindset, I’m rarely if ever disappointed. In fact, in most of dealings with humanity–because people are generally good–I’m pleasantly surprised. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post, Matt. Cheers.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…A New, New Low for Stacking BenjaminsMy Profile

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Mr. Groovy. Keeping expectations low is certainly one way to make sure you’re never disappointed! I am still working on figuring out how to calibrate my expectations of other people. I go back and forth along the spectrum and have yet to settle in a comfortable place.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…The Things We Cannot ChangeMy Profile

  5. From time to time, I do get negative feelings when certain things don’t work out the way I envisioned it would. Some feelings are easier to brush away like a blog post that I think it’s great but I did not get a lot of page views. While others like not getting the opportunity at your workplace to demonstrate your worth and skills can be demoralizing after a while. However, I often tell myself that I should concentrate on what I can control. There is no point in getting upset at things that I cannot controls. Thanks for the reminder Matt.
    Leo T. Ly @ recently posted…My 2017 Net Worth Performance Review – Q1My Profile

  6. The Serenity Prayer has such a powerful impact on many avenues in our lives. When I was crushed by mortgage debt I realized it was me who had put me there. Working through that time in my life was similar to dealing with the 5 stages of grief…denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then acceptance. There were many times that I had to go back to basics and remind myself that what was done was done, I had to accept it and move forward. And I did, even though it was difficult. Now I take the time to make better choices and ask myself different questions before moving forward in an effort control what I can and accept the rest. Such a difference it makes when you can shift your perspective to the positive. Thanks for inciting some thought for my day. 🙂
    Miss Mazuma recently posted…2017 1st Qtr Net Worth & Savings Rates…Homerun!!My Profile

    1. It’s amazing how much of personal finance is not really about finance at all. It’s psychology and life philosophy. Congrats on figuring it out and getting yourself into a better place!

      Thanks for the comment, Miss Mazuma!
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  7. Super post, Matt! It’s so good to be reminded of these things as they are easy to let slip. I’ve really worked hard the last few years to not try and control everything. I’ve gotten better at it, but you can never have too much wisdom so I’ll keep working on improving. 🙂

  8. An amazing post. I just emailed this to my wife as a matter of fact! This was my first time visiting blog and I picked one heck of an article to start with. This is something that I struggle with at times and have been working hard at figuring out over the last few years. Learning to know the difference between the things I can and cannot control has made such a difference in my life and my overall satisfaction with the outcomes at the randomness that life throws you every day. You always want the best outcome 100% of the time, but perfection isn’t possible because of the variables you cannot control. As long as you know you tried your best and did everything you could, it makes accepting any outcome that much easier.

    Thanks for the great read tonight. Take care and I look forward to stopping back!

    Bert, One of the Dividend Diplomats

    1. Welcome! And thanks for the kind words, Bert. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      This really is a hugely important skill and also very difficult to master.

      “You always want the best outcome 100% of the time, but perfection isn’t possible because of the variables you cannot control. As long as you know you tried your best and did everything you could, it makes accepting any outcome that much easier.” That is a great way to put it.
      Matt recently posted…Make a Plan! (Or Don’t)My Profile

  9. So true…but definitely something that is tough to do. It’s hard to retrain yourself not to worry about things that you can’t control and change when you’re a worrywart and people pleaser. Of course it is frustrating and you’re setting yourself up for misery if you constantly worry about things you can’t control. I’m gonna have to work on that Serenity Prayer!

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