Our health, happiness, and performance depend to some degree on our genetics and our environment. In other words, some things such as the weather, the markets, other people’s behavior, and even the feelings and thoughts that show up inside us affect our wellbeing. These things are also largely outside our control.
We don’t have much choice about what shows up at any given moment. Despite this fact, we expend a lot of time and energy trying to get conditions to be the way we want them. We can also attach a lot of our personal value to the conditions around us. Do people like me? How much money do I make? Do I have the right things? How many Instagram followers do I have? Did my YouTube video go viral?
Our wellbeing also depends on how we respond to what is happening and on which internal resources we cultivate. These are aspects of wellbeing that do not depend on conditions. Fortunately, we can have a significant impact on the unconditional aspects of wellbeing.
Unconditional wellbeing is a skill. Building this skill just takes practice. We can practice awareness, compassion, empathy, gratitude, and courage in any circumstance. We can notice when we are using work, possessions, entertainment, technology, food, sex, money, drugs, etc.. to avoid the natural discomfort that is just part of being human. We can connect with purpose. We can live lives of deep meaning, connection, and contribution that are not conditional.
The research is clear — when we overemphasize the conditional aspects of wellbeing, we disempower ourselves. The more we define ourselves by, and put energy into, things that are outside our control, the more frustrated and exhausted we become. In fact, our increasing emphasis on popularity, image, and wealth to define a good life corresponds directly with an increase in anxiety, stress, depression, and narcissism in modern society. Our infatuation with creating comfortable conditions at all costs is having a destructive impact on our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our environment.
On the other hand, when we focus on the unconditional aspects of well-being, we empower ourselves. We connect with what Aristotle called “eudaimonic happiness” – the unconditional wellbeing that comes from meaning, contribution, learning, and community. This is what Victor Frankl referred to in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Finding himself in a Nazi concentration camp, he discovered the incredible human capacity for freedom, growth, and connection in even the most difficult conditions.
Of course conditions matter – having clean drinking water, sufficient food and shelter, access to healthcare and education, being physically safe – these things are crucial for wellbeing. However, these are at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Once these are met, the higher needs are not dependent on circumstances – they are unconditional. And more importantly, when those of us who have our conditional needs met focus on what is within our control, we are more likely to help others whose conditional needs have not yet been met.
If we make a practice of looking to our circumstances for our wellbeing, then we will spend all our time looking. If, alternatively, we practice the life we seek independent of our circumstances, then we will find freedom no matter where we are.
Dave’s work is to increase wellbeing in the world by helping people discover what they are really capable of. He teaches practices to create a mindful and purposeful relationship with stress, anxiety, resistance, frustration, distraction, and the feeling of being stuck. The result is fulfillment, growth, and connection that is not dependent on circumstances. He offers individual coaching and well as keynote speaking, in-services, retreats, seminars, and ongoing consultation.
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