The last thing unhappy people want to hear is that they are responsible for their happiness. This is, in large part, why they are unhappy. When we are unhappy, it is often because we imagine ourselves powerless. Things aren’t right and we think we can’t fix them. We focus on what we don’t have. We nurse every petty grievance. We don’t challenge ourselves and instead fall back into a routine of angry labor, destructive habits and self-pity.
None of that changes until we take responsibility for every aspect of our lives. When we do accept that the results we have gotten are primarily produced by the choices we’ve made, we have the chance of improving both our outward circumstance and our inner attitudes. This is because accepting responsibility for ourselves is the beginning of character, and character is the capacity for happiness.
Let’s start at the beginning. With Adam and Eve. For the purposes of this example, it doesn’t matter if Adam and Eve were real. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God. All that matters is that the story has something important to teach you.
When God comes to the garden to confront Adam about eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam tells him it was the woman’s fault. The woman blames the snake. Neither owns up to their part in their disobedience. The point is that shifting blame, refusing responsibility for our actions, is a foundational part of human nature. It’s been our way since the beginning.
Because avoiding responsibility is natural to us, character is not. Because the kind of character that leads to happiness is foreign to us, so is happiness. Happiness is not our natural state. We have to work to achieve it. The work we must do is the building of our character.
Think for a minute about what happiness really means: stability and inner contentment. When we are in a stable situation, when we have sufficient material goods to meet our needs, when we are free from political unrest and danger, we have a better chance at being happy. However, stability is not enough. Lots of people are in stable situations and miserable.
They’re miserable because they lack the ability to arrive at inward peace. They lack character.
Character is the habit of choosing the most positive and productive responses to life’s ups and downs. From what I have said so far, you might be tempted to think that achieving a stable situation must come before we seek to build our character. That isn’t true. Character comes first. In fact, personal stability, even political stability, is the result of putting character first.
Having strong character means consistently approaching life from a position of confidence and gratitude. People with strong character can accept even life’s difficult situations with gratitude for the opportunity to increase their resilience. People with strong character don’t deny responsibility for the choices and actions. Instead, they instinctively ask, “What can I do to make this better?”
As a result, their sense of their ability to meet the challenges of life grows. Their gratitude for small blessings increases. They become more trustworthy. Their vision of life and values grows clear. They improve what they can and accept with magnanimity what they cannot. In short, they become happier.
They become happier because they have become more capable of happiness. They have a greater capacity for it. Happiness is a by-product. We can’t find it by pursuing it directly. We can only find it by increasing our character, our capacity to be happy. When the capacity is there, it will be met with the substance. When your heart is capable of peace, happiness can rush in to ill it.
If you are unhappy, your best strategy is to begin improving your character. You can do this by telling yourself that the condition and quality of your circumstances is primarily a product of your choices. Then, make different choices.
You are probably aware of that little voice inside you that reminds you when you are getting off course. You know, that little voice that says, “You probably shouldn’t do that” when you are reaching for your third doughnut? Choose to listen to that voice. Learn to live consistently with what you say you value, even when it’s difficult. If you need help, I recommend this book.
If you are unhappy, it’s important to know you’d don’t have to be forever. There’s hope. That’s the good news. Your future happiness depends on you. That’s the good news too. Knowing your happiness is not a result of random happenstance or of other people’s will frees you from despair. By taking charge of your happiness, you take the first step to increasing it. But, first you have to be ready. The only way to get ready is to increase, not your pleasures, but your character which makes your happiness possible.
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