“Freedom is the open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity.”
Former US President Herbert Hoover’s words ring as true today as they did when they were uttered during The Great Depression almost one hundred years ago. Freedom is one of the highest human values, and one that has shaped humanity’s endeavors from time immemorial.
Oftentimes though, when we talk about freedom, we refer to freedom from things — bosses we don’t like, work we don’t want to do, and places we don’t want to be. We also refer to the freedom to do things — speak our minds, make mistakes, go surfing, build a company, travel where we want to, and select our romantic partners. Let’s call these freedoms from things and to do things physical freedoms.
While the achievement of such freedoms can significantly improve our subjective well-being, it doesn’t guarantee lasting happiness, or at the very least, contentment.
This is because there is a third type of freedom that we tend to overlook in our pursuit of physical freedoms. Paradoxically, it’s a freedom that doesn’t require large sums of wealth or years climbing the corporate ladder to attain, is available to all of us, and can deliver more contentment and peace than untold amounts of money ever could.
I am talking about freedom from the mind.
Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from stress. Freedom from depression. Freedom from constant internal chatter. Freedom from self-criticality. Freedom from a sense that, no matter what we do, we aren’t good enough and we need to do more, earn more, and be more, to be happy.
But as Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger put it, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor”.
If happiness was all about earning our way to physical freedoms, then the likes of Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Chris Cornell, and Avicii would have had no reason to end their lives prematurely. In the latter’s case, the Swedish DJ took his life at the tender age of 28 because he “could not find peace”.
Granted, biological predispositions might leave us susceptible to mental health issues and these chemical imbalances in the brain can drive us to hopeless despair. And people should seek out medical attention where this is the case.
However, in many cases it is our own judgments of the world around us, and how we choose to interpret and respond to these judgments, that can drive us to our own dark fates — the focus of this article.
As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl taught us in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, we always retain the ability to choose our attitude.
As the late Indian author and teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti put it, we are conditioned by the climate we live in, the food we eat, the culture in which we live, our social, religious, and economic environment, by education, and by family pressures and influences. This all contributes to our sense of self, identity, and our ‘I’.
And this conditioning leaves us with grandiose ideas of what we should be — who we should be with, how successful we should be, where we should live, and so on — that ultimately lay the foundations for our lifelong inner conflicts, and much of the tension and psychological despair we endure.
While it is easier said than done, and human beings are liable to default back to our baseline conditioning and fall victim to a ‘last in, first out’ phenomena, we can change the way we interpret and respond to the world around us, and with it, quiet the mind and find peace.
Krishnamurti essentially echoed the Buddha who taught that attachment to desire (or to what ‘should be’) is the root of suffering. When we trúly accept our circumstances and who we are, much of our internal tension is stripped away.
A simple example of this is being cut off by a fellow motorist on the freeway during peak hour traffic. An involuntary response might be to get angry at the apparent disconnect from what just happened to our idea of what should’ve happened, and work ourselves into a fit of rage, throwing the bird and yelling profanities. But if we simply accept the fact that this happened for myriad possible reasons, and let it go — perhaps the driver of the vehicle was late to something important, perhaps they made a mistake, perhaps they are going through some sh*t, or perhaps people cutting people off in traffic is just a way of life and the human condition, the desire to respond in kind fades away.
This is not to say that we don’t try to improve ourselves or our lot in life, but rather than identify too closely with that desire for a ‘better life’, we free ourselves up to focus and invest ourselves fully in the process.
By accepting where we are and who we are at any given point in time on that journey, we can bring our best selves to the party, rather than one that is constantly fighting internal demons and prematurely draining ourselves of energy.
Australian palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware wrote a book called The Five Regrets of the Dying in which she chronicled what she most heard from people that she ushered into the afterlife.
One of the most common utterances heard by people on their deathbed?
“I wish I lived a life true to myself.”
This builds upon the idea that the pursuit of what ‘should be’ is what leaves us with inner conflict, because oftentimes those ‘should bes’ are put there by society, by our peers, or our parents (who themselves have been conditioning to think a certain way). Often, we pursue ‘should bes’ without any introspection ’ around whether these are things that we, deep down, truly want.
Pursuing a law degree might make your parents happy, but is a lifetime of gathering evidence and preparing legal documents going to make you happy?
Getting married to someone because your parents think they are just right for you, even though you feel nothing for them, might make your parents happy, but will it make you happy? The list goes on…
Reflect on what lights you up like a Christmas tree, and cultivate more of that in your life.
In the age of social media, it has never been easier to compare ourselves ad infinitum to other people, and again, come to the conclusion that our lives, or our ‘what is’, is just not good enough.
If only I could get a girl like that, then I’ll be happy, we tell ourselves.
If only I could get abs like those, then I’ll be happy.
If only I could earn enough money to sail around the Mediterranean on a yacht like this guy, then I’ll be happy.
But such happiness is fleeting.
Hedonic adaptation ensures that despite whatever major life changes we go through, we quickly return to a baseline level of happiness after the attainment of said life circumstances. Harvard psychologist, Tal Ben-Shahar, calls this the arrival fallacy; “the illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness”.
Instead of forever comparing yourself to others — a futile endeavor, disassociate from results and focus on the process of simply being a little better than you were yesterday. As James Clear puts it in Atomic Habits, a 1% improvement will mathematically leave you 37-times better off by the end of the year. Detach from desire, accept who you are every day, and focus on the process.
As Naval Ravikant puts it, tension is who you think you should be, relaxation is who you are.
Accept who you are, and relax.