Fewer people are “driven to drink” by tragedy than by the everyday stress of “keeping up.” It doesn’t matter whether your daily schedule revolves around entering data into a computer, taking care of children, or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity: just when you think you’ve got a time slot for everything and everything in its time slot, a new e-mail comes in, a broken traffic light adds ten minutes to your commute, or something reminds you of that hobby you’ve been neglecting and that exercise you haven’t been getting.
Every schedule and “want-to-do” list comes with temptations to guilt and anger: guilt over not being able to do everything life suggests, anger because life keeps suggesting things. And when you do make it to a downtime period, you have little energy left for anything besides sleeping or watching TV—or drowning your frustration in a mind-altering chemical.
The antidote is to stop chasing happiness with the idea of “if I just try harder I can get everything under control.” Here are seven better philosophies to live by—and to help you find joy in every current moment.
1. Your Challenges Will Always Exceed Your Limits
The universe is bigger than we are. The span of time is bigger than we are. Even city buses and office cubicles are bigger than we are.
So where do we get the idea that our own effort and planning will enable us to eventually get on top of everything that’s capable of touching our lives?
Counterintuitive as it seems, admitting our limited power is remarkably empowering. It frees us from feeling personally responsible for all the world’s needs. It gives us the courage to make time for our own needs. It allows us to clear space to just rest and think—strengthening ourselves to make better choices and carry them out effectively.
2. Limits Are a Blessing, Not a Curse
You may have heard the modern fable about a man who dies and goes to a place where his every whim is instantly granted. It’s only after he reaches the point of utter boredom that he realizes this—not fire and torture—is the true hell.
Spoiled-rotten people rarely find much to be happy about. Nothing is ever enough; every inconvenience is an insult; anything anyone else has is something they’ve been cheated of. They make themselves miserable because they feel entitled to happiness without effort. The truth is, effort itself is the source of happiness. If we were capable of controlling the world at will, we would never know the satisfaction of a hard-won goal, or the relationship rewards of helping and being helped.
3. You Know What’s Best for You
Not in the shallow sense of “I want what I want when I want it,” but in the sense of understanding at gut level what work you were made for and what activities give you genuine pleasure. Many people have been so brainwashed by what’s expected of them, or by what “everyone knows” is the sensible path, that they have buried their true selves in the name of practicality. The most miserably overwhelming life is the life you never really wanted.
4. The Thing You Can Best Control Is Yourself
That may seem a strange idea to anyone struggling with addiction since the famous 12 Steps open by emphasizing lack of personal control! But a careful look at the full sobriety process—from the initial decision to seek help, to the post-detox future of deciding daily not to return to the old crutch—shows there can be no real recovery without taking charge of one’s own decisions and attitudes.
Of course, controlling yourself isn’t necessarily easy—if you have a co-occurring mental disorder, it may even be impossible without some form of medication. But it’s easier than (and easier without being combined with) trying to control the stock market, the commuter traffic, and every decibel of background noise. Remember also, “controlling yourself” doesn’t just mean holding in your anger. It also means engaging your personal initiative to seek alternate solutions such as noise-canceling headphones or even a new job.
5. You Can’t Go It Alone
Everyone who’s ever been to a 12-Step meeting knows that recovery relies heavily on the support of a Higher Power and of human peers. Fewer people would wind up at Alcoholics Anonymous, to begin with if they had spent fewer years being too proud to accept regular support in day-to-day life.
6. It’s No Crime to Enjoy Yourself
Nothing that runs on energy, including human beings, can function long without recharging. Go ahead and take your family evenings at home, your camping trips and your spa days. Never mind what important things still need doing: they’ll wait until you’re rested and better able to continue them effectively.
7. There’s a Time to Be Still
Well-known names from Albert Einstein to J. K. Rowling had periods in their pre-fame lives when they weren’t expected to amount to much because their heads were constantly in the clouds. Sometimes the best ideas are conceived through daydreaming. Give yourself fifteen minutes or a few hours a day to just let your mind roam. Turn off your e-mail, turn off your phone, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.
Also, reserve daily time for more directed prayer or meditation. The bustling holiday season is also the Christian season of Advent, traditionally observed through daily quiet times. Speaking of religion, the famous Bible quote “Be still” is translated from a Hebrew word that means “relax and let go of everything.” That’s the spirit of effective daydreaming and meditation—keeping immediate worries out of the picture and giving deeper realities a chance to speak so you can hear.
Life has its limits. But when their true nature is understood, they become blessings to be embraced for health and happiness.
Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (especially the section on “Six Ways to Prevent Fatigue and Worry”).
Marc Chernoff, “16 Insanely Popular Ways to Waste a Beautiful Day.” (Believe it or not, none of them have anything to do with screen time!)