Imagine this: in the early 1860s, a young man returns home. He is in his late 20s and he’s just returned from an anthropological expedition to the Amazon, where he failed to actually continue with the expedition into the jungle.
Instead, he contracted smallpox as soon as he got off the ship and was stranded on a strange continent without any clear way of getting home (as the expedition went on without him).
His life so far has been one failure after another and he has constantly been surpassed by his brother, who went on to become a world-renowned novelist. His father is disappointed. The young man is still unemployed, uneducated (despite considerable effort on his father’s part) and his health, which has been poor all his life, has become debilitating.
The only constants in his life seem to be suffering and disappointment.
He falls into a deep depression and plans to take his own life. In his diary, he writes that he will try one more thing, an experiment.
He makes an agreement with himself that for one whole year he will live his life believing that he is 100% responsible for everything that happens to him, no matter what.
During this year, he decides that he will do everything in his power to change his circumstances, no matter the outcome. He writes that if at the end of this year of taking full responsibility for everything in his life and working to better it he has achieved no improvements, he will truly be powerless to alter his circumstances.
Failure to improve will result in the young man taking his own life.
This is the story of William James, who went on to become one of the leading thinkers of the nineteenth-century, father of American psychology and one of the most influential philosophers in America.
James later referred to his one-year experiment as his rebirth and said that it was because of it that he accomplished everything he did later in life.
Everybody wants to make people happier
You don’t just wake up one day and say “I’m now a happy person” if you actually feel like your life is being devoured by hopelessness.
Seeing bad situations in a positive light and looking for the good is a sensible thing to do to keep your spirits up when life gets tough. Such as, losing your job but deciding to be grateful for having a family that loves you and will support you through hard times.
Feeling better and becoming successful is something that takes a lot of work and copious amounts of brutally honest introspection. It doesn’t happen simply because you believe in yourself.
It’s the self-help fallacy of “you can do anything so long as you believe in yourself” that leads you down a path where positivity will ruin your life.
The mantra to believe in yourself is designed to set you up for failure because that blanket positivity – that is so omnipresent in self-help – will tell you that you’ve failed because you didn’t’ believe in yourself enough.
It tells you that you should blame yourself because there is nowhere else to place the blame – and this is where it’s fundamentally wrong.
What you need is a system that works for you when things aren’t going well because that’s the real test of whether something holds up or not.
The experiencing self and the remembering self
Daniel Kahneman has distinguished between the experiencing self and the remembering self in his research into happiness and well-being. These two selves have a very different view of what makes you happy and, as a result, what values you cultivate in your life and what choices you make going forward.
The experiencing self exists only in the present moment; here now and evaporated the next. It experiences things as they happen; “this food tastes delicious in my mouth right now”.
The remembering self is a storyteller (“that restaurant had a really good lunch”) that can dictate our actions when we think of the future as an anticipated memory (“I should go there for lunch again”).
The movie Inside Out demonstrates very well how emotion can colour and warp our memories. The character Sadness can turn a memory blue (sad) simply by touching it and thus giving those memories an unhappy cadence.
Sadness doesn’t change the memory itself, only how the remembering self tells the story of it.
Endings define how we feel about things afterwards
As Kahneman notes, for the remembering self it’s the ending of our stories that work as anchors based on which we remember the rest of the experience.
For example (contd. from above), you’re sitting by the window in a restaurant having your great lunch. The atmosphere is great, the food is delicious and you’re thoroughly enjoying yourself at this moment.
So far, the story you’ll be telling others about your lunch is a happy, nice one and you’ll probably recommend the place to coworkers once you get back.
As you look out the window you see a cat crossing the street. Next thing you know, a truck speeds by crashing into the cat. Hitting the cat doesn’t even slow the big truck down. Instant roadkill.
The story that you’re now going to tell of your lunch has drastically changed because it will be defined in your memory by its ending. All the pleasure and joy you experienced prior to the ending pales in comparison.
Your memory of this tragic event, that really had nothing to do with the restaurant (other customers and staff are as upset as you about the cat), might very well mean that you never eat there again because it is now a tremendously sad story that is repeated by your remembering self.
We can’t control what happens to us, but…
We always have control over how we respond to whatever happens to us and how we interpret it. In the end, we are the only ones who can attribute meaning to anything that happens to us – choose what it means to us (if anything) and how we’re going to embrace that going forward.
Yes, these experiences still hurt like a motherfucker. But negative experiences are part of life. The question is not whether or not we have them but what we do with them.– Mark Manson, The Sublte Art of Not Giving a F*ck
Choosing to not interpret events in our life or not assigning meaning to them, is still a choice that we make. Choosing to not respond to events, is still a response.
Not choosing is still a choice
We are always shaping our lives by interpreting the meaning of moments and events. We create values for ourselves based on our interpretation of events and are constantly choosing our actions based on those values.
Whether we like it or not, we are responsible for both our positive and negative experiences. Whether we make the choices in life consciously or unconsciously, is the real question.
William James came to understand that values require more than simply choosing to believe in them. Values are consciously cultivated, deliberately tested and reinforced by experience. You must choose to live by your values every day, again and again before you will see their manifestation in your life.
Actively taking responsibility for your own life, your own experience, will allow you to turn pain into empowerment, suffering into strength, loss into opportunity and your vulnerability into your superpower.
Wield your power wisely
The more you choose to take responsibility for your life and your experience of it, the more power you will have over it.
Accepting responsibility for your problems is the first step in solving them.
Responsibility and fault are not synonymous
You might be hesitating to take responsibility for your problems because you feel like if you are responsible for them you’re also at fault for having them.
Responsibility and fault often appear together, but they are not one and the same.
Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. Fault results from choices that have already been made. Responsibility results from the choices you’re currently making every second of every day.– Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
You choose what you do, how you do it and what you think about it.
There is a distinct difference between you blaming someone else for your situation and them actually being responsible for your situation. If I accidentally hit your car with my car, then I’m responsible and liable to compensate you for it.
But I can never be responsible for how you react to me getting into an accident with you: whether you take it badly (yell and scream) or take it calmly (stay calm and talk) is up to you.
There may be many people and many things that can be blamed for your unhappiness, such as a fender-bender on the way to work or a cat getting hit by a truck at lunch, but you are the only person responsible for your own unhappiness because you always get to choose how you see things and how you interpret them.
And you always have the power to choose differently.
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