Archive for Acceptance

How to enjoy life’s hardships

We spend so much of our lives either in pain and hardship, or in fear of pain and hardship. We dread the first sign of illness, we lament our lack of time and money, we try hard not to think of that inevitable day when either we or our loved ones will die. It seems so easy to find something new to worry about or fear. It seems so hard to see life as perfect. What is the solution to all this? Can we transform our attitude towards life?

Although our lives are defined by the search for the “good” and the avoidance of the “bad”, there is really nothing in life that is inherently good or bad. Such notions are relative - the “good” cannot exist unless we can contrast it with the “bad”. It is easy to conceive of lives much easier than our own, just as it is easy to conceive of lives much harder. Thus, there is no way to say whether our lives are easy or hard. What is more important is how we relate to our so-called hardships.

When we go to the gym to lift weights, we likely experience a lot of pain. However, this pain does not bother us because we know that the harder we push ourselves, the stronger we become. We see the pain is a good thing, taking pleasure in our ability to push ourselves further and experience greater hardships. Similarly, if we were to climb a high mountain, we would enjoy the struggle involved - it would give us a feeling of accomplishment and pride. It becomes a challenge.

What is it that makes such striving a source of enjoyment and accomplishment? The key difference is that sense that we have taken it on voluntarily. If a student sets herself a goal, such as taking 10 courses in a semester, she enjoys the challenge and relishes the difficulties. On the other hand, if she were forced to take this many courses, she has a different attitude. She may complain and feel that she were being treated unfairly. To enjoy life’s hardships, we must stop resisting them and stop seeing them as unfair. We must embrace the situation, and take pleasure in the difficulties.

It is not enough to merely climb the hills - we must come to love the hills. When we take on challenges with this attitude, whatever the situation may be, the difficulties no longer bother us. It does not make the pain go away, and life does not become suddenly easy. However, by fostering that sense of challenge and adventure, we give up that limiting belief that life is supposed to be easy. Instead of pining for something easier, we learn to enjoy the parts that are hard.

Featured in The Seventeenth Edition of the Carnival of Improving Life.

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For what fraction of our lives are we enjoying ourselves? Is it 80%? 50%? 20%? Sadly, when we monitor our state of mind over the course of a day, we often find that the fraction is depressingly low. Even if we have very enviable lives, we may spend a rather small amount of time actually enjoying ourselves. In contrast, those with less fortunate lives may spend a high proportion of time enjoying themselves. What are the factors that stop us from enjoying ourselves, and how can we enjoy ourselves more?

There are two main factors that stop us from enjoying ourselves. The first is an active dislike of our current situation. This means that we find whatever we are doing to be distasteful, be it our regular day job, washing the dishes, or talking to an irritating colleague. If a high proportion of our days are spent doing activities that we actively dislike, then we have a problem. The solution may be to change jobs or trade responsibilities to make our days more enjoyable. In some cases, all that is needed is a simple change in attitude. For example, we may think that doing the dishes is a horrible task, but when we further reflect on it we realize that soaking our hands in warm water and gently scrubbing can actually be quite relaxing. Similarly, a boring job can be made more stimulating if we come up with creative challenges for ourselves to break the monotony.

The second factor that stops us from enjoying ourselves is when we pay very little attention to our current situation and instead become preoccupied in thought. For example, instead of enjoying a pleasant walk through the park on the way to work, we may be busy deciding what to cook for dinner, or how to spend the weekend, or whether to buy a new car. Instead of enjoying the present, we are plotting ways to enjoy the future. Clearly, this cycle is never-ending.

Hence, there are several things we can do to make our lives more enjoyable. First, we can stay with the present moment and thus enjoy that walk through the park, the coffee in the waiting room, or the gentle breeze on our face. Second, instead of actively disliking certain situations, we can learn to accept them and make the most of them. We can change our attitudes and realize that many inherently “bad” situations or tasks are actually quite relaxing. Third, we can look at our daily activities and discover what we do and don’t enjoy. Then, as much as possible, we can restructure and change our days to create a more satisfying life.

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