Three Ways to Live

There are three basic ways to deal with any situation:

  • Method 1: Complain about it and be unhappy.
  • Method 2: Accept it and be happy.
  • Method 3: Try to change it, and then apply Method 1 or 2 to the result.

Of course, there are lots of variations.

Method 1: Complain and be unhappy

This a bad choice: after all, who wants to be unhappy?

But it’s also a very popular choice, so it’s obviously not that simple.

Some people seem happiest when they’re complaining. The subject almost doesn’t matter: it’s just a shiny object to distract themselves from their otherwise boring lives. It’s a source of meaning for them. Complaints can also make them feel virtuous and important without requiring them to do anything but talk: “Look at me! I’m morally sensitive. I’m against all those bad things.”

So in a low-standards way, complaints and unhappiness are at least not an insane choice. If they motivate us to try one of the other methods, they become a more positive force.

Method 2: Accept and be happy

If we like a situation, then accepting it is easy. We’re happy with it.

But sometimes we accept things we don’t like, either because we can’t change them or because it’s not worth the effort. As long as we understand what we’re doing, it’s a reasonable choice.

And here’s a pro tip: Don’t second-guess yourself.

If you looked at all the relevant factors and made a reasonable decision, then it’s done. Move on. Unless you get new information that might have changed your decision, don’t keep re-visiting it and wondering if you did the right thing. You did.

During World War II, U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz had some good advice for junior officers: “When you’re in command, command.” Similarly, when you’ve decided to accept a situation, accept it.

Method 3: Try to change things

If we try to change a situation, then we need to know:

  • What, specifically, is wrong with the situation?
  • What, specifically, would improve it?
  • How, specifically, can we improve it?

If we don’t have clear answers to those questions, then we have no way of knowing what to do. We’d be acting blindly, more likely to do harm than good.

An excellent way to clarify our answers is to talk to someone who disagrees with us.  We often can’t see the flaws in our own ideas, so if the other person pokes holes in our arguments, challenges us to give evidence, or shows our ideas are too vague, it’s a big help.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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4 Responses to Three Ways to Live

  1. Pingback: Recommended reading | Down the Road

  2. J P says:

    It seems like the entire cable news industry is geared towards supporting method 1.

    It seems like the choice between methods 2 and 3 is whether there is any possibility that we can change the outcome. I used to tell my children that if you cannot do something about something, worry or complaint about it is a waste of time and effort and bad for your mental health.


  3. Pingback: Recommended reading : Down the Road

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