As those who have embarked on the quest for happiness know quite well, a crucial milestone on the path involves taking personal responsibility. Taking personal responsibility means not blaming others for your unhappiness. It means figuring out ways in which you can be happy despite others' (negative) behaviors and despite the external circumstances. A person who has taken personal responsibility recognizes an all-important truth about happiness: your happiness depends much more on your attitude than it does on objective, external circumstances.
Does this mean that one can be happy no matter what the external circumstances? Can one be happy despite intense physical or psychological pain?
This is the question many of my students ask when I talk of taking personal responsibility for happiness.
Theoretically, it is possible to be happy no matter what the external circumstance. How? Because one's emotional state is a function of how one interprets events, rather than what actually happened, as reflected in Milton's famous saying, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." Findings from cognitive theories of affect support Milton's saying. Generally speaking, our happiness—in fact, any emotional state, including a negative one—is generated by interpretations of events, as I elaborated in another post. When we interpret our negative boss as an obstacle, for example, we feel angry and frustrated; if, in contrast, we view our boss as "exactly what we need in order to become a better person," we experience a sense of calmness, perhaps even gratitude.
Of course, most of us do not believe that we can be happy no matter what the external circumstance. When confronted with the idea that happiness is ultimately in the mind, many of us immediately entertain extreme examples that falsify the theory: could we be happy even if we break a bone or lose our job?
To me, those are the wrong questions to ask. The right question to ask is whether we can be happy given the types of negative events that routinely occur in our lives. In other words, rather than ask yourself if you can be happy even in extremely negative circumstances, ask yourself whether you can be happy in the more moderate circumstances in which you find yourself on a day-to-day basis. Can you, for example, entertain the possibility of being happy despite the fact that it's raining outside? Can you be happy if a meeting with your client did not go as well as you would have liked?
Why is asking yourself whether you can be happy in extremely (vs. moderately) negative circumstances the wrong question? Because, by asking such a question, you undermine the confidence you need to develop the ability to be happy under all circumstances. Just as a child cannot imagine being as physically strong as an adult, those of us who haven't developed the ability to interpret moderately negative events in a happiness-enhancing fashion cannot imagine being happy in extremely negative circumstances.
It is useful to think of the ability to control your emotional responses to events as a muscle; just as your biceps become stronger only when you exercise them using the appropriate weights—weights that are neither too light nor too heavy—your ability to control your emotional response to events gains strength only when you take on challenges that are commensurate with your current ability. If you are currently someone who lets relatively minor events—like an encounter with a rude waitress—spoil your mood, how can you expect to maintain your happiness when a more extreme event—like a weeklong visit from a unpleasant relative—unfolds?
The point is: just because you currently lack the ability to maintain emotional positivity in the face of extremely negative events doesn't mean that the theory—that the key to your happiness ultimately lies in your hands—is false. Rather, what it means is that you don't, at present, possess sufficient control over your mind to feel happy regardless of the circumstances. You may ultimately desire to be like Gandhi or Jesus—who were remarkable in their ability to maintain good cheer even in the face of extreme adversity—but you can't get there by biting off more than you can chew right now.
This brings me to an interesting irony about taking personal responsibility. Seeking mental control, it might appear at first blush, is similar to seeking control over others or over the circumstances. Quite the contrary! If anything, your ability to control your own mind is diminished by seeking to control others and the circumstances. Indeed, a critical element in developing mental control is a willingness to accept whatever outcomes you are dealt. If you cannot fully accept your outcomes—including, for example, the presence of a toxic boss, or poor health—you will not be able to interpret these outcomes in a positive light, and hence, you cannot be happy.
So, taking personal responsibility for your happiness involves, ultimately, adopting a "surrender mindset"—which refers to the willingness to fully and unquestioningly accept the outcomes you are dealt in life.
But how does one develop the surrender mindset?
Before answering this question, let me briefly discuss a commonly held misconception about the surrender mindset. Surrendering isn't the same as capitulating. In other words, a person with a surrender mindset is not a weak, rudderless individual who has "checked out" from this world; rather, he is someone who, like the rest of us, has desires and goals and pursues them. However, whereas the rest of us cling to our desires with feverish desperation, a person with the surrender mindset does not. Thus, a person with the surrender mindset may dream of breaking the world record in the 100-meter dash, but if he were to discover a physical condition that prevents him from achieving this dream, he will be able to discard his dream, and move on to other goals without hesitation.
In other words, a person with the surrender mindset is like the rest of us in many ways, but only until the moment the outcomes unfold. Whereas the rest of us ruminate and moan when our favored outcomes don't unfold, the person with a surrender mindset is able to move on, emotionally unscathed.
Let me now return to the question I had raised earlier: How does one develop the surrender mindset?
The most effective way to develop the mindset is one that those with a scientific orientation will likely find unappealing: it involves faith in a larger intelligence or force. Specifically, those who believe that there is force larger than oneself, and that this force is benign, will find it easier to surrender. The reason for this is straightforward: if you believe that the Universe is shaped by a force more powerful than you, and that this force has your best interests at heart, then you will find it much easier to make peace with the outcomes you are dealt. Even if you are unable to see how an outcome is beneficial for you in the moment, you will at least be willing to look for ways in which it opens new doors and opportunities. In contrast, if you are convinced that the outcome you have been dealt is bad for you, you are more likely to ruminate about the past than to move forward.
Ultimately then, surrendering has to do with trust. Just as trusting the people with whom you interact on a day-to-day basis is indispensible for being happy, so it seems that trusting that the Universe is taking care of you is crucial for being happy too.
This may be one reason why findings repeatedly show that religious people are, on average, significantly happier. Developing the surrender mindset, however, doesn't mean you need to become religious. One can entertain the belief in a benign (rather than malign or indifferent) Universe without subscribing to any other religious tenet.
So, the logical thing to do, if you want to take personal responsibility for your own happiness, is to do something that might sound illogical: to have faith and adopt the surrender mindset.
Isn't that wonderful?