On The Path To Meaning

Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude.

Why do some people seem to have an easier time dealing with complex and challenging situations than others?

Why do some people seem more capable of dealing with stress and change than others?

To be sure, we have all had the opportunity to witness these differences among people (including family members, friends, colleagues, and co-workers), as well as have seen the inspiring power of the human spirit at work in even the worst of life situations.

In light of the uncertainty and complexity in the world today, and the stresses that seem naturally to come with them, it is timely that we explore the first of seven core principles that we introduce in our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: “Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude.” As background, Prisoners of Our Thoughts is based upon the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist and existential philosopher, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, named one of the ten most influential books in America by the Library of Congress. Frankl’s personal story of finding a reason to live in the most horrendous of circumstances — Nazi concentration camps — has inspired millions. Moreover, Dr. Frankl, who personally urged me to write Prisoners of Our Thoughts, truly practiced what he preached by living and working with meaning all of his life.

Viktor Frankl is perhaps best known for practicing and espousing “freedom of will,” especially in terms of one’s choice of attitude, as a point of departure on the path to meaning. In Dr. Frankl’s own words, “Everything can be taken from a man but — the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” In other words, in all situations, no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude.

In his Foreword to Prisoners of Our Thoughts, the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey (bestselling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) introduces the following three lines that he came across in a university library while on a writing sabbatical in Hawaii:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.
In our response likes our growth and our happiness.

Although Dr. Covey, unfortunately, was unable to retrieve the name of the author of these insightful and profound lines, it is clear that they reaffirm this basic principle (“Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude”) and Viktor Frankl’s essential teachings.

Of course, for many, if not most, people, exercising the freedom to choose their attitude is easier said than done! We must not be “prisoners of our thoughts” if we truly want to see this Principle in action and benefit from its practical application. In this regard, I recall a conversation with one reader of our book, who happened to be a medical doctor, in which he said the following: “Alex, I really like your book. I only have one question. I don’t really understand the first principle: ‘Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude.’ Why would I want to do that if I already have an attitude?” Fortunately, after some discussion, the meaning behind the Principle was revealed to him and he has been able to use it effectively in his medical practice (e.g., as a way to improve doctor-patient communications) and in his personal life ever since.

Just in case some of you are also wondering if you can exercise the freedom to choose your attitude, here is a quick exercise that, I promise, can and will help you to do so.

Whenever you face a situation that is especially stressful, negative, or challenging for you, I want you to take a deep breath and list “ten positive things” that are or could be associated with (or could/did result from) this situation. That’s right, I said ten “positive” things! Stretch your imagination and suspend judgment, listing whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly, far out, or unrealistic your thoughts may appear to be. Feel completely free to determine or define what “positive” means to you and recruit family members, friends, colleagues, etc., to help you with your list, if necessary.

After you’ve completed your list, look at it closely, and let the positive become possible in your frame of reference regarding the situation. Sometimes this is very hard to do. It requires a letting go of old ways of thinking, pain, remorse, disappointment, frustration, perhaps even grief and anguish.

Experience has shown that this simple exercise opens you up to deep optimism no matter how challenging your circumstances. In all cases, people come to acknowledge that they are free to choose their attitude and view their circumstance(s) from many different perspectives. And, no matter how desperate the situation or condition confronted, everyone ultimately acknowledges that something positive could result from it. Importantly, through this exercise, people learn an effective way to release themselves, at least partly, from their self-imposed thought prisons.

Remember, although we may not be totally free from the various conditions or situations that confront us — in our personal and work lives — the important thing is that we can choose how we respond, at the very least through our choice of attitude.

And even if you don’t see the cognitive or emotional benefits of maintaining a positive attitude toward a situation you are facing, please consider the physiological benefits. One of the real powers of positive thinking is that it is good for your health!

Now we’d like to know what you’ve experienced…and observed…in your personal life and/or work life that relates to this meaning-centered principle. Recall a situation in which you consciously exercised the freedom to choose your attitude about it. This could even be your current situation, or it could be one where you were confronted by a family member or friend, or a co-worker or difficult boss, or experienced an unexpected change in your personal life or work, in the past. What was your initial attitude toward the situation? How did it change over time? Did you actually “do” anything to change your attitude? If you have a difficult time focusing on yourself at first, think about your observations and inspirations of others that might help us all apply this principle in our own personal and work lives.

NOTE: More information about the “Ten Positive Things” Exercise, including illustrations of how it has been and can be used, as well as about the core principle upon which it is based, is available in our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts.
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Dr. Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon are co-authors of two international best-selling books on Meaning, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work and The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work, as well as are co-founders of the Global Meaning Institute and co-creators of MEANINGology, the study and practice of meaning in life, work, and society.