Effortlessly processing occurrences without losing internal calmness is a great gift to give yourself. Recently I’ve noticed I’m doing a better job staying centered when things go south.
This feels suspiciously like happiness, and I’m here for it. This skill breaks the linkage between internal state and external stressors, leading to a calmer life.
I’m still of course on this journey, but here are a few strategies that seem to have worked for me so far.
1. Know when to take a loss
“Starting with things of little value — a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine — repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’”— Epictetus
The other day I stopped into a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee.
It was taking a while to brew. After eight prolonged minutes the employee finally informed me they actually had no coffee filters, and that if I got back in line I could get a refund.
The line was very long, and moving slowly.
So I just left. I’d rather lose that $2.50 than eight more minutes.
Not every inconvenience is an injustice you must right with brute force. Sure, occasionally you may need to take a stand to right some wrong. But most of the time, you can just let it go without consequence.
The first tranquility tip is knowing when to take a loss. This tip is from the world of day trading. Profitable day traders know that stop losses, hard-coded ‘sell’ orders designed to force them out of trades that start losing, are keys to avoiding ruin.
2. Find the float in the boolean
In computer science, variables can store different types of data depending on how those variables are defined. Booleans can only store a 1 or a 0. Booleans are great for code that needs an on/off function.
While some things in life are boolean (the synapse either fires or it doesn’t) many more things are a matter of degrees. That is the type of data stored as a float.
Treating all things as existing on a broad spectrum rather than merely ‘great’ or ‘terrible’ will lead to more tranquility.
Find the float in seemingly binary things.
3. Manage your baseline
Many biological systems have homeostatic set points. Set points for characteristics like weight tend to be gene-driven, and therefore fairly consistent over time. There is evidence that happiness is about 40% gene-driven, leaving a hearty 60% that we can influence.
Hedonic adaption is a regression to the mean phenomenon that resets human happiness to a homeostatic baseline after changes in external state. Hedonic adaption can be useful in survival situations, but can lead to lifestyle creep and discontentedness when things are good.
There are two ways I’ve found to combat this endless tug.
1. Negative Visualization
This is one of the many great ideas from Stoic philosophy. You can read much more about it here, but in short it’s a mental exercise wherein you imagine the worst possible things happening.
By contrasting potential outcomes with real outcomes, your baseline will average out to a lower set point.
2. Periodic Forced Asceticism
Once in a while, do the crappiest version of the thing you are doing. Take cold showers. Sleep on the floor. Drink Bud Light.
Take active steps to force contrast. This limits natural hedonic inflation.
4. Situational Control Categorization
When problems arrive on your doorstep, categorize them into one of three types.
- Things I directly control
- The uncontrollable
- Things I could indirectly influence
Once you’ve categorized the issue, you can take action accordingly.
For the things you can directly control, take ownership and fix the issue. Don’t complain or deflect, just do.
You can’t control most things in this world or even impact them. Griping about uncontrollable things will lead to unhappiness. Trying to change the world in order to fit within it is in fact madness. That’s why it is so impressive when someone pulls it off.
The strategy for all things uncontrollable is radical acceptance. Accept things the way they are, as ugly or as twisted as they may be.
Take a moment to further break down the issue into smaller components. Sort these sub-issues into things you can directly control and things you can’t.
Take ownership of the portions you can control, and accept what you can’t. Perfect the actions in your control. If you are confident that you have done those things well, do not admonish yourself if you lose. You never run out of chances.
5. F*ckd by Randomness
The easiest way to break the will of a militant vegan is to slip a little chicken into their salad.
I’m no vegan, but ran into a similar issue when I was gifted a coffee from McDonald’s on Thanksgiving. I gave up McDonald’s in 2012. Halfway through drinking it I realized it hailed from the golden arches of hell itself. I could have taken ownership of my lack of detail orientedness, having broken a seven year discipline streak, but I didn’t. I chalked it up to randomness and accepted the blemish on my record.
Randomness is the achilles heel of aesthetics. This is why monks and nuns alike isolate themselves from society. Aestheticism only works when all environmental randomness is sanitized.
So in this way the monk is equally as controlled by their object of avoidance as a hedonist who is addicted to that same object is.
True sovereignty emerges when you can stand in the midst of your vices and remain on the path even if one spills on you. While the hedonist gives in and the aesthetic flagellates, you simply wipe it off and move on with your day.
Tranquility unlocks more levels to life
The calmer you are, the more you can take on. If you find yourself consistently frizzling out while aiming towards your ambitions, you’re hitting a tranquility ceiling.
Tranquility is not just about contentedness with any life circumstances, though it can be that. It’s a subtle upward draft that opens up new levels to the game of life. Judgement, creativity & focus are the most coveted skills in this high leverage world. They are all muddied by anger.
The harder it is to disturb your inner peace, the larger the games you can play. If a mere long line at the DMV breaks your emotional reserve, how reasonable is it to expect yourself to be able to launch a mission to the moon?