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Susan Smalley, Ph.D.

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Why Well-Being Is Not the Absence of Suffering

Posted: 10/25/10 09:45 AM ET

In "The Road Less Traveled," M. Scott Peck wrote, "Life is difficult." Whether you are rich or poor, old or young, male or female, religious or atheist, employed or unemployed, or a politician, doctor, lawyer, teacher, parent, son, daughter, sister or brother, we all face difficulties in life.

I once thought that understanding the genetic basis of disease would remove pain and suffering in the world. As I moved through my career, mapping genes for psychiatric disorders, I began to realize that pain and suffering are part of the human condition; they always have been and always will be. We may shift the source of such suffering through genetics or sociocultural, psychological and political processes, but pain and suffering are not going away. They are part and parcel of life as we know it.

Well-being is not the absence of illness, disease, or pain and suffering -- that is, life's difficulties. Rather, it is an acceptance of such challenges as part of the human condition, not unique to any one of us. And in the acceptance of this truth, there is a choice to be made: how will you relate to life's challenges?

Whether we know it or not, we choose all the time among a multitude of options. If we bring these choices into consciousness, we discover the vast range of freedom afforded. When you choose to accept suffering instead of wanting to change it, a sense of well-being arises, regardless of external circumstances. The great thing is, we have the freedom to make that choice. In some cases our range of external possibilities is limited (in cases like terminal illness, life itself may not be an option), but we always have a choice in how we relate to pain and suffering.

In Victor Frankl's book "Man and His Search for Meaning," he details the experience of living in four concentration camps during World War II. He saw that prisoners had the power to choose an attitude by which to live as a means of transcending the suffering in the camps and finding meaning to life.

We are always making choices -- choices between states of mind, between external actions, or whether to exercise, work, etc. Choice ultimately determines our well-being. Extreme examples like Frankl's illustrate the point, but so do examples in our daily life.

Once, I met a doctor who came from a war-torn country in Africa and was now living life as a cab driver. He told me he had felt discouraged, regretful, and frustrated by his lot in life until the day he consciously chose to accept his life as a cabbie and began to learn from it, with an open curiosity that changed his level of happiness forever. No longer angry and frustrated, he became curious and talkative to his passengers, who opened their hearts to this caring man and expressed their own dissatisfaction with life. They never wanted to leave his cab because in that car was a man who was content with life.

Arnold Beisser's story, told in his book "Flying Without Wings," illustrates the point, as well. He was a doctor who became paralyzed from the neck down due to polio, but in the process he discovered that well-being was not the absence of illness or disability but rather something to be found in his choice to accept what he could not change and find meaning and purpose in his life's work.

Stories such as these remind me of the power of choice in our own well-being. We need to see such examples over and over again because we forget our role in shaping our well-being; we act from habitual patterns of mind so often that we forget that we are making decisions at all. The more I explore my mind in my day-to-day life, the more aware I become of the choices I make. With attention, coupled with a curious and accepting attitude, we can fine-tune these choices in life.

And ultimately it is our choices that shape our sense of well-being in the world.

 

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