"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

In Hamlet Act II, Scene II, Hamlet offers the brilliant advice that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Ironically, rather than use this insight to achieve the peace and happiness that eludes him, Hamlet uses it to explain why he is so miserable (“Denmark’s a prison… one o' the worst”).

Many who survived Nazi concentration camps (and many who were murdered there with their dignity intact) understood this profound truth, as the brilliant 1997 movie “Life Is Beautiful” (La vita è bella) illustrates so poetically.

We could all live happier lives if we regularly paused to reflect on how negatively our negative reactions to external events affect us. Sometimes, our negative reactions serve no positive purpose yet harm ourselves, as Russell Bishop notes:

I sometimes find myself reacting to other people (in this case, drivers) who cut me off, make sudden changes, or otherwise behave in ways that I don’t appreciate. Some part of me rises up in righteous indignation and I often say something unpleasant to them in my mind, or even more embarrassingly, right out loud as I’m driving along.

My wife is fond of pointing out to me that it is equally unpleasant to hear me commenting negatively about the other person. Even more to the point, it is pretty ineffective on my part given that the other person can’t even hear me!

…what I am most trying to teach myself is that my experience of well being, peace, harmony, balance, etc. is not a function of what someone else does, but more about my response to it…

I am “attracting” the reaction inside of myself by staying focused on their behavior, more than my response… Instead, both of us may be overly sensitive to the behavior of others, or what we deem their lack of consideration toward us, and wind up in a state of overreaction.

Someone else may experience the same set of behaviors and simply remain calm, adjusting their own behavior, in this case driving, to match the circumstances that are present.

So, here I am, noticing what someone else says or does, and then (over)reacting as though the other person actually has control over my state of well-being…

[I]f you would like to gain greater control over your own life, to move down the path of creating more of what you truly want out of life, it might not be so bad to simply start with your own reactions to situations and circumstances in life.

Posted by James on Tuesday, February 23, 2010