“You can be anything you want to be. You can do anything that you put your mind to.” What a load of crap. You can’t be anything that you want to be. You can’t accomplish anything that you put your mind to. You can, however, choose how happy your life is.
I'm not talking about being happy to watch a movie and eat ice cream one night, or happy to be on vacation after a stressful stretch at work. I'm talking about happiness at that deeper level--the peace, joy, and contentment that abides and sustains amid life's changing circumstances.
That happiness is all up to you. That is, unless you allow it to be controlled by other factors. When we are “out of control” with certain parts of life, then those things control us. They end up being the determining factor, not just about how we feel in a particular situation, but our deeper emotional state of being.
Here are five key areas in life that you can control for your own happiness and some simple ways to do it.
1. Take control of your possessions
The number of possessions you own is completely up to you, but your level of attachment to those possessions will determine your level of freedom. By assessing your possessions, eliminating possessions, and shopping less often, you will be less emotionally attached to your possessions. So get rid of all those extras and duplicates. Let go of the sentimental items cluttering your shelf, clogging your dresser, or, like me, packed into boxes in the closet. And hit the pause button before purchasing new items (besides your typical grocery list). Do we need it? Will it provide value to our life? Will it get used (enough)? Do we have room for it?
2. Take control of your relationships
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says that we are the average of the five people that we spend the most time with. Who do you spend the most time with? Are they influencing you to be your best self? If we’re not mindful of who we’re spending time with and how those relationships are affecting us, then we’ll continue to allow our identity to be shaped, not by us, by whoever happens to plug themselves into our lives.
3. Take control of your emotions
Emotions are neither good nor bad. Any emotion that we feel, at the start, is actually completely neutral. What we do with emotions, however, can be either good or bad, either praiseworthy or blameworthy. It is bad if someone cuts me off on the road and I proceed to lose my temper, speed ahead, and give him/her the finger. It is also bad if my child steals from the store, I get upset at her behavior, and proceed to not give her any consequences. Even when Jesus was as angry as he ever was (according to Scripture) at people making the holy Temple area into a marketplace, he still took sufficient time to ponder his plan of action as he tied together some cords to make a whip. With our "negative" emotions, we either erupt unconsciously with a brash, irrational response, or we immediately bury the emotions away because we don’t want to feel that way or don’t want to make anyone feel bad.
Acknowledge your feelings. Look back over your day and remember what emotions hit you, their context, and how you reacted to them. What can you do to handle your emotions better in the future?
4. Take control of your time
As a teacher, I’ve fallen onto both sides of this lack of time control. At times during the school year, I have a tendency to try to do too much—grading, planning, preparing. I end up having to just block off time at home to be completely devoted to my family. If I frequently give in to doing more work, I cease to have control of my time.
At other times, during the summer or longer breaks, I fall captive to not having enough to do. Again, I need to add to the schedule--not necessarily “work”--but activities, relaxation, hobbies, and especially the things that I lament about not having time to do during the school year! Balance is key. Not every day can be perfectly balanced with work and recreation, with family, friends, and solitude. You can assess and plan ahead, however, so that your life, as a whole, remains balanced. I’m not saying you must keep a full written planner, but simply by thinking and planning ahead, you will begin to put the I and Me back in time.
5. Take control of your mind
I’ve heard startling estimates that on average 95% of today's thoughts are the same as yesterday, and between 60-80% of our thoughts are negative. This is not going to change unless we think different thoughts!
Spend some time each day reading something that inspires you, challenges you, moves you in some way. Listen to a podcast that does the same. Carve out some time each day away from noise and distraction. For some this may involve prayer or meditation, but we can all do this by just setting aside a few minutes to think, or to hit the pause button on our busy day to simply breathe and be present to the present moment. Whether this quiet time is done in a church or a room, or while out for a walk, a run, or a drive by yourself, we need it to stay sane. We need these quiet times if we want our minds to be fresh, free, and happy.
These are some practical starting points—avenues to freedom by taking back control of our lives (at least, taking control of the things that we can control). If we don’t take control of our possessions, our relationships, our emotions, our time, and our mind, then they will just continue to manipulate and control us. And happiness will simply come and go, because even that will be out of our control.