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Free Will

How Do We Get More Free Will to Pursue the Good Life?

We need to have agency, or at least to believe that we have it, to be happy.

Key points

  • It is beneficial to believe that we have free will.
  • Rather than thinking of free will in dichotomous, "all-or-nothing" terms, it is better to think of it in more "both/and" terms.
  • Thinking about free will more flexibly allows greater opportunities for growth and change.

Disclaimer: I don't claim that what I say is totally "true" because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help us perceive the world, others, and ourselves in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

Source: Sanfel/iStock

In my previous post, I addressed the age-old question: Do we have free will? Of course, I don't have a definitive answer to a question that philosophers, theologians, and scientists have debated for centuries, but here's a quick summary:

  • Some arguments about whether and how much free will we possess stem from different definitions of this hypothetical construct.
  • Although we don't have free will in an absolute sense at all times, it is critically important to our happiness and well-being to believe that we have it.
  • The more we believe that we have free will, the more likely that we can exercise it to our advantage.

The both/and of free will

Within a dualistic way of thinking, life works in dichotomies of black or white, good or evil, conservative or liberal, nature or nurture, right or wrong, and we either have free will, or we don't. Within a nondualist way of thinking, there is room for many shades of grey (more than 50!). As I have proposed in a number of my blogs, there are very few absolutes in life. Adopting a flexible approach allows room for growth and improvement, which is a purpose of life. A rigid, dichotomous view of free will (that we have it at all times or we don't), ironically, can be constraining. Likewise, becoming overly attached to the concept of free will can contribute to increased suffering.

I can't claim that I'm "right" about free will because even that falls into a dualist trap (i.e., either I'm right about free will, or I'm wrong). However, perhaps a useful way of thinking about free will is along a continuum. In some situations, we have more free will than we can exercise, and in some situations, less. We need to internalize a sense of free will while, at the same time, acknowledging that it is not absolute.

Free will is bounded by some constraints, and we have more or less free will to exercise depending upon the specific circumstances and variables. Our upbringing, genetics, the time and place we were born, and so many other variables strongly affect the way we think, feel, and behave. From this perspective, the light of free will is more like a dimmer switch in a room than an on/off switch. We don't get to pick within which room we are placed (e.g., where and when we are born), but we can learn to adjust the dimmer to our liking within that room.

In America, the importance of free will, autonomy, liberty, and self-determination is baked into our DNA. That's why Patrick Henry proclaimed, "Give me liberty or give me death!" at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. Given America's roots and founding doctrines, it is understandable why so many Americans bristled at COVID-19 lockdowns and mask mandates. However, more collectivist countries and cultures, like Japan and China, aren't as focused on liberty and free will as we are in America. Such cultural differences serve as evidence that numerous variables affect our very concept of free will as well as how we are able to exercise it.

Using our free will to adopt both/and views of free will allows us the flexibility to navigate the various challenges of life more skillfully. When our options are limited, we can learn to exercise our free will to change our views and responses to our constraining circumstances and suffering (e.g., Tim Robbins' character, Andy, in The Shawshank Redemption). That said, there are many people who suffer through no fault or choice of their own and need compassion, understanding, and support to make it through some of the challenges of life. They might require some help along the way, as we all do at times, in order to be in a position to exercise their free will more effectively in the future. After all, it would be impossible to exercise our free will to swim in whichever direction we desired if we were drowning because we were weighed down.

Even after receiving our help and support, the recipients need to internalize a sense of free will and agency in order to pursue happiness in the long term. When we assist others too much, it can undermine their psychological needs for competence and autonomy. From this perspective, as dependency increases, free will decreases. When do we step back to allow others space, and when do we step in to help? Once again, this is where adopting a more fluid, both/and approach to free will can help us to more skillfully navigate the nuances of life to find the "right" balance.

How to get more free will

Given that free will is so critical to our happiness and well-being, wouldn't having more of it be better? Viewing free will as more fluid rather than all-or-none means that we can exercise it to achieve greater free will. Let's start with examining how we derive our free will.

When we say we are exercising free will, we mean that we are making a conscious, deliberate choice that is free from external or internal constraints. That said, it stands to reason that the more conscious or aware we are, the more free will we have. After all, when we are sleeping (lucid dreaming aside) or unconscious, we cannot exercise our free will. Moreover, when we are tired, inebriated, distracted, or in a highly-charged emotional state, we have less free will available to exercise because, in a sense, "we" aren't fully present.

For instance, we've all had experiences in which we had to apologize for something we did or said with an excuse such as, "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I don't know why I did that. I just wasn't thinking." What do we mean when we say such things? We mean that we weren't truly aware or present in the particular moment in which we acted.

Our free will is also compromised by a myriad of cognitive biases. For instance, although we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who form our opinions and decisions after carefully weighing the evidence, our tribalism often trumps truth. That is, we unconsciously distort reality due to an ingroup (or myside) bias in order to maintain tribal allegiance and cohesion. The more we are aware of the various biases and other factors that can influence our decision-making (i.e., how we exercise our free will), the less likely that these will affect us.

How do we increase our awareness or consciousness?

The more conscious and present we are, the more likely we will be to act in ways that reflect our "true" selves. In this sense, to acquire more free will, we need to increase our awareness or conscious presence. How do we do that?

Probably our best bet here is to begin some form of mindfulness practice. A pioneer in bringing mindfulness to a Western audience, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "...awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." Mindfulness helps us be more present in the here-and-now, and, arguably, this consciousness is where free will resides.

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