A good life is a life of struggle.
This is because struggle makes you stronger, and strength is the source of freedom.
It’s obvious how struggling against heavy weights in the gym or struggling against a steep mountain while hiking makes you stronger. Your muscles respond to such challenges by growing. What’s less obvious is how this same principle applies to your mind.
The brain is like a bunch of muscles, and the mental gym is everywhere. Your charge is to recognize this truth and choose to put in your reps. If you become aware of the many opportunities you have for mental training, then you can capitalize on them.
- Any time your willpower is called upon, it is an opportunity to build psychological strength.
- Every painful experience offers you a chance to develop your emotional fortitude.
- Whenever your mind is challenged, it is an occasion to become smarter.
When you are stuck in traffic, you can view it as an inconvenience and be upset, or you can view it as a forced visit to the patience-trainer at the mental gym. Of course, it’s a struggle to be patient – it’s easier to let yourself be upset – but that’s the whole point. Patience grows when it gets used. Skills develop when they have to. Struggle makes you stronger. Who knows when you’ll need that additional patience for something more important than sitting in traffic?
As this example shows, opportunities to build strength through struggle abound. Even the actual gym is also a mental gym because pushing yourself physically builds mental toughness. As James Clear recently pointed out, choosing to do one more rep when you would prefer to stop doesn’t just make your body stronger, it makes your mind stronger too.1
My favorite mental workout is meditation. It is such a simple thing to do – sitting still and paying attention to your breath – but it is profoundly difficult. And that’s the whole point: The struggle to stay focused on your breathing is where the all the benefits come from. As Dan Harris explains, every time you return your focus to your breath, it’s like a bicep curl for your prefrontal cortex.2
Meditation, as with any task that requires focus, is much easier in a quiet environment. A distracting environment, then, would seem to hinder meditation. However, this assumes that the goal of meditation is to be focused, and this is wrong. The goal of meditation is to struggle to focus. Meditating in a noisy environment is liking biking into a headwind. It’s more difficult, yes, but you’re getting stronger.
Here are some more counterintuitive examples of opportunities for mental training:
When you are faced with temptation, you are being unwittingly transported to yet another mental gym. Choosing the right thing takes skill and strength. You can view the act of choosing as deliberate practice, and you can embrace the struggle as an opportunity to give your self-discipline muscle a workout.
When something upsetting happens, you are being given a chance to practice emotional stability. By struggling to draw your feelings from within rather than succumbing to what the environment is “making” you feel, you are developing a form of resilience that is essential to living a happy life.
Difficult people are no fun, of course, but, by triggering negative emotions and pulling you away from your values, they provide opportunities for the struggle that cultivates inner strength. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “Difficult people are … the greatest teachers.”3
This doesn’t mean you are supposed to like being annoyed or wronged. That would be absurd. But you can make an effort to feel good in spite of whatever is upsetting you by deliberately thinking about the reasons you have to be grateful. In doing so, you’ll be encouraging the significant reasons you have to feel happy to drown out the insignificant discomforts of the present moment.
I’ve spent the past decade of my life in near-constant physical pain. By learning to feel emotionally well while feeling physically unwell, I’ve greatly increased my resilience and my day-to-day happiness. I’ve come to see pain as the price of admission – a necessary cost I must pay in the pursuit of goals far more meaningful than physical comfort.
Setbacks and obstacles of any sort can be viewed as mental training. Challenges are not threats; they are opportunities. Struggle makes you stronger.
1 Clear, James. “The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life.” https://jamesclear.com/mental-toughness.
2 Harris, Dan. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story. It Books, 2014.
3 Chödrön, Pema. The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. Shambhala, 2002.
Title Image. Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/overcoming-stone-roll-slide-strong-2127669/#. Text added.
Brain Muscles: Verges, Xavier. “Grow your people.” June 24, 2011. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.