Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.


There’s a discord running through all our lives… a gap, or maybe a gulf, between what we have and what we want.

Do you know what? The disparity between the two is – according to Eastern philosophy at least – pretty much responsible for all human suffering.

The theory goes that not having what we want (or what we think we need) produces a perpetual, all-pervading undercurrent of dissatisfaction… a dissatisfaction that sullies every moment of every day.

It’s like a hangover that ruins an otherwise perfect summer bank holiday… But this hangover lasts a lifetime; day-in, day-out, every second of existence.

It’s not just about material possessions – wanting a bigger house in a better part of town, more wealth, a banana coloured Lamborghini or the latest in a infinity of generations of iPhones.

Even the dissatisfaction arising from more abstract aspirations such as more power, a better career, more respectful kids or happier relationships doesn’t fully encompass this suffering.

No. The root of the problem runs far deeper. It encompasses every dissatisfaction:

Whenever we want anything to be different from the way we find it, we’re setting ourselves up for this all consuming human suffering.

Is your teenage kid playing music in their bedroom too loud? Is that fly buzzing repeatedly against the window slowly winding you up? Do you have an unscratchable itch on the sole of your foot? Searing sciatica running down your legs? Do you find yourself dwelling on getting old, or not being as attractive as you once were? Or maybe you’re devestated because you’ve just found out that you’ve only got a couple of months to live?

From the slightest irritation to the starkest reality of life, it’s the simple mental habit of comparing reality against a desired alternative reality, that causes all your despair.

Thinking Makes It So…

In other words, it’s not reality that’s the problem… it’s that reality isn’t in line with your expectations. Just as Will Shakespeare observed:-

For there is nothing either good or bad; but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Whenever you ever find yourself thinking, ‘It shouldn’t be like this’, or ‘I wish things were different’, or ‘I need things to be a particular way to be happy’, you’re falling into the reality vs expectation trap.

And whenever you’re snared there, you can guarantee one thing… you’ll suffer. You’ll feel at least a degree of frustration, anger, resentment, anxiety or stress.

Just some of the things that have gone through my head today:

  • ‘People should be nicer’
  • ‘My Internet connection should be reliable’
  • ‘I shouldn’t be suffering this discomfort’
  • ‘I need some peace and quiet to work’
  • ‘Why the hell is the bloke across the cafe staring at me… has he never seen someone typing on an iPad?’
  • ‘Why did I forget to charge my iPad before I came out?’
  • ‘I wish I was better at (insert one of an almost endless list of variables)’
  • ‘I should have got more done last month… last week… yesterday… today’
  • ‘I wish I hadn’t injured my knee yesterday…I really wanted to go for a run this morning’
  • ‘Why am I always so disorganised?!’

The list is almost endless…

And without an effective mental strategy to deal with all those constant nagging frustrations – most of which gatecrash into my consciousness without invite – my life would grind to a halt.

I’d feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of ‘everything’s’ that can seem wrong with life.

You’re Never Satisfied

Now, that dissatisfaction might be worth the trade-off in emotional well-being if it were not for one inconvenient truth:- the goal posts surrounding our desires are constantly shifting.

Psychologist Peter Drucker puts it this way:-

Thanks to our capacity to adapt to ever greater fame and fortune, yesterday’s luxuries can soon become today’s necessities and tomorrows relics.

Drucker was talking about material aspirations of course, but the principle applies equally in all aspects of life.

Whatever we think we need to make us happy, it’ll never be enough.

Once we reach one pot of gold, we simply crave another. My mum used to tell me that I was never satisfied; that I always wanted something bigger, better… as if it were a sin.

But no, it’s not a sin, it’s just human nature.

Human nature or not though, left unchecked this constant desire for things to be different, leaves us with a gnawing sense of frustration with our lives; a sense of resentment towards those who’ve achieved more; and an all-consuming bitterness about the ‘unfairness’ of life.

It can lead to a constant pressure to achieve goals, and it can provoke anxieties about what will happen if you fail to achieve.

In other words, it’s a one way ticket to an extremely unhappy existence.

It’s OK

I have one simple strategy for defusing all that desire fuelled anxiety, pressure and stress. Whenever I catch myself wanting things to be different from how they are, I remind myself:-

‘This is the way things are… right now… and that’s OK.’

Here’s a good, trivial example to illustrate the point.

I’m sitting in a cafe writing this, trying… hoping… praying… that at some point before the next ice age I’ll be able to get an Internet connection.

Now despite my inclination to get irrationally agitated about my disconnection from the mainframe of the world – and to threaten to execute a member of staff with a butter knife every five minutes until connectivity is restored – the stark reality is that there’s not a thing I can do about it.

It’s now I have to say to myself…

‘No, I don’t want to be deprived of my inalienable right to a reliable Internet connection. But although I’ve been unfairly stripped of that right like a CIA whistle-blower stripped of his nationality, there’s nothing I can do about it… literally.’

‘Getting stressed or frustrated wont help. The defiant cafe router doesn’t care… nor do the staff, who really don’t even seem bothered about serving burnt food. So it’s OK… that’s just the way it is at the moment.’

‘Instead of getting stressed and frustrated about something over which I have about the same level of control as global warming, the only sensible thing do is accept reality and divert my attention and efforts towards something proactive… writing this paragraph.’

Letting Go of ‘Things Should Be Different’

What you realise when you let go of the belief that reality ‘should’ be any other way than how it is, and instead simply accept that this is the way things are right now, is that much of the irritation, anger, frustration and resentment you’re feeling just evaporates into thin air.

But whilst letting go of negative emotion is extraordinarily liberating in itself, the benefits of doing so are even greater.

That’s because when you then take charge of circumstance and divert your focus away from what you can’t do, and instead concentrate on what you can do, you feel empowered… you regain a sense of control.

And when you feel empowered and in control what happens?

You’re engulfed with positive emotion… you approach life with renewed determination and motivation.

To that end, there’s a simple rule of life I always try to adhere to:

Part One: Focus on what you can’t change and feel miserable, desperate and demotivated. NEVER do this.

Part Two: Focus your efforts on what you can change – what you can proactively do right now – and feel empowered and energised. ALWAYS do this.

Proactivity, Not Apathy

None of the above is a philosophical excuse to give up on life.

It’s not an excuse to stop trying to remedy your problems, or to stop striving for yours dreams.

It’s not an excuse to say, ‘This relationship is broken. That’s just the way it is… no point trying to fix it or to find a way to heal the hurt’. 

Or, ‘Oh well, I’ve lost my job. Sorry kids, I can’t pay the mortgage now so we’re going to live next to the water tank in the next door neighbour’s attic. Don’t be frustrated or upset about i though. That’s just the way it is… and that’s OK.’

That would be a gross distortion.

Instead, it’s just the acknowledgement that stressing about something that you can’t control – that more importantly, is causing you emotional harm because you feel impotent to act – is just fundamentally stupid.

Awareness of the Problem is the Key

If knowledge is power, I don’t know of a more power-bestowing nugget of self-realisation than to appreciate the self-destructive nature of desire and craving; of the risk of succumbing to misery simply because reality doesn’t fit in with your ideal of how things should be.

With that awareness you can literally say to yourself:

‘I am not going to dwell on things, wishing they were different. Doing so will just make me angry, frustrated, resentful, anxious and stressed… it will cause me pain.

‘This is how things are right now… and that’s OK. I can work to proactively improve reality, but emotionally railing against reality is futile and self-destructive.’

Like the words of the Serenity prayer, that awareness enables you to think with a clear, logical head:-

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It liberates you from confines of your frustrations. It teaches you to be proactive where you can, accepting of reality where you can’t, and rational enough to appreciate that you only hurt yourself when you get the two confused.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth