8 Lies About Life


Whether we know it or not, we all are making our way through life with a defective operating manual for how human life works.  And as you know, the problem with an outdated instruction book, is that is doesn't match your device, so it doesn't work!

I've been having a look at what's in the manual lately. I think you may also conclude that it's about as accurate as we now consider a 100-year old medical textbook to be or a 15th Century map of the earth.

In short, you wouldn't use an old DOS manual to learn today's computers.

Of course, the operating manual for human being-ness is not something I keep in a drawer next to my bed. I don't even remember being given it, so it's a bit shocking to discover the out-dated principles it contains are playing out in my life today. 

It's too bad we don't get a new version delivered to our doors each year like phone books, because then we might see just how out of sync they are. We've really gone way too long without the necessary new edition!  

What we are trying to do is to run our brilliant and beautiful lives (our modern software) on some very old mainframes.  Breakdown seems pretty inevitable, don't you think? And you can reboot all you like, but eventually it's just going to hang there or power down.


We have much more information now on how humans really function, yet we've been slow to update our understanding of "How Life Works."  Have you been reading the manual lately?  Personally I'm well known for ignoring instruction manuals (and ending up in a technical twist!) 

To spare you this fate, I thought I'd lay out some of the outdated assumptions and unexamined "rules" that many of us share about what is true about the world, about people, and about life.  You may disagree with these or you may see more than these, but just to get us started here are ... 

Eight Persistent Un-Truths About How Life Works 

1. All least part of our happiness is outside of our control  

I read an article just this week on HuffingPost by a psychologist who quoted apparently well-known scientific evidence that we control only 50% of our happiness levels - the rest is controlled by the environment and our genes.

Grain of truth: We do experience ups and downs in our happiness levels which we do not fully understand.    

2. We are incomplete in some way

So, when was the last time you declared you were enough as you are?  The game of life seems to be set up as a search to find our missing pieces. Do you think it's really possible for us to lose or be missing essential parts of ourselves?  

Grain of truth: If you keep telling yourself you are inadequate you will feel that way. 

3. We are damaged by what happens to us  

We undergo physical harm and mental torture, but there are many exceptions to the rule that says we must always emerged damaged and ruined by what happens to us. This is a rule that was broken by Viktor Frankl, to name just one person

Grain of truth: Bad things do happen.  Psychological damage is not inevitable or there would be no exceptions like Frankl -- and there are many more.

4.  Some people are permanently damaged 

You might be amazed to know that you would not have to look very far to find someone who had genuinely and inexplicably recovered from the "incurable."  Here's a great place to start, listen to Bill Pettit on this video

Grain of truth: The body can be damaged. It will die.  Is there anything more to you than just your body?

5.  Events are the cause of what we feel inside  

If they are, how do they get in there?  If they are, why doesn't everyone feel the same way about the same event?

Grain of truth: Lots of events are totally outside our control.  Feelings are not in events, they are in humans.

6.  People can and do make us feel things we don't want to feel

Ever stopped to think if someone can really, truly, "get into your head?"    

Grain of truth: Humans do react to what others say and do.   

We may not be aware of all of the thoughts that are passing through, but what happens in our heads is always entirely our own process. 

7.  Love can be taken from us or lost  

This can only true if love is limited to a physical body. Do you think it is?

Grain of truth: A loving feeling does disappear when loving thoughts are absent.

8.  If a particular thing happens, a certain response must inevitably follow

Ever wondered if it was OK to feel happy after someone dies? Does it seem wrong to be happy when lots of people are unemployed?  These are social ideas, they are not psychological truths. "Automatic reactions" take place in a backdrop of thinking about how things are and should be.  

Grain of truth: We do have thoughts about what it is OK and not OK to feel.   

We simply have feelings that are in line with what we think.  

There are many other assumptions about how we work that we could look at one by one, but it's nice to boil them down to as simply as possible.

Let's lay out the truths so far:
  • Events, people, and things cannot get inside us.
  • We only experience our thoughts about events, people and things.
  • Whatever thoughts are we will feel them.
  • We are free to think.
  • We are not free to: not experience whatever we think.
  • We are not aware of every single thought that comes by 
You are not your thoughts. If you are aware of the content of your thoughts, you cannot BE the content of your thoughts.  

Shall we make it even simpler?

You think

You feel what you think

You can't NOT think  

Isn't it nice to now how the system works?  

picture by Ellen Britt
photo by Ellen Britt
It's not what we say
or what we do
that makes a difference,
but rather who we are.

Every morning when we wake up and look out from our two eyes into the world something happens.  We become aware that we have a body, we seem to step into that body like the crab scrambling for a shell, and then out of that body we gaze, blink, step forward, and spend our day.

We don't give this routine much consideration, so it is very easy to just assume that we are limited, confined, fragile and our sphere of influence is reduced to those we meet or talk with in any given moment.   

I think we often start our day inside a feeling of smallness. We forget that our influence is not limited to our task list, our meeting calendar or today's projects.  In truth, we are not aware of how wide we reach, how many people we touch, and most importantly, how we are transmitting beyond our shells.

In part I'm simply talking about just lifting our eyes for a moment to take in a wider view of life.  A greater awareness of the largeness of ourselves. When you do that, just briefly, right now, do you really think that you are this dinky body and nothing more?  How can you be certain that people don't remember you, think of you, care for you and are impacted by you -- in ways that you have no idea of.  In fact people right now who have never met you may have some kind of opinion of you.

Each of us has a reach that is far greater than it might seem.   

Even people, like myself, who have decided that to reach out deliberately to touch others and to be a part of moving this world forward in a loving direction, may or may not be fully aware of this all the time.

But everyone makes a difference to someone.

Everyone matters.


You don't have to decide to change the world and help thousands of people to be making a difference in your world right now. In fact, you couldn't NOT make a difference if you tried.

The question is, what difference are you making?  You don't have to sign up for any cause if you don't want to. But would you like that to be conscious of how impact works?

Anyone who is working for change certainly needs to. Without that awareness people try to influence in all the wrong ways, through bullying, guilt-making, pushing, forcing, and many other angry forms of activism.  Every time you've been repulsed by someone's approach to donate to their cause, you were reacting to their impact on you.  You were not reacting to the cause itself.

So, difference-makers (in other words, all of us), who are you?

Are you acting from the discomfort of your own badly-fitting shell?  Your limited perspective?  Your anger?  Your frustration?  Your blaming others for the state of the world?

I don't think any of us humans will ever be perfect, so forget being squeaky clean.  But do pay attention to who are you being.  Who you are being is not an action, it is an attitude.  Here are some ways we can see you as you transmit who you are:

-  are you opinionated or open?
-  are you a listener or are you only interested in confirming what you think?
-  are you hard with yourself, so you cannot allow yourself to forgive others?
-  are you rushing so much that you find it tough to give someone your full attention? 
-  are you reflective in a conversation, or reactive?
-  are you often thinking how other people need to change their ways and habits?
-  are you blaming the person you love for not giving you what you need?

Of course we all show up all these way sometimes.  No one is immune from being human.

Gage your true impact on others, not from your actions, but from the deeper ways in which you hold fixed opinions and views of other people.  Notice the feeling in you when you talk to someone.  What's your internal opinion?  What do you think you are really transmitting to them?  We are never transmitting words, we are transmitting US.

The smaller and more limited you feel inside you, the greater your negative impact on others -- no matter how noble your cause may be. 

You cannot replace inner shrinkage with outer expansion.  You must expand inwardly first before you can do anything effectively in the world, with your partner, children or your colleagues at work.

May you see something bigger about yourself today.   In other words, may you see something true.  Because the truth is that your shell is nothing more than the collection of all the smallest ideas you have about yourself.  Who you are could never fit into any shell. 

And knowing that makes a difference.

This week I've been following the USA today series on "The Happiest Woman in America" and I don't recommend that you read it unless you are 1) ready to get deeply unhappy or 2) are a sociologist.

The story ran over a series of four days and analyzed the every movement of Mary Claire Orenic, age 50, "The Happiest Woman In America." It looked at her life, in conjunction with a recent Healthways study in well-being and 23 pieces of data identified as keys to well-being.   Mary Claire was presented as the poster child who demonstrated that when you have these 23 things on the Well-being Checklist, you will be happy.

Nice idea.

Wrong conclusion.

Here's the thing, Mary Claire does seem to be a genuinely happy person. And that's wonderful.  What is less convincing is the assumption that the trappings of her wonderful life are what caused her happiness.  

This is a case of confusing the effects of happiness with the cause of happiness.  Let's look more closely. 

For example:
  • "Eating five small meals a day and taking frequent walks has helped this busy mom stay in shape." 
Assumption: stay in shape and you will be happy. 
  • A well-timed empty nest is critical for well-being.  "You need to have launched your last child by the time your reach age 50."
Assumption (stated outright):  Because "the intersection between your stage in life and the age of your children will have a profound effect on your happiness."

These assumptions and many more, whether implicit or explicit, make happiness a function of your body shape, of your wealth, of your children and of your friends. 

This well-intentioned article dissects these so-called causes of happiness with a view to instructing people in how to carve their own way to well-being. It misses the elephant in the room.

Well-being is not a stop on the tramway, or a lost sock.  

I know articles like these intend only to be helpful, but they do more harm than good.  At best an article like this does nothing to point to the true causes of happiness. At worst it reinforces the already too-widely unquestioned idea that our contentment and well-being are out there somewhere and the problem is to define the "somewhere" and somehow sneak up on it before you die.  

Only from this logic could it ever make sense to prescribe "1-5 hours of social interaction per day," "Strong support of family," and the other 21 things that are listed as essential contributors to high well-being.  

What a disservice to humanity.  What a lie. 

Look more deeply.   

Rummage around a bit in Mary Claire's real story and you will see that the key information was mentioned only in passing -- cast aside as if it had no bearing on her long-term happiness -- and the real questions were never asked. 

How did she know to follow the roads that she did?  How did she hear her own inner direction to "learn from a past mistake" and to turn away from "being a slacker in high school," to "wait to get married later in life."  Where did her decision to become "an achiever" suddenly spring from? These questions deserve attention because they point to something more important than what happened next.  What was she listening to?  How did she know to follow it?

Something inside her told her to get a sponsor to help further her career.  She and her husband were "deliberate" about when to have children.  Mary Claire keeps up with friends from her past -- all results not the causes of her happiness. Ask rather,  how does she "know" to do that? How does she know to do any of it?    

Where is she getting her information?   

I know one thing, she didn't have a copy of the Well-being Shopping List with 23 things on it.  Many of her choices in life flew in the face of logic, reason and what other people told her to do.  She went her own way.

Everything she has now arose from herself first. Call it good judgement, common sense, self-listening, or just tuning inward.  It doesn't matter what you call it. The point is, she is not special or gifted or amazing.

We all have what Mary Claire has.  She's just using it.

And thus the most important part, the universal and most hopeful part of her story was completely missed.  She's not "The Happiest Woman in America" because she can cross off everything on the well-being check list, she's happy because she listened well to her own good counsel.  She followed her compass.  She saw her own north star and said "that way!"

That's possible for any of us.  That directional mechanism is inside all of us already.

What do you think Steve Jobs was listening to?

So burn the case studies, the research and the shopping list for "Wellbeing."

When you can hear the guidance within you that is telling you what's right for you, make the choices that are in line with you. They will feel right.  Learn what that feels like.  Louise Hay used to call it, "listening for the inner ding."  

Mary Claire is a good example of someone who did just that. 

Forget the rest.