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.