Learn To Like What Life Gives You
Once upon a time, a traveler asked a shepherd “what kind of weather are we going to have today?” The traveler wanted to know what to expect; who wants foul weather to derail their travels, right?
The shepherd muttered: “the kind of weather I like.” Confused, the traveler responded: “How do you know it will be the weather you like?” Here, the shepherd taught the traveler an unexpected lesson. “Having found out, sir, I cannot always get what I like, I have learned always to like what I get. So I am quite sure we will have the kind of weather I like.”
The shepherd spends every day outside at the complete mercy of the elements. And yet the shepherd goes about every day the same, rain or shine. You can too. And you should.
How do you feel when you open the front door and feel raindrops as a cold wind pierces your jacket? Maybe you think “Great, now I have to layer up, and I’m going to look like crap for my meeting.” Or perhaps you had planned a nice morning run but couldn’t bear the thought of running in the rain. You tell yourself “I’m gonna be soaked when I get back!”
Those are normal reactions. We prime ourselves to expect things of the world, and when external reality deviates from those expectations, we seethe. We expect the world to march to the beat of our drum.
But what if a normal reaction in this circumstance isn’t the healthiest one? What if your brain has led you astray, falsely making you believe a few raindrops will soak your day in misery and discontent?
What if you could react like the shepherd? What if you could accept what the world throws your way rather than speak your expectations into existence?
How To Differentiate Soluble Problems From Insoluble Situations
Soren Kierkegaard once said: “Life is a reality to be experienced, not a problem to be solved.” Kierkegaard’s existentialist philosophy might not lift your spirits, but it can help you assuage your fears and experience reality.
The weather is a perfect example. You can’t change the weather. And there’s plenty else in your life you can’t change either. An unexpected firing. A nasty breakup. An untimely medical diagnosis.
Things that happen to you aren’t problems to be solved. Problems have solutions. Life isn’t a series of algebra equations with a simple answer you can learn or a problem set with solutions provided by a teacher. No one knows what the future will bring: with your best friend, with your boss, with the weather, with the stock market, with the government, with anything.
Problems have solutions. Things that can’t be solved or changed (i.e. controlled)…that’s reality.
A problem can turn into an insoluble situation. I distinctly remember scoring poorly on a midterm exam I took during my first semester of college. I knew I wasn’t performing as well as I could, so I took it upon myself to step up. I didn’t always get straight As in college, but that wasn’t my goal. I never wanted to have that feeling again, and in that respect, I succeeded.
If you fail to attempt to solve such a problem, it will exit the realm of control and enter the realm of insolubility. If I hadn’t improved my grades, that could’ve had permanent consequences. As students like to say, “pain is temporary, GPA is forever.”
Life is full of realities we may not like. You might not get the airplane seat you prefer or the meal you like at a restaurant. You might get a lemon of a car or a fixer upper house that’s more fixer, less upper. But that’s reality. That’s life. The world owes you nothing.
Things happen to everybody. Life rewards and challenges us. Some people have better luck than others. But as Epictetus once said, “It’s not what happens to you that matters. It’s how you respond.” In non-Stoic terms: perception is reality. The way you perceive what happens to you beyond your control shapes your reality more than anything else. The more you expect of things you can’t control, the more you’ll be disappointed and aggrieved.
Stephen Hawking once said “my expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” He didn’t pick that number out of a hat. Hawking was 21 when he was diagnosed with an early onset form of ALS, which would slowly paralyze him and rob him of many of his faculties. He lived for another 55 years and became one of the greatest scientists of all time. Life dealt Stephen Hawking an awful hand, but he made the most of it.
Things you can’t control (like a crippling medical diagnosis or a stormy day) are insoluble situations. They are realities, not problems. When you try to fight reality, you lose. So what can you do instead? It’s deceptively simple: experience, accept, and then embrace.
Instead of trying to solve problems that aren’t really problems, try experiencing reality, as Kierkegaard connotes. Accept what happens to you. Then, try embracing reality the way a dog welcomes its human back from an extended absence.
Recent research reveals a surprisingly simple way to implement such a strategy.
How To Confront Difficult Realities That Are In Your Control
A 2012 UCLA study on individuals with arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) split study subjects into four groups. Rather than changing elements of the experience, researchers wanted to test the benefits of different emotional responses to situations we don’t like. Members of each group were asked to do different things as they approached a spider.
Group 1 — Label their feelings about the situation, e.g. “I’m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.”
Group 2 — Think differently about the spider so it feels less threatening, e.g. “That little spider can’t hurt me.”
Group 3 — Distract from the anxiety of approaching the spider by thinking of something irrelevant to the experience, e.g. “I’d love to be sitting on the beach right now.”
Group 4 — No specific instruction.
The researchers did this twice, measuring physiological responses and levels of distress (by looking at indicators like hand sweatiness, which is a good gauge of fear). They found that upon re-exposure to spiders, one group had far less physiological responses and emotional distress: Group 1. Those who simply labeled their feelings — a process called ‘affect labeling’ — improved their ability to confront a difficult reality.
“If you’re having less of a threat response, which is indicated by less sweat, that would allow you to get closer; you have less of a fear response,” said study co-author Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “When spider-phobics say, ‘I’m terrified of that nasty spider,’ they’re not learning something new; that’s exactly what they were feeling — but now instead of just feeling it, they’re saying it. That transition is enough to make a difference.”
At the time of the study, Lieberman and his collaborators didn’t fully understand the science behind their results. A few years later, in 2018, he and a co-author found more answers. They quantified some of the emotion-regulatory effects of affect labeling, such as decreases in subjective emotional affect, reduced activity in the amygdala (the brain’s emotional experience command center), and a lower skin conductance response to frightening stimuli.
Oddly enough, social media seems to present a good vessel for people to practice affect labeling. Lieberman’s research indicates tweeting about your feelings can rapidly reduce the intensity of your emotions. Emotional valence (a psychological term referring to the negative or positive intensity of an emotion, like anger or joy) tends to rise in the tweets immediately preceding the so-called affect labeling tweet. Once that tweet is posted, valence tends to fall until returning to a normal baseline level.
So if you face a tough research project or an uncomfortable conversation with someone you care about, don’t deny the reality of the situation. Admit your feelings and label them. If you feel so inclined, let the world know. That alone may turn your biggest obstacle — fear — into an asset.
The Importance Of Choosing Your Attitude
In 1940, Viktor Frankl faced the possibility of ending up in a Nazi concentration camp. Fascism had already forced him to close his newly formed neurology and psychiatry practice in Austria. As a director of a hospital neurology department, Frankl began making false diagnoses to save his patients from being considered mentally ill (an instant death sentence under Nazi rule). This was a life-threatening choice he made every day.
Frankl had an escape hatch, a solution to this rather difficult problem: an immigration visa to America. He could’ve ditched his homeland and made a new life across the pond without fear of persecution.
Some of my ancestors faced the same situation in late 1930s Europe. All of them would’ve done anything to have a ticket to America. It’s hard for me to describe how difficult it must’ve been for Frankl to even entertain turning that down.
But Frankl couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his parents behind in Austria. So he let the visa lapse. Frankl made a choice that turned his problem into a seemingly insoluble situation. You can guess where he ended up.
Frankl survived the camps. His wife, mother, father, and brother didn’t.
In the months leading up to his release, Frankl battled typhoid fever, a reality faced by many concentration camp inmates. In a concentration camp, many people would understandably view typhoid fever as an insoluble medical situation with a certain outcome: death.
Why? Even today, untreated typhoid fever has a fatality rate of 10–30%. Subtract 75 years of medical advancements and add the staggering level of suffering and misery extant in concentration camps, and you have yourself a prickly predicament, to say the least.
But Frankl wouldn’t let his wretched circumstances overcome him. He prevented fatal vascular collapse by forcing himself to stay awake at night to reconstruct the manuscript of his book. Frankl turned a seemingly insoluble predicament into a problem with a solution…and he solved it.
In April 1945, his concentration camp was liberated. Upon his return to normal life, a friend provided him with an apartment and a typewriter. Soon enough, Frankl released one of the most popular psychology books of all time: Man’s Search For Meaning. In the book, Frankl relayed his psychotherapeutic method, centered around finding the positive aspect(s) of any situation and then embracing it.
“Everything can be taken from a man 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.”
He practiced what he preached. So can you.
Most of us enter the world expecting it to privilege us. Some of us get dealt better hands than others. Some are born to rich parents; many aren’t. Some are born fully healthy; many aren’t. Some can get a great education; many can’t.
Much of what happens to us is out of our control. But a life well lived is made so by playing the hands you’re dealt, not the ones you wish you had.
Whether you find yourself stuck outside on a rainy day like the traveler or in a more dire situation, don’t fight reality. Recognize what lies beyond your control and accept it, good or bad, rain or shine. Even the simple act of labeling your feelings can go a long way.
Refer to the lyrics of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”:
Raindrops keep falling on my head
But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red
Crying’s not for me
’Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining
Because I’m free
Nothing’s worrying me
It won’t be long till happiness steps up to greet me
Remember, it’s not what happens to you that matters; it’s how you react. Choose your attitude in any set of circumstances and you’ll learn to find meaning in each and every day.
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