My Favourite Wellbeing Tip EVER

Written by
Ryan McGrory
August 4, 2022

Last week, I was struck by Anna Bertoldini's post on how thoughts impact our wellbeing. It reminded me of my all-time favourite well-being quote:

"Some things are up to us, and others aren’t.”

Epictetus wrote this a few thousand years ago, and it’s one of the most powerful wellbeing tips ever written. It’s sometimes called the ‘dichotomy of control’ - the idea of controlling the controllable and letting go of everything else.  

I probably think of it multiple times a day. It helps me in simple situations, like when I catch myself shouting at the TV when my team is playing poorly. And, also helps me work through tougher times like when dealing with the pandemic. Though, this quote is not only useful for helping me through sport-related frustrations or snap lockdowns, it’s had a far more profound effect on the world. Just like Anna’s post, Epictetus talked a lot about how the way we think impacts how we feel.

He posed the idea that people are disturbed not by events but by their judgments about events (Enchiridion, 5), an insight that inspired Beck and Ellis to develop modern cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - which happens to be today’s leading form of evidence-based psychotherapy.

So…it’s kind of a big deal

When we simply re-frame these ideas (as well as add some insight) we are encouraged to rationalise that:  

  1. We cannot control events (the past, other people, bodily sensations, initial automatic thoughts).
  2. We can only really control our judgments and our responses to events.
  3. People are disturbed not by events so much as by their judgments about them

When constructing CBT, Ellis used Epictetus’ idea that we can have control over being disturbed by events if only we focus on our judgments rather than on trying to change the events themselves.

We know now with modern research that these ancient ideas was more than just a maxims or Insta-worthy quotes - but rather, practical tools for promoting mental resiliance and improving mental health.

They’re essential tools to promote happiness, and prevent unhappiness. Stoic scholar John Sellars frames it well:

“(Epictetus) thinks that much of human unhappiness is simply due to misclassification, the product of thinking that we have control over certain things when in fact we don’t”.

Our modern understanding of mental health conditions sides with Epictetus’ idea - for example, we know that:

  • Worry and general anxiety happen when we overthink aspects of the future that we cannot directly control.
  • Depression is strongly linked to rumination, which involves overthinking about the past, which we cannot control.
  • Social anxiety is exacerbated by worrying too much about what other people think about you.
  • Anger and frustration are increased when we assume we can control people.

In a time where social media exacerbates or confuses our relationship with control, we’re maybe a little more vulnerable to some of the above. Many of us place an unhealthy emphasis on what others think of us - how many likes we get, friends we connect with, events we’re seen at. Which, is why it’s more important than ever to remind ourselves of some ancient ideas.

So, if you’re looking for a wellbeing tip that:

  • Is effective, and has results.
  • Is practical, and simple to learn.
  • Lasts the test of time (say … around 2,000 years?)
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