The world we live in encourages us to be happy, but gives us little advice on how to find happiness. This same world also tells us little, or nothing, about peace of mind.
Expecting happiness without first finding peace of mind, is like trying to build levels on a building without a foundation, or expecting branches to grow on a tree without a trunk. A feeling of long-term happiness is not possible without first having a core of composure.
When I use the term “peace of mind,” I am not referring to a temporary feeling, as with sitting and chanting “om” in a yoga class. Peace of mind is the ability to encounter the unforeseen adversities of life without panic. It is the ability to think and act without an excess of emotion — a state of self-control, equanimity, and freedom from constant anxiety. It is the foundation for anyone who wishes to be happy, and it is a quality that is more consistent than happiness.
Peace of mind, like happiness, is something that you develop, not simply find. The quest begins with acknowledging that peace of mind is a status to be desired; that it is just as important as happiness, and that it is also a prerequisite for someone who wants to be happy. Peace of mind provides a stability, a traction, that happiness does not. Regardless of how positive your perspective may be, it is not possible to be happy all the time. It is, however, possible to have constant peace of mind — that traction that enables us to maintain our emotional and psychological stability in the face of difficulties.
For those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression, peace of mind is the Holy Grail. It represents the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, such as the past, as well as the courage and wisdom to deal with the present and the future. It is freedom from the paralyzing effects of being worried, self-hateful, reflective, overthinking, and the other elements that have brought you down psychologically. As James Allen writes, “To live continually in thoughts of ill-will, cynicism, suspicion, and envy, is to be confined in a self-made prison-hole.” Peace of mind is your vindication from this prison.
The Law of Subtraction
“Out of clutter, find simplicity,” said Albert Einstein – someone, ironically, who is famous for the complexity of his theories. To attain more peace of mind and happiness, you must go back to basics, as with the chapter on “Strengthening Your Core” in my book. Simplifying your life is the first step to acquiring peace of mind. As you may be in a state of negativity, the presence of greater complications in your life will be proportional to how negative you are. The more complications, the more negativity. It is time to strip down your life, to correct or improve the essential elements, and to then build it back up again on this new foundation.
I call this the “Law of Subtraction.” The term does not have a pleasant ring to it, as it implies losing something. Our lives are so focused on “addition,” on accumulation and building, that we have a negative view of subtraction, of things becoming “less.” But the more we add on to a weak foundation, the more likely we are to experience a collapse.
Writing a century before Einstein, Henry David Thoreau, who lived alone in a cabin in the Massachusetts woods, wrote that “Our life is frittered away by detail . . . Simplify, simplify!” It is no coincidence that during the height of my depression, my life was very “top-heavy” with false urgencies that I had allowed to build up. I often got involved with too many activities, and found myself unable to refuse invitations. The effect was that I was constantly rushing from once place to another, fighting city traffic, worried about being late, and then having to leave early for another appointment. In many ways, I was using this complexity as a distraction from healing the core problems of my life — and these problems were a lack of peace of mind and a dislike for positive thinking.
I was also constantly bothered by outside circumstances, far more than they deserved. Loud noises sent me into a rage; even the sound of a phone ringing drove me crazy. I catastrophized everything. I was already so “on edge” that anything that happened caused me to lose my emotional stability. Naturally, in a world of constant change, this was a serious problem. And instead of making it my own responsibility to find peace, I expected everything around me to give me peace instead.
As discussed, while we live in a world of change, that is no guarantee that the circumstances around you are going to change when you want them to – or that they will change in the way you want them to. Any type of change for your self-improvement needs to be initiated by you. And hence I had to take those first steps to secure peace of mind, or it would never have happened.
I began by curtailing my lifestyle. Sunday mornings became exclusively for me. Evenings from Monday to Wednesday were not for socializing, but either for work, reading, or errands like buying groceries. My whole life needed to slow down, because I was off-balance, slipping and becoming more negative, descending further into the tunnel vision of negativity. This whole process of simplification was really an act of rebalancing, and gaining a foundation.
Be mindful that external circumstances will always play a part in your life. We cannot escape them completely. Even if you are Thoreau and living in the woods, you will be faced with some of the unpleasant surprises that life throws at us. Extreme weather, waking up with a cold or fever, not having a meal to eat – life can surprise us in infinite ways. Nonetheless, we want to minimize this as much as we can.
As you simplify your life, your mind will start to achieve clarity. You will have less anxiety, and you will become comfortable at home or in your “sanctuary,” discussed earlier. As this new sense of comfort begins, you will overthink less. And each step away from overthinking is a step towards peace of mind.
I’ll be back with Part Two!
Tom McKinley is the author of self-help book Winning the Fight to Be Happy.