Life is tough for various reasons. But the biggest reason is its unpredictability.
Most of us hope that life will follow a linear path, but it always has other plans. It twists and turns, curves, and shatters in unexpected ways. And we helplessly oscillate between joy and suffering.
We all crave joy, which is nothing but peace in motion. When we’re peaceful, we’ll feel motion—our thoughts, actions, and experiences—make us feel joyous. And peace is simply the absence of suffering. So it only makes sense that a joyful life is one that has less suffering.
Suffering is our perception of pain. It’s that little “extra,” like butter on top of whipped cream. When it recedes, so does our emotional pain. As a result, our mind can respond to events better, as a painless body responds to physical demands. We improve our awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. We can pursue purposeful work and build resilience, both of which are essential elements for a meaningful life.
At a fundamental level, we understand this. Then why does life seem like a constant journey of suffering for many of us, with a few moments of happiness sprinkled in between, rather than the other way around? It’s because we often focus on the wrong things without knowing.
Here are three mistakes that aggravate suffering, and how you can avoid falling into such traps.
1. Fixating on Ourselves
The reason you’re suffering is you’re focused on yourself. — Tony Robbins
Self-care is a priority. Even airlines recommend wearing your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.
If we want to be useful to others, we must take action to maintain our physical, mental, and emotional health.
But many people often confuse this concept, assuming self-care is about what they get instead of what they do. And almost always, it spirals into suffering.
When people don’t get what they think they deserve, they make victims out of themselves and villains out of others. They assume others were luckier than them or snatched what’s rightfully theirs. Life becomes a smorgasbord of daily complaints.
But here’s a law of nature: you don’t get what you don’t deserve, even if you think you deserve it.
I could point all ten fingers at Lady Luck because other writers make more money than me. But when I shift the spotlight to them, I notice—and appreciate—their quality, consistency, and persistence. They weren’t any luckier than me. They were better prepared to make the most of luck when it came their way.
Now, I go from sulking over the unfairness of life to learning from other writers’ successes. What worked for them? How do they make readers fall in love with their work? What can I adopt? And I strive to make myself worthy of achieving my long-term goals.
Likewise, in relationships, when you focus on why your partner said or did something rather than on how shitty you felt, you realize that if you were in their shoes, you probably would’ve done the same thing.
Selfishness is fixating on what we should get. Selflessness is focusing on what we can give. Ironically, it’s the latter that pays off handsomely in the long run.
Give more. Ask for less. The more you give, the happier you feel. The less you complain, the more you can learn. It’s a win-win for the most important person: you.
2. Romanticizing Tragedy
Life is a series of obstacles to overcome. But sometimes, we take this philosophy to its extremes.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that if life doesn’t feel like an uphill battle—if our relationships, business, or work are running smoothly—we’re not earning what we get. So we create obstacles for ourselves.
We pick useless fights with our partners. We complicate simple business strategies that are paying off. We attend pointless meetings, answer futile emails, and manufacture work for ourselves after we’ve finished our tasks. We fall in love with the wrong people.
This is silly.
The downs will come whether you like it or not. Your relationship will turn rocky. Your business will run into troubled waters. You’ll have to work weekends to complete projects on tight deadlines.
And during such tough times, it’s the memories of the good moments that will keep you going. For that though, you’ll have to let yourself experience them without feeling guilty.
So relish the happy moments with your partner. Pat yourself on the back for your business success. Chill out during the downtime at work, or use it to learn new skills. Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate small wins and feel grateful for what you have.
Doing this will train your mind to appreciate small wins which, according to research, will set the wheels in motion for larger wins.
3. Living in The Past or Future
Life is nothing but a series of present moments. The past is a sum of all present moments that have gone by. The future is a collection of all present moments waiting to happen.
The present moment, in turn, is nothing but a series of our thoughts and actions. Thus, life is a series of our actions. If A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C. In an ambiguous world, this is an undeniable truth. Sadly, it’s also a commonly ignored one.
Most people know they should take action in the present moment. But action is tough since it puts us outside our comfort zone. And we value our comfort zone more than anything else, even money. Regret and worry keep us in our comfort zone. So we choose them instead.
We regret the meaningful things we did for our thankless ex. We worry about the impression we’ll create when we make the presentation to the company Vice President. We worry about missing the deadline to turn an important paper in and regret binging on Netflix when we should’ve been studying.
It’s better to surrender to the present moment instead of resisting it. Accept the circumstances. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself, “What should I do next?” Observe your thoughts without judgment. Identify the actions that will move you forward. Then take them.
You can make a list of why things ended with your ex, which will help you find the right person to love. You can add information the VP finds useful, and get feedback on your work from loving critics before making the presentation. To meet the deadline for the important paper, you can work out an outline and start writing.
When you keep adding meaning to your present moments, your life turns out better. And meaning comes from taking action that moves you forward.
The past is only useful if you learn from your failures and victories. The future’s only task is to let you know how the results of your actions turned out. The only moment that matters is the present. Make the most of it.
We’re often critical about the result and lenient towards our perception of pain when we should actually flip the equation. Because the presence of suffering reduces your threshold to withstand pain, while its absence increases it. This threshold dictates what you do and achieve.
To alleviate suffering are:
- Give more and complain less. You’ll learn to overcome expectations and to see the world for what it is rather than what you want it to be.
- Allow yourself to go along with the ride during good times rather than sabotaging your own happiness. These memories will keep you going when the going gets tough.
- Reflect on your success and failures from the past, apply those lessons in the present moment, and you’ll build a successful future.
When you’ll refuse to give suffering the importance it begs for, you’ll do amazing things. Even if the world doesn’t notice them, you’ll look back at your life when you’re 90 and nod in satisfaction.