This blogpost is part two in a series of five exploring the stoic psychological tactics that can be used to rediscover joy in your life.
This blogpost borrows heavily from William B Irvine’s A guide to the good life. Although I don’t cite him literally the info in this blogpost can be found in the chapter of his book on the subject of the trichotomy of control. The split from dichotomy in trichotomy is Irvine’s idea. I merely wrote about it here because I found it so valuable that I had to share it. I hope both my readers and the publisher understand this and let this blogpost stay as it is. I say again, I borrowed this in from from Irvine’s book. If you like what you read here, please do read the book! it’s brilliant.
Today I would like to write about the dichotomy of control or rather as Epictetus puts it ” Some things are up to us and some are not up to us”. If we explore this further we come to the understanding that in life, we want things that are up to us, and things that are not up to us.
If we are constantly wanting things that are not up to us chances are that we won’t get them and we will feel miserable and perhaps upset about it. If we do however manage to get that what we want (which was not up to us) we will of course be happy with it. How long wil the happiness last, Hedonic adaptation remember? And how much anxiety will we feel before we get it. We buy a lottery ticket and get totally hyped about winning the jackpot. In our minds we’re already driving around in that Ferrari. When the winning numbers are announced we of course don’t win and are depressed about it.
Wanting things that are not up to you will disturb your sense of tranquility within yourself. Even if you do manage to achieve it you will have had the anxiety that came with the game of chance. Is your peace of mind worth that constant abuse?
Dichotomy or Trichotomy
There is a small problem with the Dichotomy however. If we look at Epictetus’ statement either something is completely under our control, or it’s not under our control at all. Now there are things we can influence and thus have some control over. In a dancing competition we don’t control who wins but we can train hard and do our best, that way we do have an influence.
There are three branches to this control phenomenon:
- Things over which we have complete control (The goals we set for ourselves)
- Things over which we have some but not complete control (That dancing competition)
- Things over which we ave no control at all (The yearly cycle of the seasons)
Everything in life will fall into one of these three branches.
How do we use this to our advantage
So now we have devided everything in life into these three branches, now what can we do with them. First off, does it make any sense at all to worry about things we have no control over whatsoever? Our worrying won’t do us any good at all, it will probably only cause distress. I know it’s hard, but try not to worry about those things anymore. Logically it would just be foolish to keep worrying about them wouldn’t you say. We should instead concern ourselves more with the things we do have (some) control over. Because we have total control over some things, these would need just a little energy to manifest. The things that we have partial influence over are the ones that should deserve most of our attention. It is here that we can make a difference.
What are the things we completely control
Our goals in life are just about the only things we truly control. If I decide to take a sip from the cup of tea that is standing on my desk right now I’m in control of that. (A very minor goal) I however am also the only one who has control over if I manage to complete the MSc. I’ve decided to get. Sure, there are those small things that might set you back a bit, but it’s all about me and if I decide to do all the homework and study no-one can influence me making my homework right? Your goals are under your control and you can easily mold them to fit the situation at hand so we have control.
Back to the dancing competition
So we train long and hard, but we don’t manage to win the contest, what a depressing thing that must be.
Let’s examine that a little closer. What was our goal here? To win the contest. Not something we have total control over and thus we might get disappointed. We didn’t win after all. But what if you internalize your goal. Internalizing your goal here would be to “dance the best you can”. You’ve now made it into something you can control. Whether or not you win doesn’t matter, you’ve accomplished your goal of doing your best and can be proud of your accomplishment. A huge difference compared to being disappointed over not winning.
This all look like a mind game right now, and perhaps it is. But our mind is very powerful tool. In the dance competition we will likely have a little fear of loosing. Not an all to comfortable feeling. (Although the adrenaline this feeling produces might help you get an edge.) By internalizing your goal you can’t loose, or the only one to blame is yourself.
By setting internal goals and worrying only about those things you have (some) control over you can spare yourself a considerable amount disappointment and frustration.
The posts in the Stoic psychological tactics series: