4 Mindset Shifts for Greater Peace & Productivity

Can we change and move forward? Sometimes it feels like we can’t change. We feel stuck. We feel like our emotions just are what they are. However, if there is one thing that the great teachers of the world agree on, it is this: people can change. We are not stuck in our current ways of looking at things. We are not stuck doing the same old thing. Humans have a capacity for change.

This question is particularly poignant in times of great stress in the international order like we are facing right now. In such cases, it’s easy to let our anxiety get the best of us. We may not be aware of it. What can help us maintain peace and productivity in the midst of the storm?

I have found some help for this in the writing of some ancient philosophers known as the Stoics. The Stoics weren’t perfect, but they wrote simply and clearly about some of the best of the ancient wisdom for living well.

They key to the whole process of change is this. The locus of change is not outside us. It is inside us. It is our judgments, how we evaluate things, that determine how we will live. How we think about sickness or death, for example, will determine how we respond to it. For example, the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius says, “But I unless I think that what has happened is an evil, am not injured. And it is in my power not to think so” (Meditations, 7.14). He goes on to say: “If you are pained about any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it” (ibid., 8.47). It is how we think that determines whether or not something is bad or not. Of course, this is not about what we think at one particular moment. This is about our pattern of thinking. “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind, for the soul is dyed by the thoughts” (ibid., 5.16). So, if we are going to be what we were created for, we will have to change our mindset.

What are these mindset shifts that can especially help us change for the better? Here I would like to set forth some general mindset shifts that can help us achieve the human telos, goal, or purpose. These mindset shifts are to trust the providence of God, focus on what is under your power, find joy in being human, and focus on living today.

First, trust the providence of God. Don’t just see the events as bad things that happen to you or things that are random. Instead, see them as coming from the good government of God. The philosopher Epictetus says that we should agree with the providence of God and not want anything other than what God’s government brings us. If someone leaves us, “Don’t wish at any price that he should continue to live with you, don’t wish that you’ll be able to remain in Corinth, and, in a word, don’t wish for anything other than what God wishes” (Discourses, 2.17). Seneca made it his habit when things went contrary to his desires not only to recognize that God wanted something different but to assent to what God wanted as the best decision. “‘Heaven decreed it otherwise!’ Nay rather, to adopt a phrase which is braver and nearer the truth—one on which you may more safely prop your spirit—say, to yourself, whenever things turn out contrary to your expectation: ‘Heaven decreed better!’” (Letter XCVIII). See everything as the result of the providence of God, and you will be able to live a life of virtue and peace.

Second, focus only on things that you have control over. This is your place given to you by God. As an example, Epictetus speaks of the winds. We have no control over the wind. Speaking of the winds as under the control of the god Aeolus he asks, when will it be windy? “When it so chooses, my good friend, or rather, when Aeolus chooses; for God hasn’t appointed you to be controller of the winds, he has appointed Aeolus” (Discourses, 1.1). So, what should our response to this be? “What are we to do, then? To make the best of what lies within our power, and deal with everything else as it comes. ‘How does it come then?’ As God wills” (ibid.). We ought to give our energy and thought to what lies under our control and leave everything else to the government of God.

Third, find joy in being human. We may or may not have riches. We may or may not have the people we want in our lives. We may or may not live where we want. But we will always be human, and this is a very good thing. We should learn to rejoice in it. Epictetus writes: “If only one could be convinced of this truth, that we’re all first and foremost children of God and that God is the father of both human beings and gods, I think one would never harbour any mean or ignoble thought about oneself” (ibid., 1.3). Marcus Aurelius speaks to those who have a hard time getting up in the morning and says, “In the morning when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present. I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going into the world for things for which I exist and for which I was brought into this world?” (Meditations, 5.1). Epictetus recounts that someone once asked the philosopher Diogenes for a letter of recommendation. He wrote simply, “That you are a human” (Discourses, 2.3). If we can find joy in the most basic thing about ourselves, it will always be present with us.

Fourth, focus on one day at a time. Let go of the past and the future and recognize that you have today. See this day’s joys and opportunities. Seneca asks, what harm is there in looking forward to tomorrow? “Infinite harm; for such people do not live, but are preparing to live. They postpone everything” (Letter XLV). Where does our anxiety come from? “For he only is anxious about the future, to whom the present is unprofitable” (ibid.). So, what should we do? Seneca says, “let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day. . . . Therefore, my dear Lucilius, begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life” (ibid.). Then, we can look on the next day this way: “if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts” (ibid., Letter XII). This will focus our energies where we need to focus them and keep us from worrying about things that we do not need to worry about.

These general mindset shifts can put us in the right frame to live a virtuous life in accordance with God’s will and our nature. These points apply to every situation.


Photo by Quaritsch Photography on Unsplash


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