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The prevailing wisdom about mental well-being is that we live an outside-in experience of life, which typically means that our circumstances are the cause of our experience. This paradigm, so pervasive in our culture as to be invisible to us, says that when circumstances in life line up the way we want them to, we are happy and successful, and when circumstances don’t go the way we want, then we are completely justified in our misery, frustration, anger, and sadness.

By this line of reasoning, the source of stress looks like our boss, our bank account, our troubled marriage, the traffic, our overfull inbox, the demands of others, politicians that we don’t agree with, and on and on. We can’t be faulted for seeing it this way, since we’ve been raised to believe this is true, just like the conventional messages about nutrition, health, and fitness. Yet there’s another paradigm, and just like the Paleo diet, I wouldn’t expect most people to believe in what’s possible until they’ve tried it themselves.

The inside-out understanding of life points to the fact that we all have peace of mind and well-being available to us at any moment, and that the only thing standing between us and being in touch with our peace of mind is our thinking. It would be absurd to assume that when clouds roll in the sun has actually gone away, rather than just being temporarily obscured. So too, our thoughts can be just like clouds that temporarily obscure our experience of our ever-present well-being. The presence of clouds doesn’t indicate that the weather is broken, any more than the presence of “dark” thoughts indicates that we are broken.

State of Mind as the Most Important Variable

We’ve all had the experience of having the same set of circumstances look bleak one moment and much less bleak, even hopeful or humorous, later on, when our state of mind has shifted and we gain some perspective. One way to make sense of the inside-out understanding is to think of our state of mind as a pair of sunglasses with an ever-changing tint to them that we often don’t even notice we are wearing. Sometimes the lenses are very dark, sometimes they have a medium tint, and sometimes they have nearly no distortion at all. The nature of being human is that our state of mind, or the lenses through which we see the world, is changing all the time. While we can certainly do things that temporarily influence the tint of our lenses, it’s incredibly helpful to see that this tint changes all the time without any effort on our part. What’s true for every single one of us is that whenever our lenses are especially dark, we all experience similar symptoms. Seeing the world through dark lenses, we are all prone to:

  • Experience frustration, irritation, or anger
  • Take things personally
  • Lose our sense of humor
  • Feel hopeless
  • See few or no possibilities
  • Feel like we are the only ones with this problem
  • Feel very judgmental of ourselves and others
  • Feel like we are the victim
  • Feel like life is complicated
  • Feel tightness and constriction in our bodies

As our lenses gain a lighter tint, the symptoms we experience in life inevitably change, and are also quite predictable. As our state of mind lightens or clears, we are all much more likely to:

  • Experience compassion, understanding, and love
  • Not take things personally
  • Find our sense of humor and our creativity
  • Feel hopeful
  • See more possibilities
  • Feel warmly towards others and a sense of connectedness
  • Feel lighter
  • Feel like life is simpler

With a conventional approach we typically—and mistakenly—expend lots of effort focusing on alleviating these symptoms, thinking that we can and should work on them to reduce our stress and to have a better experience of life. Yet, from the perspective of this deeper understanding, the symptoms merely point in the direction of the real cause of our experience, which broadly conceived, is our state of mind. When we see that our temporary state of mind, and not the circumstances, is the source of our stress, the simple act of noticing our state of mind changes our experience and our stress begins to diminish. I encourage you to try it for yourself and play around with the simple act of noticing your state of mind, without judgment or trying to change it.

To explore further this fresh take on stress and well-being, I recommend the following resources: