Stress is the dissonance between your expectations and your reality. That’s it.
When you feel stressed, anxious, out of control of the situation, it’s almost uniformly because you want one thing but get another.
You want a smooth commute. You expected to get to work in 20 minutes. But the reality is, there’s traffic ahead and it’s going to take you 40 minutes. Your expectations and your reality don’t line up, and you feel it in the form of stress.
You want to land a job. You don’t know if you’ll get it. Your desire is certainty – and certainty in your own preferred direction — but your actual life is one of uncertainty. Until that uncertainty is resolved “correctly,” you’ll be stressed.
When have you been stressed lately? What was the expectation or “want”? What was the reality you received? Chances are they didn’t match.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the years: if you don’t want stress, you have to either change your expectations, or you have to change your reality.
Changing your reality is very hard, though not always impossible. There are times when the correct course of action is to throw all of your weight into bending reality to your will. But it’s often hard because bending reality so often relies upon uncontrollable variables. You can’t control whether or not there will be traffic, bad weather, a genetic predisposition to heart disease, your boss’s temper, your spouse’s mood, or many other things that can easily be categorized as sources of stress.
Changing your expectations is hard, too, but it’s an order of magnitude easier than changing someone else’s behavior, the weather, or your genetics. It’s easier, to leave 20 minutes earlier than you think you need to, than to try navigating through bumper-to-bumper traffic at 70 mph to get to work on time. It’s more peaceful to expect and be okay with whatever your boss throws at you than it is to be surprised by her reactions that are never really a surprise.
In other words, when you’re dealing with matters over which you have zero control, you can choose to either pretend you have control and be stressed when reality doesn’t match that fiction;
You can expect the more likely reality that will come your way, and plan your day accordingly.
When expectations and reality are aligned, life is much, much more peaceful.
When you find yourself getting stressed all the times, what’s the more likely answer?
- Life is conspiring against me, presenting me with an endless litany of negative situations…or
- I consistently set my expectations incorrectly for the reality I’ve found myself in, and have yet to bend reality to consistently meet my expectations.
In other words, the common thread of every experience you have in your life is YOU.
Control your thoughts, and watch your life get instantly more peaceful.
Now…here’s my advanced lesson on the matter – the lesson that I haven’t learned yet.
If setting your expectations properly results in less stress, having no expectations will almost totally eliminate it.
It’s a pretty concise summary of Buddhism to say that “want creates suffering, absence of want creates peace.”
I can’t see being a fully functioning human being and having zero want for anything. But I can see that even walking toward that ideal would have dramatic impact in a person’s life. Imagine the peace that would come from honestly not being attached to the outcome of anything. Traffic’s bad? It’s all good. Bills are all late and you don’t get paid for another 10 days? No biggie. Diagnosis doesn’t look good? That’s just part of life, the same as being healthy is.
I’m not there yet. But I can attest to the value of being okay with whatever happens, at least with regard to the small stuff in life. I discovered this lesson several years back, and I’ve done my best to apply it wherever I can.
I honestly don’t care where I park, whether there’s traffic, if the store’s out of Diet Pepsi, whatever else used to grind my gears. I still get pissed, don’t get me wrong…but I save my outrage for stuff that is much bigger now. And I’m working on getting rid of that, too. Short of changing reality, my only hope is to kick my expectations to the curb and be good with whatever the universe presents me.
Life’s just too precious and too short to waste it being angry that it’s not going how you planned.