Truth and facts used to be objective, hard, immutable things to me. There just had to be a right or wrong, a good or bad, that could be backed and proven by some scientific means. I was passionate about uncovering Truth at all costs. I devoted myself to the pursuit of these concrete certainties, feeling as if everything could ultimately be solved or resolved through them. Feelings did not matter. Emotion or personal beliefs did not matter. Only cold, hard facts were permitted into my consideration on any issue.
One of my favorite parts about Hard Times, a book I’ve been reading by Charles Dickens, is the mockery of this type of outlook. The book begins with several main characters that only concern themselves with Facts, to the exclusion of everything else. They abhor “fancy” and “imagination” of any kind, and see no need to indulge these things even in their young children. Yet as the book continues, we are shown just how damaging this perspective can be and how valuable our whims, beliefs, and opinions actually are.
It was very disheartening for me to discover that even “scientific” studies can be manipulated and skewed to favor a certain perspective. In fact, it seems almost unavoidable as no person, scientist or otherwise, is free from personal bias. Upon the light of this realization, I felt set adrift in a sea of permanent uncertainty. If I can’t trust in objective facts to guide me, how can we ever really know anything? It all seemed so pointless and relative.
All of the things I had rolled by eyes at such as faith, belief, gut feelings, etc. now seemed to be on equal footing with the laws I had been allowing to govern my life. For a long time I really despaired at this. Now I’m beginning to think it is a blessing, not a blow. We really do get to choose our own reality. What we believe about something really is just as important, if not more important, than the facts we may collect about it.
If you find yourself rejecting this idea, take a moment to consider the baffling reality of placebos. I have always been amazed at these fascinating findings. No one seems to be able to explain the mechanism behind this phenomenon, but placebos really can work in even the most unlikely scenarios. If you believe a sugar pill is a cancer cure, your body will begin to win the fight. If you know your entire church congregation is making appeals to God for you through prayer, your condition can actually improve. It really does call into question what might be possible if we truly believe.
Knowing that belief can even effect terminal illnesses, it’s no surprise how great an influence it has on more subjective matters. If you believe that you are a depressed, broken, unlovable person, that is what the world will reflect back to you. You will begin to acknowledge only what reinforces this deeply held belief about yourself and disregard anything that contradicts it. If you believe you are ugly and unattractive, your mind will seek out things that confirm this idea. But the reverse is also true of course. If you think of yourself as a happy, upbeat person, no matter what you face in life, you will absorb it through this positive filter.
The good and the bad news is, changing your external circumstances isn’t likely to change your beliefs. The question then becomes, how can we let go of trying to achieve what we think will make us happy and instead shift our mindset so that we are happy exactly as we are? This is the true challenge we are tasked with overcoming, not the world outside, but our own inner world.
I think most of us seek internal cues to motivate us to do something. We are unlikely to be outgoing and friendly if we don’t feel like it. However, if we want to feel that way, the best method is acting as though we already do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. But it is effective. If you identify as a pessimist, but would rather be an optimist, just act how you imagine an optimist would act. Even if it feels phony at first, with practice your behavior will inevitably begin to change your beliefs.
I used to really believe that the way I felt was the inevitable result of the hard facts about my life and the world. If I found myself in a “bad” situation, I felt helpless. I told myself, “Under these conditions, it is impossible for me to be happy.” I reserved my happiness for moments I felt it was justified. Now I realize that my happiness is just that, mine. I can enjoy it whenever I see fit. It’s certainly harder to connect with some days than others, but just knowing that there is always a possibility for it is a great gift. Don’t make the same mistake as me. Don’t feel the need to withhold your happiness by believing it does not suit the circumstance. The only thing determining that is you. Even when it seems impossible, remember that you really do have the power to choose. The more you remind yourself of this, the more you work to behave the way you want to feel rather than feel confined and oppressed by the way you do feel, the easier it will become. No facts, no circumstances, can stand in the way of your happiness and success in this life. Only you can. And while that can seem scary and like a huge responsibility to take on, it is also quite beautiful.