Is This the Key to a Happier Life?

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. — Epictetus

What is the dichotomy of control?

At the core of Stoic philosophy there are many concepts that have immeasurable value. However, I believe the dichotomy of control to be the most important of them all. It is a simple framework that is effective in clearing the mind to focus your thoughts. The idea is to manage thinking patterns by gaining an understanding of the foundational concept of internal and external influences. The successful comprehension of the dichotomy of control provides you the opportunity transform your life.

The whole idea can be demonstrated with the original stoic philosopher. Zeno of Citium, a wealthy merchant trader in the third century BCE, lost almost all of his possessions following a series of misfortunate events. After being shipwrecked, Zeno had every excuse available to react emotionally, yet, he did not. Instead he found himself in a book shop where he picked up a book and decided to pursue a new path, which ultimately led to his forming of one of the most practical philosophies today.

Many people do not react with such composure following misfortune. So why did Zeno make a conscious decision not to behave in any erratic way? He realised that there was no sense in becoming more upset about that which is outside his sphere of control.

Now, I agree that initially this sounds absurd. How can one not be upset or angry with the results of hard times and situations? Are we to numb our emotions in order to survive such circumstances? Simply, no.

Stoicism isn’t about the extermination of emotions but rather their domestication. The dichotomy of control is the foundation of this process.

Below is an example of how it is used today in various organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Another example is from the Jewish Philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol who expressed the concept this way, “And they said: at the head of all understanding — is realising what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”

Even though the idea has traversed centuries and religions as a useful tool for better living, there are many who still view the idea as counter-productive. They confuse the use of reasoned choice and logic with being irresponsible, unattached and devoid of sentiment.

Given the confusion that can surround the stoic concept, it is prudent to break it down into clear and concise information. Let’s have a look and break it down.

What is inside my control?

It is easy to become mislead and believe we are in control of more than what we actually are. That which lies inside our control is:

  • our thoughts
  • our actions
  • our reactions
  • our choices

Are you surprised by what you see on this list? It seems quite short in comparison to what we believe we have power over. So, what isn’t in our control?

  • our health
  • our wealth
  • our reputation
  • outcome of events

Now, this may be confusing to the reader, however, let me explain. I once thought of this to be quite bizarre as I thought these were things we had control over. In this circumstance we must realise the difference between control and influence.

Control: To have power over


Influence: the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command

Control is more rigid and constraining where you can choose the outcome whereas influence is much more malleable and gentle. Influence does not have the same certainty as control and is a hopeful act.

Let’s take a look at our health for an example. Sure, we can exercise to maintain and advance our physical and mental well-being, yet this isn’t wholly preventative of terminal illness. Our wealth can be easily lost irregardless of the safeguards we have put in place to retain it.

On Anxiety and Stress

An understanding of the dichotomy of control is all well and good, but how can it be used to manage various aspects of your life? Well, in the case of anxiety, worry and stress, it is quite straightforward.

We suffer more often in imagination than in reality — Seneca

In any given situation where you fear future outcome, you are subjugating yourself to the grips of suffering and thus suffer twice over. Anxiety is the fear of that which has not yet happened or may never come to pass. So, irregardless of the outcome of any situation, why suffer more in your mind by looking too far ahead instead of being present and logical in your approach.

Typically, if it lies outside your sphere of control, there is nothing you can do about it, so why allow yourself to be bothered by such a thing? Instead, turn your focus inward and decide how you respond to outside events.

On Adversity

At some point or other in your life, you will suffer misfortune and face adversity. It’s the nature of our existence. Life is suffering and bizarrely enough, we are not educated on how to best approach and cope with it.

This is where we can use our knowledge of the Stoic dichotomy of control to persevere through adverse circumstances. Your ability to endure the hardship will inevitably lead to prosperity, but only if you manage it accordingly.

Whatever hardship has befallen you, there is nothing more you can do about it. What use is it to you to suffer more at the hand of that which is out of your control? It is senseless to devote your time to self-pity and unhappiness. Instead, ask yourself what it is you can do with the cards you have been dealt. You are in full control of your response to any given situation. Your reasoned choice is a superpower. (It would be in your best interest to remember this and perhaps use it as a daily mantra).

Let’s take an example of someone who has prospered from adversity.

Franklin Roosevelt was left paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio. This would be a massive blow to anyone, never mind a man expected to run a country. Instead of succumbing to his misfortune, he endured and fought to regain use of his legs. All whilst suffering through his personal battles, he ended up becoming one of the most respected Presidents in history.

This demonstrates how no matter your circumstances, your response to them is the most important aspect in thriving. We may not be able to control external events but our reactions to them are pivotal and also character defining in our lives.

Knowing is not enough we must do. Willing is not enough we must apply. — Bruce Lee

Final Thoughts

At the beginning of this article I explained the simple concept of the dichotomy of control and how simplistic it is in theory. However, this does not mean that it is an easy practice. If you want to improve your life you will need to be proactive in your approach. You must do, not simply just read a bunch of text and expect results.

Spend time reflecting and thinking, but spend even more time doing. You will always be a constant work in progress, but now you have a solid framework for managing your thoughts.

Happiness is much easier achieved when you have a clear path to its source. When you are able to be grateful for what is and not yearn too dearly for what is not. To learn to appreciate and acknowledge the power which you do possess, and how you can live better regardless of the circumstances with which you find yourself faced. Turn your gaze inwards and use logic and your reasoned choice to pursue the path to happiness.

Mark Little


This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.


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The post Is This the Key to a Happier Life? appeared first on The Good Men Project.