The Discipline of Happiness

Over the past few weeks, I have been in quite the slump, emotionally. My moods have been all over the place, and while there have been legitimate reasons for much of it, at the same time I was having difficulty getting back to how I usually feel and think.

It’s unusual for me in this sense because normally I am very focused and aware of my own state, but the spiral of misery hit me like a tonne of bricks. I was unable to muster the proper energy for most activities, and most things in my life were prone to my critical fury.

It was only when I referred back to some reading and mental exercises did I make explicit what was going on, and it was in that moment that I “snapped” out of it, so to speak. I recognized that I had forgotten to identify and appreciate what is good, and ask myself what needs doing.

Justice and Focusing

A virtue I uphold quite strongly in my life is the virtue of justice – the act of evaluating and judging the good and bad in the world. However, I had forgotten a crucial point over the past few weeks, which was that when one makes judgements, one should always judge and appreciate the good first.

This is important, because the good is what is worthy of one’s praise – that is how more good is created. The bad or “evil” of the world does not deserve such attention – recognize it, but don’t acknowledge its validity in reality. Condemn and move on. Evil does not have power independent of the good – it is precisely the good, which sustains life, that is required for evil – that which destroys – to function. Do not allow it that time or energy, only act when necessary. In other words, a parasite dies when the host cuts off its supply.

But I had forgotten this particular code, and I spiraled into a miserable state of unhappiness. I recognized all the grievances I had within my sphere of influence, but was blind to the greatness that needed appreciation. My focus was off, and thus I fell into a pit.

This is part of what makes happiness and the pursuit of it a discipline. One can have a “good” life, but is blind to it and only focuses on what is wrong. It’s very easy to fall into this trap, and some people fall into it easier than others. Likewise, there seem to exist many people who have a superhuman ability to never fall into such a state – something that I’ve been told I have from some friends.

However, to be human is to be fallible, but what separates people who never recover to people who prosper, is that recognizing such fallibility and understanding that they can learn and overcome those flaws is part of the pursuit to a greater self and ultimately, happiness.

What is Good and What Needs Doing

Barring the psychological trap that I had fallen into, something that I had completely forgotten to do as well is to ask myself the necessary questions that kept me from falling into the trap in the first place.

There are two questions I ask myself at the end of each day, whether it be explicitly saying it or simply introspecting. The questions are:

What is good in my life?

What needs to be done?

These two questions, which I give credit to the late Nathaniel Branden for, do two fundamental things: the first makes me focus on and think of what is good in my life and reminds me of those facts – whether it be small or great, I think back and recognize what is good.

The second reminds me what my goals are – what is it that I need to do to cultivate those good parts of my life, and what problems that are within my control do I need to work on.

The key point to take away there is problems within my control. It’s important that when dealing with problems, one has to recognize the things that can be changed should be changed, but things that are beyond one’s capacity are not things that one should focus so much on.

These things out of one’s control are metaphysically given facts of existence. The weather is the weather; it isn’t within one’s control to change its behavior – but it is within one’s control to adapt to it. Likewise a series of unfortunate events that one had no control over is not something that one should dwell on. It’s all too common to dwell on the event rather than dwell on what needs to be done to get past the event. There is a difference, and one’s focus should be on the latter – to move forward and not stagnate.

That’s what I had forgotten over the past few weeks in my state. A series of events that transpired had taken its toll on me, and instead of doing what I normally do, I focused on the events rather than what I needed to do. The moment I had recognized what I’d done, I was able to let go, and waves of relief had washed over me. I got back to focusing on what I have control over and what I need to do, rather than focusing on things that had happened or just are.

The point is, that it is easy to fall into a mindset where everything can be criticized and ripped apart when things aren’t going your way. Pressure and stressors can do a number on anyone’s willpower, but no matter how much pressure is put on you, you must separate the things out of your control and remind yourself:

What is good in my life, and what needs to be done to make it better?

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