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Are You Choosing to be Right or Happy?
Others are not responsible for the choices you make.
In his classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen R. Covey urged us to “begin with the end in mind.” Covey explains:
Each part of your life— today’s behavior, tomorrow’s behavior, next week’s behavior, next month’s behavior— can be examined in the context of the whole, of what really matters most to you. By keeping that end clearly in mind, you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.
If we “begin with the end in mind,” if we consider our purpose, will that not direct our efforts automatically?
In his Audible program Constructive Living, psychologist Dr. David K. Reynolds encouraged us to reflect on the means we use to fulfill our purpose. He offered this teaching story:
If you get on a train in Denver and you want to go to San Francisco, but the train is headed for Chicago, no matter how long you ride that train, you will never arrive in San Francisco. No matter whether the train is the most popular train and is a fast, sleek modern train, if it's headed for Chicago, you won't arrive in San Francisco. Even if all your friends are riding that train and all the people that you respect and admire are on that train if it's headed for Chicago, it will never reach San Francisco. So you want to keep in mind your destination when you get on a train. You want to keep in mind where you want to go. Think about that very carefully.
Reynolds is helping us see that we can never reach our ends if we don’t know the correct means. No matter how many people agree with you, if the means you use are existentially invalid, that is, they are at odds with Reality, you will be headed to the wrong “destination.”
Have you ever argued about how to load a dishwasher? I started sharing a loading-the-dishwasher example when dishwasher arguments were mentioned by participants in my workshops.
I pointed out that the hidden purpose of a dishwasher argument may be to feel like a victim of an uncaring partner, some laughed; others were initially incredulous. The skeptic would say, “Why would I start a fight on purpose? It is just that loading the dishwasher correctly is important to me.”
Before saying a word about the “correct” way, I'd ask if part of their mind knew that friction would result from their words? Sheepishly, they’d answer “yes.” They’d come to see that, when they declared their dishwasher rules, being right was more important than a happy, harmonious relationship.
We often face crossroads: we choose between being right or being happy. There is a place in us where our happiness does not depend on controlling others.
Aristotle believed the purpose, what he called telos, of a human being was to become happy. For many, happiness seems elusive. Aristotle advised that living a virtuous life is the pathway to realizing our purpose of becoming happy.
By reflecting on our purpose, we can live more virtuously.
After delivering a day-long workshop on happiness, I found a long queue of cars waiting to exit the self-service parking garage. At the head of each exit lane was a participant from the workshop. The machine was not recognizing their parking vouchers; they were trying to receive help, without success, from a remote attendant.
As I got closer, another participant further down in the queue, rolled down her car window. She smiled and good-naturedly said, “You set this up as a final exam, didn’t you, Dr. B?”
I had not set up a “final exam;” life serves them daily.
During those daily exams, we can focus solely on our secondary purposes, current tasks, and felt needs or remember our primary purpose of living from our highest values.
When I feel anything other than peace, I say “What’s going on?” “What am I feeling?” “What is the dialogue inside my head?” “What’s another way to see this situation?” “What can I do to respond better?”
Asking, “Why is my partner loading dishes incorrectly?” is the beginning of trouble. Instead, ask, “What is the source of my inner experience in this moment?” If you think it is someone else or external circumstances, pause and ask yourself more “what” questions.
We are not responsible for the behavior of others, but we are responsible for our interpretation of our experience.
Things will probably not go exactly right for any of us today. The incessant ego narrator in our head will want to categorize every event and person as “for us” or “against us.” Our ego will likely not get everything it wants. And if our primary purpose is to get what we want, misery awaits.
Take a moment and consider a relationship at work or home in which a shift in your purpose might be in order. Nothing external needs to change for you to choose the virtuous path to happiness.
An earlier version of this essay was originally published at Intellectual Takeout.
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