The Necessity of Reason: Combating the Lies Your Mind Tells You

Have you ever considered that one of your biggest problems might be your own brain?

Not because there’s anything wrong with you, per se, but because there’s something off about the way we’re hardwired as a species. The problem is that the human brain didn’t evolve over millions of years to be happy, it evolved to help us survive the harsh Paleolithic environment.

As such, our brains are adapted not to “seeing things as they really are” but to imagining catastrophe, to focusing on the negative, to blowing things out of proportion. We evolved to see lions where there is only brown grass, and panthers where there is only shadow, because it was always “safer” to assume the worst and be wrong than vice versa.

But while this Paleolithic brain may have helped our ancestors’ survive, today it is doing us no favours. Although it has been thousands of years since most of us needed to worry about lions leaping out of the bushes, our brains still keep us stressed out and anxious as though, at any minute now, we might need to jump up and start running from one.

I guess this is why we need “philosophies of well-being” in the first place. After all, if well-being and perfect perspective were natural then we would just do it as a matter of instinct. We wouldn’t have to be taught it, we wouldn’t bother to write books or blogs about it, we wouldn’t create religions out of it; it would just be our default way of being.

But that is not the situation we find ourselves in. Our situation is that we are stuck with this Paleolithic brain and the steady diet of neurotic lies, biases and distortions it feeds us. And in combating it we have only one true friend: reason.

THE NECESSITY OF REASON

Historically, a love of reason has not been a foregone conclusion. Lest you take the reasonableness of reason for granted, let me introduce you to the ancient Greek Sceptic Metrodorus, who declared the impotence of reason with this somewhat paradoxical line: “None of us knows anything; not even this, whether we know or we do not know.”1

But a lack of faith in reason is one thing; outright hatred of it is completely next level. I give you Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who famously declared that “Reason is the Devil’s whore”2 for failing to confirm his personal religious beliefs.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s impossible to go further than that. But you’d be wrong. The Romantics characterised objective science and rationalism as cold, calculating, stripping nature of beauty and wonder, and life of everything that makes it worth living. Reason, it seems, wants little more than to suffocate the human spirit. Instead, subjective emotion is the “true” path to knowledge.3

Yet somehow, even they don’t win top prize for the most cynical view of reason of all time. That would go to the Postmodernists; for whom all knowledge is political and reason is little more than a weapon wielded by one social group to assert their “will to power” over other groups.4

Then there’s modern science, pointing out the inescapable fact that reason is, itself, a product of the same Paleolithic brains that give us so many lies, biases and distortions in the first place. These brains tell us to only listen to information that confirms what we already believe (confirmation bias), and that we’re experts at things we know almost nothing about (the Dunning-Kruger effect).5

The list of the cognitive lies, biases and distortions that make us all terrible people is long. How can we trust any line of reasoning that comes out of such a brain? Even if reason is your friend, it might be more like that irresponsible friend who you want to rely on but who just keeps letting you down.

So yes, reason has taken a bit of a battering from almost every possible angle over the centuries. And yet, we can acknowledge the limitations of reason, acknowledge that there’s some truth to some of the above arguments, and still feel that reason must somehow come out on top. After all, any attempt to criticise reason must, itself, use reason to make its case.

Whether you want to claim that reason is impotent, or that it’s Satan’s whore, or that it should take a back seat to emotion, or that it’s an expression of a “will to power,” or that it’s a product of a flawed Paleolithic brain, you must prove your argument with reasons in the first place. How else could we know that a cognitive bias is a bias at all? Reason is all we have.

And there is a lot at stake here. If it’s impossible say who’s “really” right or wrong – about anything – then it’s impossible say that Hitler, Stalin, Mao or any other monster you can name are wrong. This should give even the most smug reason-hater out there some pause.

How might a conversation go between Metrodorus and the Nazi Führer? “Oh, you believe the Jews should be exterminated? Well, you have your perspective, I have my perspective, and I guess we’ll never really know who’s right.” I’m sorry, but no.

Then, of course, we need reason to face the monsters spawned by our Paleolithic brains; all those cognitive lies, biases and distortions. Yes, against these monsters, reason is a flawed friend, a frustrating friend, a friend you sometimes argue with and get fed up with. You may curse this friend, fight this friend, occasionally abandon this friend. You may even stoop to calling this friend bad names (right, Luther?).

But it is also your only friend.

UNFALSIFIABLE THINKING

A potent and pervasive legacy of our Paleolithic brains is unfalsifiable thinking. To say that someone’s belief is “unfalsifiable” is to say that there is nothing, not even in principle, that could ever change their mind. In science, to say this to someone is an insult far worse than merely saying that they’re wrong.

Karl Popper, who coined the term, identified unfalsifiable thinking to be the difference between real science and pseudoscience, as well as between the “open society” and the totalitarian society.6 Unfalsifiable thinking is the common thread uniting all whack-jobs, lynch mobs, dogmatists, fascist dictators, cult leaders, internet trolls, and so on. They only look for evidence that verifies their beliefs and dismiss (or violently persecute) anything that might falsify them.

But the first pseudoscientist to combat is the one inside yourself. This pseudoscientist is the one who insists not only on negative thought spirals, or on putting yourself down, or on framing everyone and everything around you in the worst possible light; they also insist on dismissing or disqualifying any and all evidence to the contrary.

Someone says something positive about your work; the pseudoscientist says they’re just trying to be nice. You get a promotion; the pseudoscientist says it’s a fluke.

Yet if there’s a pseudoscientist inside you then there’s also a real scientist, and they can use reason to put the pseudoscientist in their place. Identify the belief that you’re holding, like “My life sucks,” and ask yourself, “What is it that would change my mind?” Suddenly, instead of just chasing the evidence that verifies the hypothesis that your life sucks (like a pseudoscientist) you are finding the evidence that falsifies it (like a real scientist).

And you might just find it easier to find that evidence than you think.

CATASTROPHIC THINKING

A tendency to blow things out of proportion may well have had an adaptive survival value in the Paleolithic. A small cut could get infected and kill you; a rustling sound in the bushes could be a lion getting ready to make you their dinner.

But it will also make a wreck of your life for no good reason, turning small mistakes into irreparable disasters, minor setbacks into the end of the world, and so forth. At its worst, catastrophic thinking can lead to the truly paranoid.

One person might take the slightest criticism from someone else as meaning that that person is out to get them. Another (I’m sure you know one) drops down the rabbit hole of their algorithm-manipulated social media feed, believing the smallest government public safety measure to be the tip of the iceberg of a vast nefarious conspiracy to control us all.

Here, reason is a light in the darkness. It gives us “Occam’s Razor,”7 the principle that, all things being equal, we should go with the simplest explanation that fits the evidence; where “simplest” roughly means “requiring the fewest number of assumptions to make it work.” If you hear the sound of hooves, think horses, not unicorns.

Whenever you catch yourself catastrophising, just ask yourself, are your imagined fears really the simplest explanation of whatever is going on? Is your fear proportional to it, or are you just making dramatic assumptions on top of it?

Because please, there’s enough real problems in the world without creating new ones out of nothing.

all-or-nothing thinking

Somewhat related to catastrophic thinking, all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking is a dramatic tendency to think in absolutes and ignore shades of grey. This comes out in the form of over-the-top statements like “I always fail” or “I never get what I want!”

All-or-nothing thinking can lead to some dramatic, not-well-thought-through decisions. When you are able to cast people from the “good person” category to the “bad person” category at the drop of the hat, you can hastily break off that relationship, quit that job, fire that employee, completely unfairly. Most people are somewhere in between.

Again, reason is a guide here. Watch out for yourself using words like “always” and “never,” which are common in all-or-nothing statements. Look for all the alternative possibilities that lie between the extremes, the grey areas. Acknowledge nuance.

emotional reasoning

A very common lie our Paleolithic brains tell us is that our feelings are facts, or that if we feel it, it must be true. If you feel that your partner is looking at someone else, it means they are looking at someone else. If you feel that your life is over, it means it is over. If you feel that you have a deep connection to Scarlett Johansson, or to Brad Pitt, it means there is a deep connection…

Ok, that’s the more extreme version of emotional reasoning, but you get the picture.

Some will defend their emotional reasoning. After all, why would we feel something if it isn’t true? But the thing to understand about emotions is that they’re not about truth and reality, they’re about desire and aversion, hope and fear. Otherwise all scientific investigation would be about getting in touch with your feelings. Does E = mc2? What does your heart tell you?

And if anything will turn you against the Romantic notion that reason must take a back seat to emotions, it is seeing what happens when we actually do this. To someone in the grips of their emotional reasoning, someone who has essentially gaslighted themselves into believing their own hopes and fears, it is extremely difficult for actual reason to get through; because it doesn’t matter how illogical or inconsistent they’re being, they still feel that they’re right.

Emotions are not your enemy. They’re more like your drunk friend; you like them, you care for them, you wouldn’t want to be without them, but under no circumstances should you let them drive you home. Keep reason in the driver’s seat.

mind reading and fortune telling

Somehow, we fall into the strange trap of believing we have magical powers.

First, we seem to think we have the power to read minds. Because it’s not enough to just take the simplest explanation for why someone said what they said or did what they did; no, in our insecure moments we try to guess what they really meant, or what they’re really thinking behind our backs.

But that’s not the end of our imagined superpowers; we behave as though we have the power to foretell the future. Trying to guess the future, what might happen, how things may turn out, is a hard habit to break. Yes, some things can be rationally predicted but much of the future is unknown and unknowable, and trying to predict it all is just going to drive you insane.

I don’t think I need to explain how reason should be applied here. Just stop behaving like you think you’re an omniscient psychic warlock who knows things you can’t possibly know, and you’ll be fine.

personalisation

Sometimes we just take things way too personally. Someone doesn’t like our work, it must be because they don’t like us. Someone is not enjoying a party, it must be because of something we did. Someone breaks up with us, it must be because there’s something wrong with us. And while caring about what other people think of us is normal, we worry about it far more than we should.

But what appears to be insecurity, on the face of it, is really disguising a kind of solipsism. You’re behaving like you’re the centre of the universe, that everything that happens is in some way about you. Someone might actually have a constructive criticism of your work and it has nothing to do with you. Even if someone breaks up with you it might just be their problem, and there was nothing you could’ve done differently.

Reason might just give you a bit of tough love here, telling you that it’s not all about you. Don’t forget, everyone else also feels like the centre of their universe, and for the most part they, too, are worrying about themselves, not you.

THE just world hypothesis

Finally, a hard one for many of us to admit at the best of times, but life’s not fair. Many of us do seem to walk around with an expectation that life is – more or less – just and fair, that people generally get treated as they deserve. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The just world hypothesis is a nice, comforting belief that helps us get through the day.

But it has its dark side. For one thing, it’s just not true; each and every day there are instances in the world, too many to count, where the good are not rewarded and the bad are not punished. And because it’s not true, bad things happen when our gentle illusion of a just world shatters against the cold, hard, unjust reality; things like anger, disillusionment and despair.

Not to mention, of course, the wider social impacts. This includes a lack of basic human compassion for the less fortunate, since we believe they somehow deserve their fate; or a tolerance of corruption amongst the more fortunate, since we believe they deserve theirs. Only by acknowledging the world’s unfairness can we begin working on making it fairer.

But at least the just world hypothesis has the virtue of being falsifiable; reason will approve. It’s just that has been falsified. And many times throughout the world, I’m sure, since you began reading this sentence.

combating the lIES

All of the above are some of the main abuses of reason prevalent in our lives, contributing enormously to crises of well-being as well as crises in society, politics and the environment. And yes, to learn about the kind of lies, biases and distortions that the human brain is prone to can be enough to make you despair for the human race.

However, in a way they also give me hope. It is, after all, the human brain that is able to figure out that these lies, biases and distortions exist in the first place. It is the human brain that can therefore take steps to combat them, to live more in line with reality. It is the human brain that can see beyond its Paleolithic shackles.

It is the human brain that can reason.

Reframe Your Thinking: How to Turn Your Mind Around

I once knew a guy. Let’s call him Bill.

Bill had problems. Many problems, in fact. There were people at work who didn’t share all his opinions. When he spoke, they felt threatened by his vastly superior intelligence. And the things they thought! Well, don’t get Bill started on what they were thinking about him behind his back. Because, you know, Bill could read minds. Clearly it was time to ditch such a toxic environment.

Bill was miserable but he had been here before and he knew what to do; it was time for a change. He would change his job, change his location, change his life. If he just changed everything about his external environment, everything would be okay. Happiness was just around the corner.

Yet bizarrely, life at his new job was the exact same thing- there were people who didn’t agree with his opinions, they were threatened by his dazzling intellect, and they were thinking so many mean things about him behind his back… Clearly, everyone was just out to get him.

Even Bill’s wife had the nerve to question him. She asked whether everyone was really out to get him and suggested that maybe poor Bill just had a bad habit of assuming the worst of everyone and everything. Maybe Bill shouldn’t take every instance of someone disagreeing with him as a personal attack or of them feeling threatened by his inherent genius. Maybe he couldn’t read minds after all and had no idea what other people were thinking.

After hearing all this one too many times, it was clear that Bill’s marriage with such a toxic and unsupportive partner had come to an end.

Bill was miserable but he had been here before and he knew what to do; it was time for another change. He would change his job, change his location, change his wife. If he just changed everything about his external environment then everything would be okay. Happiness – as always – was just around the corner…

Maybe you know a Bill. Maybe you are a Bill. Maybe you’re sometimes a Bill. There is a Bill in each one of us who even occasionally “frames” things the wrong way, who could do with getting some perspective or with looking at things from another angle. There is certainly a Bill in every poor soul who doesn’t realise that “Wherever you go, there you are,” that changing your external environment will do nothing for you if your underlying bad habits of thinking aren’t addressed.

REFRAMING YOUR THINKING

The school of thought that has perhaps been the clearest about the importance of “reframing” your thinking has been Stoicism. Originating with Zeno of Citium in ancient Greece, Stoicism later gained eminence with both the philosopher-slave Epictetus and the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Today, it is enjoying something of a renaissance through the work of modern neo-Stoics like William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.1

There is a caveat; like mindfulness, reframing is a tool that in the wrong hands could drop one down the rabbit-hole of toxic positivity, ignoring genuinely bad situations that need to be dealt with in favour of “thinking positively.”

So perhaps the best question to ask yourself in any given situation is not “What is the most positive frame for thinking about this?” but rather “What is the best frame for thinking about this?” The difference is that the word “best” could mean “the most positive” but it must also mean “realistic,” “non-repressive,” “healthy” etc. I will leave it up to the intelligence of the reader to decide when and how the following frames are applicable to their own lives.

THE VIEW FROM ABOVE

Calm down and take a step back with the View from Above frame. How important are the things that occupy our attention in the grand scheme of things? The idea here is that we are just too close to our cares and concerns to see them clearly and think rationally about them. This frame helps you get some distance and therefore perspective.

Imagine yourself “rising” above yourself, looking down at your body from above. How do your problems look now, from an outside, third person objective point of view? This is, of course, similar to the mindfulness approach of objectively observing your own thoughts and feelings, or to the life coach’s question: “What advice would you give someone else experiencing the same problem?” The idea of all these approaches is the same: get some distance, get some perspective.

Now imagine rising above the earth; how do your problems compare to the problems of other people in the world as a whole? To all the pain and loss and disappointment felt by everyone else in the globe?

It’s easy to get so absorbed in our own little world that we look at all our problems and think, “Why is all this happening to me? It’s not fair!” All the while forgetting that everyone has problems, everyone is going through stuff, and many of them have much worse problems than you. Seeing this bigger picture snaps you out of your self-absorbed pity-fest and reorients your perspective on things.

Go further; rise so far out into the solar system that the earth and everything you know appears as just a tiny dot in a sea of blackness. As Carl Sagan said, that “pale blue dot” is everyone and everything you know; every nation, every religion, every war by one part of that dot to control another part of the dot.2

Go further still: the solar system itself is also just one dot among billions in our galaxy, and the galaxy is just one dot among billions in the known universe. How small, how petty, do your various grudges and obsessions appear now? What is important now? What is worth cherishing and what is worth letting go?

THE GOOD STORY

If being down to earth is more your taste, you might want the simple Good Story frame. Here you imagine your future self telling the story of your present time, or of the present challenging ordeal you are going through. Maybe your car breaks down and your phone is dead. Maybe a hurricane or typhoon or pandemic strikes, leaving only destruction in its wake.

Ask yourself, what kind of story do you want to tell about this moment later on? Do you want it to be the story of how you freaked out, overreacted, cared only about yourself and made everything worse? Or do you want to be the hero of your story, someone who stayed calm, who put the needs of others first? This is an effective frame for informing how you will respond in tough situations.

THE NEGATIVE VISUALISATION

A great one is the Negative Visualisation frame. The thing is, how we evaluate our level of well-being depends in large part on where we have been in the past. A meth-addict who finally kicks their habit in rehab can be ecstatic, while a billionaire who drops ten points on the global rich list can be cursing the heavens in abject misery. So how would you feel about your present circumstances if your past had been different?

Visualise losing everyone and everything you have (yes that may sound somewhat morbid but don’t worry, it gets better). Really think about it; a devastating war has ripped you away from everything you know; nuclear winter has descended on the globe; a zombie apocalypse has broken out; I’m sure you can fill in the details. How would you feel? What would you think? Contemplate this for as long as you can stand it.

Then – very important – imagine somehow getting back everyone and everything that you lost. The war is over, the nuclear winter is reversed, the zombie horde is vanquished, and through some heroic humanitarian effort civilisation is restored. How would you feel then, just to have back all that you currently have? How deep would be your gratitude, your appreciation, of people and things that are all too easy to take for granted in your everyday life?

This frame doesn’t have to be as dramatic as visualising the end of the world, of course. It works just fine on something smaller. Imagine losing your partner or your job or something else you value, and then regaining them; and appreciate their presence in your life all the more.

THE DREAM LIFE

Then there is the Dream Life frame. Our usual habit is to compare our lives to those who have more than us; studies have even shown that people are more likely to commit suicide if they live in a wealthier area simply because they can’t stop comparing themselves to their rich neighbours.3 Or, we make the unfair comparison between our lives – all of the good, the bad and the ugly – and the “highlight reels” of our friends’ lives on Facebook and Instagram.

But what if you compared your life to someone who would consider yours to be their “dream life”? I know, I know, I can hear you now: your job sucks, or your love life is a disaster, or your bills and debts are crushing you, so on and so on. Who would want your life?

Actually, millions, possibly billions. If you’re living in the twenty-first century and are privileged enough to own a smartphone or computer in order to be reading this, then you are currently living “the dream life” compared to the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived.

Think about the millions of prehistoric peoples who eeked out a “nasty, brutish, and short” hunter-gatherer existence, with an average life-expectancy between 21-37 years, and only 57% even making it to the tender age of 15.4 Think about those for whom infant mortality rates were about 50%.

If you have secure access to food, water and shelter then you are already living the high life. Forget about eyeglasses and contact lenses, modern dentistry, toothpaste, vaccinations, surgery- the list goes on and on. Even the greatest kings and emperors of the past did not enjoy many of the privileges you have; just let that fact sink in.

THE PROSPECTIVE RETROSPECTION

The Prospective Retrospection frame is a bit of a mouthful, but the idea is to imagine how you will one day, at some point in the future, view your present moment and circumstances. Have you ever looked back fondly on “the good old days”? Have you ever wished you appreciated those days more at the time, rather than only realising how happy you were later, in retrospect? Well this frame is all about making sure you do realise how happy you are in the present time.

Maybe right now you’re a student, you’re poor, your student loan is swelling and you’re not quite sure what you really want to do with your life anyway; one day you might miss these days of being young, of not having to worry so much about your health, of having the friends you have before they leave to step into the real world.

Or maybe you’re bogged down in dirty nappies, you haven’t slept properly in weeks, your house is mess; one day, before you know it, your baby won’t be a baby anymore and you may miss this sweet age of innocence.

Only you can judge your present circumstances, of course, but this frame just asks you to consider whether and how you might one day look back fondly on these present days as “the good old days.”

THE LAST TIME

The Last Time frame is an interesting one if you’re not too morbid about it. Basically take any ordinary, everyday thing you do and remember that one day you will do it for the last time. And remember it’s very likely that when you do do it for the last time, you won’t know that it is for the last time; which makes it all the more important to appreciate it when you are doing it.

One day you will enjoy your favourite meal for the last time. One day you will say good night to your partner for the last time. One day you will pick up your child for the last time. Acknowledging this makes you appreciate all these small, everyday things infinitely more; you really make the effort to be present with these moments, to not just perform them absent-mindedly while you think about your to-do list, about who said what on that TV show, and so on.

This trick works even for things you normally find to be a chore. One day you will wash the dishes, mow the lawn, take out the garbage, etc. etc., all for the last time. Even here, somehow, there is something sweet to be savoured about each of these tasks when you remember that you won’t be doing them forever.

MORTALITY

Last but not least, there is what might be called the Mortality frame. One of the Stoics’ signature catchphrases was “Memento mori” or “Remember that you will die.” Of course you know this, but how often do you really remember the inevitability of your demise? How often do you take the things and people in your life granted?

Taking anything for granted only makes sense on the implicit assumption that you are going to live forever. Only in the light of immortality can it make sense to waste even a single moment holding onto that grudge, or bickering with your spouse, or uselessly ruminating on the past and worrying about the future, so on and so forth.

For all that we fear death’s grim spectre, death is also the thing that throws the whole rest of life into perspective; that is, into the correct frame. So yes, remember that you will die, and stop wasting your finite time.

PHILOSOPHY AND WELL-BEING

Philosophy can be more than just a dry academic discipline with little real world application. Done right, you use it to take control of your sense of well-being, your resilience in the face of obstacles, your response to the world in general. You can neutralise the inner Bill who lurks inside so many of us. You can truly start to control yourself.

You Are Not Powerless: Focus on What You Do Control

achievement confident free freedom

Let me tell you the story of a man named Viktor Frankl.

In 1942, the shadow of the Third Reich lay heavy on Europe. When the Nazis finally came for Frankl and his family, it seemed all was lost. His father perished in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. Two years later Frankl and the rest of his family were driven to Auschwitz, where he lost his mother. Later, his wife died in the Bergen-Belsen camp.

Everywhere he turned there was the barbed wire, the armed guards, the gas chambers, the mountains and the trenches of the dead, the stench of sickness and decay; in short, the creation of hell on earth. Yet even here, somehow – you could say miraculously – Frankl had an epiphany. There was just one thing in this world that the Nazis could never take from him: his power to choose how he responded to the unimaginable trauma they had inflicted upon him and his.

And what he chose was to hold on to the idea that there was hope beyond the senseless waste of life that surrounded him on every front. He chose to believe that this life had meaning, that he still had a “why” for existing, for carrying on in the world. Instead of uselessly ruminating on the tragedy all around him he chose to contemplate his beloved and his love for her.

Frankl survived the camps and went on to describe his experiences in his memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1947) which has been described as one of the most influential psychology books of all time.1

what you CONTROL

Previously I wrote about the importance of acknowledging that you can’t control everything. There’s no clearer example of that than Frankl. Yet it may be what Frankl teaches us about the flipside of that coin that matters more: what you do control. After all, if you’re a fool to think you control everything you are equally a fool to think you control nothing.

No matter what your circumstance, there is always one thing you control and it makes all the difference in the world: yourself. After all, it is inside your mind that you experience the world and it is there that you experience well-being and suffering. So while you cannot control the world you can, like Frankl, control your response to the world.

Psychological research tells us that those who assume that control of their well-being lies outside of themselves, see themselves as perpetual victims, blame everyone else for everything, and tend to be (unsurprisingly) more all-round miserable. Those who assume that control of their well-being lies inside themselves, see themselves as having power and agency and tend to be more fulfilled in their relationships, careers, life-satisfaction and so forth.2

And no, this is not some mindless new-agey mantra to just “be positive.” Tell someone who has just lost a loved one that they should choose to “think happy thoughts,” and they will be right to punch you in the face. A self-care mantra worth remembering is: “It’s ok to not be ok.”

But whether we choose to let grief destroy us, or we choose to repress them with “happy thoughts,” or we choose to deal with our emotions in a healthy way, we are still always making a choice about how we respond. If that wasn’t the case, then all well-being and self-care advice would be in vain.

By realising that we choose our response to the world, that we are not perpetual victims who control nothing any more than we are Gods who control everything, we can begin to own our suffering, to control our suffering. In so doing, we begin to own and control ourselves.

You may just find that in controlling yourself, you in fact control much more than you realise.

YOUR mind, YOUR CHARACTER AND YOUR PURPOSE

Different traditions have emphasised at least three different ways that you control yourself and your response to the world.

Buddhist mindfulness is based in cultivating control in terms of your state of mind, or how you think. When you ground your attention in the present moment and gain some distance from your thoughts, observing them without attachment, you are in a state where you can literally choose which thoughts you are going to indulge in. You are not simply battered about by whatever thoughts happen to burst forth like a fire hydrant in the mind.

This is why mindfulness has been so effective as a method of pain-relief. It’s not that meditation reduces the primary physical pain itself, it’s that it reduces what psychologists call “secondary pain,” or our mental and emotional reaction to the primary pain. According to this research, much of the pain we feel when we experience physical injury is actually of this “secondary” type, not the actual pain itself.3 As it turns out, we’re all just over-reacting drama-queens, and mindfulness helps cut through that nonsense.

Greek and Roman Stoicism emphasises control in terms of developing who you are, your character as a human being. In fact, the Stoic “Dichotomy of Control” is one of the earliest and clearest expressions of the idea that while we don’t control the world we do control ourselves. Epictetus said, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”4 But how do we make the “correct” judgements? We must improve ourselves.

External goals like wealth, fame, the admiration of others, etc. are no good because they largely depend on factors outside our control. Whereas internal goals that develop our character, i.e. “virtues” like wisdom and compassion, are good because they lie within our control. So instead of indulging in pointless wishful-thinking that the world will stop being difficult and conform to your whims, just focus on the kind of person you want to be.

Instead of hoping for a promotion, which only your manager controls, just focus on being good at your job, which you control. Instead of hoping someone will love you, which only the object of your affection controls, just focus on being a loveable person, which you control. Instead of hoping the world will stop being sexist, racist, classist or ecocidal, which the entire rest of the world controls, just be a voice for anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-classism and environmentalism, which you control.

Yet Frankl himself is usually associated with the not-so-ancient and very loose school known as Existentialism, which advocates control in terms of figuring out your purpose, or why you carry on. Their catch-cry is “existence precedes essence,”5 which basically just means that, rather than coming into existence as the result of some predetermined purpose (as set by God, Fate, Nature and so forth), we come into existence and then choose our purpose.

More simply put, the meaning of life – and therefore the meaning of all the crap that life throws at you – is what you make it. Jean-Paul Sartre – the poster-boy of Existentialism – even went so far as to argue that a person is free even when they’re in chains, since they have the freedom to choose the meaning of their condition.

Such thinking was certainly part of Frankl’s answer to the Nazi concentration camps: “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.”6 In fact he went even further, posing that finding one’s meaning is the fundamental driving force for human beings; the “will to purpose” as opposed to Friedrich Neitzsche’s “will to power” or Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure.”

The Existentialists won’t tell you what the meaning of your life is. In fact, looking to anyone but yourself to tell you the meaning of your life will get you accused of “bad faith,”7 of pretending that others know something that they don’t. Although I’m sure there’s a cult leader or two out there who would be more than happy to tell you the meaning of your life, I would hope you decline the offer of their advice.

No, freedom entails responsibility, and so I’m sorry but this one is on you. If it helps, Albert Camus famously said that your purpose is just whatever keeps you from committing suicide.8

THE LAST OF THE HUMAN FREEDOMS

Whichever school of thought you align yourself with, there is truth in all of them: resilience comes down to the choices you make about how you think, who you are and why you carry on. The power to make these choices is something that no one – not even Nazis at the height of their power – can take away from you. It is in this sense that you are never powerless.

Frankl was by no means perfect.9 However, the main take-away from his story should be an invaluable lesson for us all. If Frankl could harness the power to choose his response to his external environment, choose who he was and the meaning of what happened to him, even during one of the darkest episodes of all time and with such a horrific level of personal loss, I’m not sure what excuse the rest of us have.

I will leave you with one of the many gems from his book: “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

You Are Not All-Powerful: Let Go of What You Can’t Control

Are you the guy with the long white beard in Michaelangelo’s painting? If not, I have some shocking news for you. Brace yourself. Sorry, but you are not all-powerful and you can’t control everything.

Yes, yes, I can hear you thinking- “Wow Sam, are you running out of ideas already? What’s your next stunning insight, that water is wet? Why am I reading your stupid blog?”

Well, smartass, turns out that this stupidly obvious fact is not at all obvious to everyone, and that it’s not even obvious to you or I much of the time. Admit it. We may not forget that water is wet but, for some reason, it’s actually really easy to forget that we can’t control everything.

From the moment we wake in the morning we start ruminating about the past as though our rumination has the power to change it; and we worry about the future – far beyond what is useful for mere planning and preparation – as though our worrying has the power to change that. We react with shock and fury when other people don’t behave the way we expect them to, as though we have the power to control other people.

For some reason, we all have just a little dose of the God Complex.

TOXIC POSITIVITY GONE MAD

Our culture certainly doesn’t help. The mantra of the day is “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything!” Anything. We preach this mantra across all media platforms and in our education system. It remains the central pillar of many of our self-help books and motivational speakers. It’s the “take home lesson” of every reality TV contest winner who has apparently already forgotten the hundreds of other poor souls who also believed in themselves but didn’t make it.

Now don’t get me wrong, my problem is not with the “believe in yourself” part, just with the “anything” part. As though social, political, and economic conditions don’t matter; as though there are no physical and logical constraints on individuals; as though we can all be billionaires if we just choose to without causing mass inflation and economic collapse (and if I just poured a big bucket of ice water all over your dreams there, well I’m sorry).

Yet just to put this mantra on steroids, we now also have “the law of attraction,” which says that the “frequency” of our thoughts “attract” what we are thinking into our lives, that we can essentially control the world with the power of our minds.1 I would call this an “extreme” example, but Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret has been translated into at least 50 different languages and has sold 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most best-selling self-help books of all time.

Clearly, telling people that they have the power of God strikes a deep chord.

And why wouldn’t it? The human need to feel in control of an uncontrollable universe goes right back to our earliest cave dwelling ancestors, who thought it was a good idea to throw virgins into volcanoes to make sure that there would be no more earthquakes. All superstition can be said to be a natural human response to the fact that the universe is sometimes a stochastic terrorist, striking us at random, inspiring the kind of fear that makes an irrational belief in our own omnipotence not just possible, but popular.

But what’s the problem with people thinking they’re the Master of the Universe? Isn’t it positive? Well I’m sure that believing you’re a god is probably fantastic for your self-esteem; at least in the short term. The problem is that it so naturally leads to victim-blaming; and whether it’s society doing it or the individual doing it to themselves, the results can be toxic, even abusive.

Essentially, if you are in control of everything that happens to you, then regardless of actual circumstances, it is you who are to blame for being mugged in the street; you who are to blame for being struck by lightning; you who are to blame for being poor, etc. etc. etc. You just did not believe in yourself enough, or you just weren’t putting the right thoughts out into the universe. Not only are you a terrible person for having bad things happen to you, but the real causes of your woes are never addressed.

And that is not so positive. That is toxic positivity gone mad.

Yet there are plenty of people who seem happy to bite the bullet on this one. There are entire political movements that seem to be built on victim blaming. Which is hardly surprising, since there could be nothing that individuals in power would love more than a society of people who will happily blame themselves – no matter what – rather than them.

And then we have Byrne’s own famous response to the 2004 South Asian tsunami – which killed over 227,000 people – telling us with all apparent sincerity that the tsunami victims “attracted” the disaster to them with their thoughts; essentially, that they brought it on themselves.2 That may seem a callous, heartless and despicable thing to say – and it is – but to be fair she is just being consistent with what she believes.

Byrne had to say it; and that’s the problem. The fact that such beliefs force you to talk this way about helpless disaster-victims should really give you pause.

A REALITY-BASED ALTERNATIVE

As I say, I’m not here to tell you to not believe in yourself. I believe in believing in yourself to change what you can in fact change. I’m just pretty sure that believing you can change things you can’t change is inevitably going to lead to failure and feeling bad about yourself for, essentially, not being an all-powerful superhuman god. I believe that is stupid.

And I’m hardly the first to talk like this. There is a healthier, more reality-based alternative to dealing with the uncertainty of the world than adopting a God Complex, and it has been offered by many of the world’s great traditions- we just forget.

Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism have always been pretty adamant that accepting that we can’t control everything is the key to both happiness and wisdom. As the Dalai Lama has said: “If a problem is fixable… then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying.”3

This is certainly an attitude cultivated in mindfulness training; in grounding yourself in the present moment, in experiencing a state where the present moment is enough, just as it is, you simply don’t feel the need to control everything that happens. The insecure ego that fears the world and craves a God Complex is just gone. In this state, it is far easier to just step back, take a breath, and calmly see what you actually can and can’t control.

The Greek and Roman Stoics called this same concept “The Dichotomy of Control.” They believed that dividing the world into things we can and can’t control is the first and most important thing we should all do, from a well-being point of view. Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”4 Coming from a former slave, that’s a significant thing to say.

But following Epictetus’ advice gives us much needed perspective on almost everything else that is worth thinking about. We get on with the productive task of figuring out what we can in fact do, instead of wasting time pouring energy into worry about things beyond our control.

Christianity has its Serenity Prayer, well-worn in today’s 12 step recovery programs: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”5 There is a reason this prayer is said to grant serenity; there is a profound sense of peace that comes from humility, from acknowledging that you are not all-powerful and therefore don’t have to concern yourself with what can’t be changed.

If every utterance of “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything” could be replaced with this, then our world would be a much happier, wiser place.

The trick is the “wisdom” part. We might well be mistaken about what we can and can’t change. I might think I have the power to build a mansion or to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist, only to (almost inevitably) learn better the hard way. Or, I might think I don’t have the power to change something that I can, in fact, change with a bit of effort.

But that’s just life. You use the best of your knowledge of the facts and circumstances to make your decisions in any given moment. The fact that it can sometimes be hard to figure out is no reason to wrap yourself in cotton wool and believe the impossible… and the dangerous.

GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK

So give yourself a break. Accept your relative impotence in the face of the infinite cosmos and relax knowing that you only have to worry about the miniscule amount of it that you can actually control. You will be a happier – and better – person for it.