A couple thousand years ago in ancient Greece, the great philosopher Socrates was strolling contemplatively around a community garden when a neighbor walked up to him and said, “You’re never in a million years going to believe what I just heard about our mutual friend…”
“Wait,” Socrates interrupted, putting his hand up in the air. “Before you continue with this story, your words must pass the triple filter test?”
“The triple filter test,” Socrates said.
The neighbor just stared at him with a blank expression.
Socrates continued, “The first filter is Truth. Are you absolutely sure the story you are about to tell me is true?”
“Well, no,” the neighbor said, “I literally just heard it from someone else I know.”
“Ah-ha…” Socrates quickly replied, “then let’s move on to the second filter. Is what you are about to share Good in any way, shape or form?”
“No… no,” the neighbor said, “This story is actually quite…”
Before he could finish his sentence, Socrates interrupted him again, “Ahh… so it may not be true and it is definitely not good.”
“That’s right,” the neighbor assured him.
“Well, you may still be able to save yourself,” Socrates said. “Is anything about the story you want to share Useful?”
The neighbor stared blankly again for a moment and then said, “No, I suppose it’s not really…”
“So, you want to tell me something that may not be true, is definitely not good, and is not useful to know?” Socrates asked. The neighbor looked down at the ground and nodded. “Well, you have no good reason to tell me this story, and you have no good reason to believe it yourself,” Socrates added, as the neighbor dolefully walked away.
Hard Questions for Hard Days
In many ways, not too much has changed since ancient Greece, especially when it comes to the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Every single day, we invest valuable time and energy into drama and hearsay. Many of us plug into social media first thing in the morning for reasons that have zero to do with what is true for us, good for us, and useful for those around us. Instead, we do it mostly just to distract ourselves… from ourselves.
In an expansive universe in which there are abundant opportunities to discover what’s true, what’s good, and what’s useful, when we do the opposite, we know it. And while making that compromise — with lots of mind-numbing distractions — is tolerable for a little while, eventually it isn’t anymore. Our negligence catches up to us, and we begin to feel pain.
Then, on really hard days, when the drama and hearsay just isn’t enough to distract us from the pain that’s been gradually building up in our minds, we begin to feel utterly broken inside.
Don’t fall into the trap of breaking yourself down like that for no reason. Instead take Socrates’ advice: simply focus on what is true, good, and useful. It worked well for Socrates a couple thousand years ago, and I assure you it continues to work well for many people today.
It’s time to sidestep the distractions and bring focused awareness to what’s on your mind, especially on those days that are harder than you expected.
Just ask yourself…
1. Is the story echoing in your head right now absolutely true?
In a very real sense, the stories we tell ourselves change what we see in front of us. When we enter an experience with a story about how life is, that tends to be what we see, even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. I was reminded of this recently by an attendee at our Think Better, Live Better conference.
She compared her present marital problems and stress to an old parable in which a group of blind men touch an elephant for the very first time to learn what it’s like. Each one of them feels a different part of the elephant, but only that one part, such as the leg, trunk, side, or tusk. Then the men eagerly compare notes and quickly learn that they are in complete disagreement about what an elephant looks like… and lots of needless tension and drama quickly arises between them.
Something similar happens through our wide-ranging, different past experiences. Some of us have been deeply heartbroken. Some of us have lost our parents, siblings or children to accidents and illnesses. Some of us have dealt with infidelity. Some of us have been fired from jobs we relied on. Some of us have been discriminated against because of our gender or race. And, when we enter a new experience that arouses prominent memories of our own painful story from the past, it shifts our perspective in the present — it drastically narrows it.
When a negative past experience narrows our present perspective, it’s mostly just a defense mechanism. Every day of our lives we are presented with some level of uncertainty, and our innate human defense mechanisms don’t like this one bit. So our minds try to compensate by filling in the gaps of information by clinging to the stories we already feel comfortable with. We end up subconsciously trying to make better sense of everything in the present by using old stories and past experiences as filler. And while this approach works sometimes, other times our old stories and past experiences are completely irrelevant to the present moment, so they end up hurting us and those we love far more than they help.
Thus, my challenge for you is this:
Whenever you feel tension and drama building up inside you, try to bring more awareness to the story you’re telling yourself, and then consciously detach yourself from it. Go deeper into reality. Don’t just look at the surface. Investigate. Observe without presupposing.
Can you be absolutely certain the story is accurate? Think about how you feel and behave when you tell yourself the story. Then consider what else you might I see (or experience) in the present moment if you removed the story from my mind.
Do your best to think better, so you can ultimately live better.
2. What’s something good you could appreciate right now, if you really wanted to?
“A 10-year-old patient of mine will be undergoing her 14th surgery in three years’ time to combat a rare and aggressive type of cancer. Even after all the medical procedures and surgeries, I’ve never seen her frown — I’ve never seen her skip a beat. Although the odds continue to work against her, I’m certain her attitude, acceptance and presence are the principal reasons she has lived so well to this point. She’s still positively engaged in living her life to the fullest. She laughs and plays with her friends and family. She has realistic, intelligent goals for the upcoming year that she’s already working on. A kid like her who can go through everything she’s been through and wake up every day with enthusiasm for the life she’s living, is the reason I’m enrolled in your course and bought your new book.”
That’s the opening paragraph of an email I received recently from a new course student and book reader named, Michelle. It caught my attention for obvious reasons. (Note: I’m sharing this with permission, of course.)
Michelle went on to say, “My conversations with this incredible little girl have opened my awareness to all the self-destructive delusions I have in my head. I have it so good — I am incredibly fortunate to be alive and healthy, for example — and yet I sit at home most nights thinking the opposite. I don’t necessarily do this consciously or intensely, but I do it. I think about how my life ‘should’ be different than it is — how everything should be better, easier, more enjoyable, and so forth. And these delusions are slowly spoiling my attitude and my ability to make progress on the things that are important to me.”
Wow! Talk about a great reminder for all of us to get out of our own heads.
And the truth is, most of us come to similar realizations at some point. The older we grow, and the more real-world tragedies and challenges we witness, the more we realize how incredibly blessed we are, and how frequently the delusions in our heads hold us back from these blessings.
So today, I challenge you to move through this day and practice seeing and accepting life as it truly is, without any delusions.
Do what you have to do without worry and fearing the worst, lamenting about what might happen, or obsessing over how difficult your life is. Be present, take it one step at a time, and do the best you can.
If you don’t know where to start, simply…
And be thankful right now.
For your health,
And your home.
Nothing lasts forever.
3. How can you give yourself some useful perspective right now?
(Note: This is an excerpt from our brand new book.)
In our office, there’s a framed entry from Marc’s grandmother’s journal, dated September 16, 1977. It reads:
“Today I’m sitting in my hospital bed waiting to have both my breasts removed. But in a strange way, I feel like the lucky one. Until now I have had no health problems. I’m a sixty-nine-year-old woman in the last room at the end of the hall before the pediatric division of the hospital begins. Over the past few hours I have watched dozens of cancer patients being wheeled by in wheelchairs and rolling beds. None of these patients could be a day older than seventeen.”
This journal entry is displayed in our office because it continues to remind us that there is always, always something to be thankful for. And that no matter how good or bad we have it, we must wake up each day thankful for our lives, because someone, somewhere is desperately fighting for theirs.
Marc and I recently attended a birthday party to celebrate the thirty-fifth birthday of my childhood best friend, Janet. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with aggressive stage 2 breast cancer — devastating news for anyone, and especially for someone so young. Thankfully, she’s now in remission and has been cancer free for the past two years. When we were at lunch, she told us, “I am loving my thirties so much more than my twenties. I’m more confident, I know what I want out of life, know what my capabilities are. I know that life is limited, and that I only get this one life, and I’m doing my best to make the best of each and every day.”
Hearing Janet say those words was remarkable, because we saw how her perspective on the situation allowed her to view a horribly difficult time as an opportunity to understand what she wanted out of life. Her example reminded us that happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to use them as opportunities to change your perspective for the better. Think about your own life. What joy and opportunities might you see more clearly if your mind weren’t holding on so tightly to your struggles and disappointments? Remember, it’s not what the world takes away from you that counts; it’s what you do with what you have left.
In our New York Times bestselling book, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs, Marc and I guide readers through this process of perspective change — and breathing mindfully through life’s twists and turns.
Truth be told, inner peace begins the moment you take a new breath and choose not to allow an uncontrollable event to dominate you in the long-term. You are not what happened to you. You are what you choose to become in this moment. Let go, breathe, and begin again…
Realize that most people make themselves miserable simply by finding it impossible to accept life just as it is presenting itself right now. Don’t be one of them. Let go! This letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care about something or someone anymore. It’s just realizing that the only thing you really have control over is yourself in this moment. Oftentimes letting go is simply changing the labels you place on a situation — it’s looking at the same situation with fresh eyes and an open mind, and then taking the next step.
You are in control of the way you look at life. Instead of getting angry, find the lesson. In place of envy, feel admiration. In place of worry, take action. In place of doubt, have faith. Your perspective is always more powerful than your circumstance.
Now, it’s your turn…
All day long you speak silently to yourself, and a part of you believes every word. Which is why it’s important to stay mindful on hard days, and meditate on the questions above.
Please, ask away…
And share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
If you’re up to it, we’d love to read your response to the second question above:
- What’s something good you could appreciate right now, if you really wanted to?
Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Tanya Bevins says
I love the story and analogy you shared about your recent Think Better conference attendee. It makes me think of some of my own insecurities that arose from past experiences, and how these insecurities affect my relationship with my husband and friends. Thank you. Perhaps I will attend your next event in 2019.
Also, to answer your question: If I really wanted to right now, I could easily spend an hour appreciating my health. Seven years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and it took my a couple years to take the necessary steps to recover. My present health is truly a blessing, and I do need to recognize it more. Good reminder!
Marc Chernoff says
Angel and I sincerely look forward to meeting you and Think Better Live Better 2019. We will release tickets in about a month.
Also, I absolutely LOVE your response. Cheers to appreciating our health and wellness while we have it. 🙂
I could certainly appreciate the fact that this amazing article arrived in my email inbox this morning. Thank you for such an inspiring and thoughtful read. And I truly connected with the excerpt/journal entry you shared from your book in #3. So, I just ordered your book on Barnes and Noble’s website and I’m gonna go pick it up in this store tomorrow. Thank you, M&A, for everything you two do.
Marc Chernoff says
Thank you for supporting our work, Ben. That means a lot to us. 🙂
Mary Anne says
Those really are three hard questions. I love the introsecption! Because it’s those kinds of questions that allow us to find the answers we’d otherwise never discover in our lives. One of my closest friends, who was recent student in your getting back to happiness course, turned me on to your blog and teachings a couple weeks ago. I’m truly grateful for this introduction, too. 🙂
Marc Chernoff says
We are grateful, too. 😉
Gái Nguy?n says
I had the same story this morning. My friends in the Yoga class acclaimed, looking at me, “Wow, what an 18-year-old!” I smiled and said, “Let it be.” “What, don’t you feel happy when someone says: You look like an 18-year-old girl? I said, “Let it be (Let me be=). This is daily stuff”. They didn’t understand my phrases. I mean I am here now, like yesterday, and sort of tomorrow; no change. Don’t waste time praising me. It’s not true (in fact, I’m 67); not good (no good intent, and if it is, it’ll spoil me, for sure), and not useful (What good is it? for whom? Thanks a lot Marc&Angel, and Socrates
Marc Chernoff says
Thumbs way up. 🙂
Lately I’ve just been struggling in life being depressed and stuck because I’m not where I’d like to be or think I should be. I made a decision to just try to feel better and take the necessary steps to enjoy my life. I watched a movie that told of how we go to old information in our heads to just everything new without even seeing it in it’s totality. I’ve been doing that a lot. So reading this today was so helpful and really resonated with me. I’m taking it as a sign to come out of this and start enjoying my life. I’m so grateful for this article.
Marc Chernoff says
Take it one day at a time, Bilqis. Set your alarm for two set times every day, just to pause and appreciate where you are. Look as hard as you can for the silver linings, truly appreciate them, and let them inspire you to take the next best step forward.
Perla Milner says
Thinking positive thoughts brings us peace… easier said than done sometimes… gratitude is the vitamin for our soul. Thank u both for your daily reminders and for sharing… for making a difference in this world ??
I just read your your article and was able to catch myself from going down the wrong road in my head. I am sitting here now actively trying to change my same old negative song I tell myself into positive, accepting thoughts. It’s difficult to do this, but I will try to stay vigilant! Love your book and got a copy for my daughter too!
Let me first say we do appreciate with what you above wrote here is really extremely helpful. ?
I have a long drive to work in a very, very busy clinic. I am grateful when I look at my beautiful flower garden and my home as I back out of the driveway and I know I will return at the end of the day. No matter what happens at work I know I have my nest to return to where I feel loved and safe and removed from the busy world.
Warren Stewart says
I love these stories and the advice is always spot on. My question is: Why is it so hard to remember these things in the moment? Why does my brain always revert back to the negative dialogue so easily?
Lots to appreciate. And lots to let go. Thank you. I just picked up a copy of your book and Barnes and Noble.
Thank-you for sharing this thought provoking post
Hi Marc and Angel,
I think these tips are one of the best to be in present always rather than worrying about past or future
To sum it all i think its all about once own perception than anything else and You are not what happened to you. You are what you choose to become in this moment- is a great quote.
Carol Barringer says
I, too, and grateful for physical and mental health. Even though I am awake right now (and would prefer to be sleeping!) due to a sciatic discomfort, my physical health is the best it’s been in 40 years, and the recovery of my mental health is truly and literally miraculous. I never thought I would live to 69 years old! I am so glad I stuck around long enough for the good part!
Going through a divorce after 30 years has me feeling lonely, abandoned, afraid and hurt. These feelings stem from my husband filing for divorce without trying to fix our marriage. When I asked him what he thought he could have done differently to make the marriage better he responded, “I could have sent you more flowers, bought you that fur coat or that ring you wanted”. His response was surprising and disappointing for 2 reasons. First why didn’t you if you really thought it would have helped and secondly, I understood at that moment he hadn’t really listened to me because though I would have accepted those things what I really wanted was him! More hugs, more kisses, more I love you’s and him wanting more time with me! So as we await our final hearing I feel different. I feel sad that we wasted so much of each others time! And now, from this moment on, nothing but positive thoughts and actions for me as I pursue the future of my dreams. That future is landing that dream job of a flight attendant, building a home of my own and giving back to the world the gift of ENCOURGEMENT!
If God will do all this for me He will do the same for you. TRUST HIM!!
Michele, I wish I had your insight. I can’t seem to let go of why my ex left me.. Wish you all the best.
Ann C says
This was a great blog in so many ways and directions. The three hard questions will stick with me. Altho I think if you answer no to number one you can stop right there. Why say something if you don’t know it to be true.
Janet’s story took me back to when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I thought of it as a gift: we all know we are going to die…someday! But when faced with a diagnosis you realize you can & May die sooner than planned. We took trips, talked about the important stuff we had put off discussing for whatever reason, and his kids took time to get to know their father. I see that as a blessing. He passed knowing he was well loved and appreciated.
M&A, thank you for yet another post that seems to be speaking just to me. I read your posts every morning and always find them inspiring and timely! Your books, too, are regular reads for me. I need to be reminded daily to appreciate all the many blessings I have and to stop worrying and focusing on what everyone else is doing. The three questions help to put the stories I tell myself into perspective. Thank you!
Thought you might be interested to know the Four Way Test of all Rotarians.
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
“The Four-Way Test” of the things we think, say or do.
I am in a moment of ‘getting out of my head… I didn’t know where to turn lately when I needed someone to talk to. Why doesn’t anyone call me? Why don’t the companies I’ve applied to call me for an interview? Why do I sit here alone and single at 48 years old? Then this wonderful article pops up in my inbox today. Very poignant. I have been wallowing in my own misery for days…weeks…months. I got laid off the end of January and haven’t been able to find employment. My perspective is always there. I know I could have it way worse, as some have shared their stories. I have my health, my home, 2 adorable fur kids, food in my fridge, a vehicle to drive and water. And most of all I woke up to live another day. The only thing is that no matter what you are going through it doesn’t make it any less important or negate how you are feeling as compared to someone else’s situation. Get out of your own head.
D, Shannon says
Thanks for this post. We are reeling from the recent loss of our sweet fur baby, and out of the blue one of my best friends and my husband’s sweet cousin … all in a ten day time frame! The services were on the same weekend what are the chances?, I had to stay here while my husband had to travel. These events shook me to the core and still do. I am numb with grief. Inside there is a spark of hope and a knowing that things have to change and that its time to get a new start. I am finding inspiration from positive reading and journaling. Am trying to find balance.
I cannot seem to put your book down! And your email stories inspire me so much! Thank you both for your amazing input on so many things I relate to. You both are Blessings!
Adriana Groza says
I always don’t read these emails but God wanted me to read this one! He’s telling me to stop whatever I think I’m doing right now and start doing what I was meant to be doing in the first place. M&A , God is really using you for the sake of the others! And to answer your question, one thing I appreciate right now it’s you!
Thanks for insighful and reminding words – I too have a loop of old stuff going round and round in my head and no matter what strategies I have to stop them, I still find it a challenge.
I’m grateful for many things and know that everything is as it is meant to be right now.
Thank you for this message. It came at a time where again I cannot let go of the past, but really want to.
I accidently came across your website last week, feeling low, lonely and down after a breakup, and i can honestly say I love your stories the inspiration and the way you have definately started to make me think..I love this site and I am going to use all the information the inspiring stories to make me think differently, make me a better person and make me appreciate who I am and what I have instead of pushing everyone away and procrastinating away. I thank you so so much, to you and your readers..
As I sit, waiting for yet another CT scan, I am not scared nor upset. Having cancer 2x and a stem cell transplant does not define me. It’s just another of lifes hurdles the universe put in front of me.
I have so many reasons to be grateful. My parents. My family. My girlfriend. Triathlon. Teaching. Coaching. Yoga. Ushering. My program. And friends. So many friends…..
I like this Socratic method. True, good, useful. Simple.
I can ask the minions in my head these questions to shut them up!
Parth Bharadva says
Hey Marc and angel,
Here I am from Surat, Gujarat, India. I always prefer to read you blogs when even i am stuck in my life or need some motivation or suggestion i read you blog and get some solution and tips. and i will go back to life and rock it. and Best things to read your blog it will give you good though and ability to think better live better.
Thank You 🙂
Patricia Guenot says
I bought your wonderful and enlightening book Getting Back To Happy and am reading it for the second time and have started some rituals in the am. I am a 75 year old widow who lost her husband 4 years ago and am trying to have a happy and healthy life in a new state(New Jersey). Today I was supposed to have lunch with a very good friend of mine and I knew she had forgotten and I was ok with that as she has a very sick husband and it made me think of how situations like this put my life in perspective and make me appreciate the life I am living. There are problems but I
tend to overthink things and worry too much of the time. Your book is teaching me to change my thinking which is very hard for me to do but I am taking it one day at a time.
Valdivia Kibunja says
Thank you to the both of you. You inspire me each day and ever since my friend introduced me to you, I have really improved in viewing the world from positive lens. I have been in a vicious cycle of failure and stagnation and it is slowly starting to get better. Not because everything has finally worked out but because I see life from different lens.
What I am most grateful for is my life in general. I am grateful for my family and close friends who have been here all along. I am grateful for my health and the people who have been in and out of my life. I can’t say it wasn’t a painful experience to care about certain people who took that for granted but I can’t also overlook the lessons I have learnt. Some of these people taught me what I don’t want to become or have in my life. It may not be pleasant but it was worth it.
It is true. Our perspective is always more powerful than our circumstances.
Paul Francis says
Thank you for this thought provoking and introspective article. I have finally worked up the courage to begin a blog myself. Thank you.
Your email couldn’t have showed up at a better time! I sit on my deck and I enjoy the sun in the sky and the plants/veggies on my deck , and I think of the email. I think my story(which is a little too long to tell) could be worse! I am choosing today to change my perspective, to be happy and enjoy the little things.
One little thing is my son still wants to sleep with me. Although, I at times am not a big fan because he is like sleeping with a monkey! In a few months he might not want to cuddle mommy! So thank you, I needed every bit of this email this morning!
I have your book on my phone, but I am going to order a hard copy, I want to be able to enjoy no technology, no interruptions or distractions when I read it, so I am off to order it from chapters!
Cheers and happy long weekend!