Suffering Comes From Wishing For Things To Be Different From What They Are
Steven C. Hayes is a psychologist and researcher which leads the A.C.T. (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) movement, which branched of from C.B.T. (Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy). This psychological research is evidence-based, meaning that the ideas conveyed as true have been shown to be effective on clinical trials.
For me, this means that, in regard to these ideas, I might like them or not, I might think they make sense or not, but they are shown to be useful, which I think is the most important.
Let's unpack that phrase: “suffering comes from wishing for things to be different from what they are”.
The suffering it is referring to is the psychological suffering, the suffering introduced by our own thoughts. Of course, any living being which is being subjected to physical pain will most likely also suffer at the same time, with plenty of reason.
What is fascinating about the human mind is that suffering can occur even in the absence of physical pain. I'd argue that human suffering occurs more often than not in the absence of any external stimulus at all! We suffer about what has happened in the past, we suffer about what we're afraid might happen in the future. We even suffer about our own current suffering.
The source of suffering outlined above -- which are not external stimuli -- are our internal thought processes. The past is not a reality, it is already gone. What has persisted is our memory and our interpretation of it. The future is also not a reality, it has not come to be. What exists is our expectations -- positive or negative -- of what it will be.
Suffering is mostly on the mind, on our very sophisticated mental machinery based allows us to have verbal thoughts, Hayes argues.
That is not to say that suffering is not real. Suffering is real! Psychological suffering is real. I mean to say only that the research argues that the source of psychological suffering is not in the outside world, but in the inside.
If the source of suffering were on the outside, it would be sufficient to change everything about our surrounds and our situation and suffering would be gone! That does not match what is observed. I think we have each known people from disadvantaged backgrounds grow to be happy and fulfilled, while other people from advantaged backgrounds suffer from their own self-imposed expectations. The outside world did not determine their life outcomes.
Even if it were possible to change everything about the outside world, it would not be practical. We, as people and humans, have to sustain relationships to others which are external to ourselves and which are autonomous in their own right. We can never reasonably expect their behavior and thoughts to always match what we wish they were.
Now, coming back to the phrase: “suffering comes from wishing for things to be different from what they are”. We've outlined what it means by “suffering”, which is the “psychological suffering” as generated by our own thoughts, even in the absence of external stimuli.
For the next point, one might recoil from this phrase as it might sound as advocating resignation. Resignation is the act of falling victim to external circumstances and giving up on trying to change the situation.
This phrase, instead, advocates acceptance. Acceptance is an empowered choice, it is choosing to not wish for change consciously and intentionally, and to come into terms with reality as it presents itself, letting the full range of that experience into your own self.
We can't change the past. We can't change our memory of the past. We can't change how things are now due to our choices in the past. We can't change our past choices. We can't wave a magic wand and change our current situation. We can't magically change how the people around us behave. We can't unilaterally change the whole world around us.
All of that might inspire hopelessness, but it shouldn't. It should be freeing instead: If all of that isn't possible, we're free to stop trying! We're also free to stop wishing for it to change. We can then direct our efforts and emotional investments into more productive ends.
What the phrase also does not say is “accept everything as it is”. Working towards some changes are fruitful. If you are nearsighted, you can get glasses. If you are in pain, you can seek medication or medical attention. If you have set some goal, you can work towards it.
What it means is that wishing for things to be different comes at a cost. Given this reality we should be conscious, intentional and tactical when we do choose that route.
- “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life” by Steven C. Hayes (2005).
- “A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters” by Steven C. Hayes (2019).