10/28/2014 09:00 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Giving Up What We Love Doing

When I arrived as a spotty 18-year-old at my new college, its head was Maurice Bowra, a don famous throughout Oxford for outrageous acts and aggressive wit. When told an academic rival was sick, his response was "Nothing trivial, I hope?" It was in this atmosphere I learned to love verbal sparring, the university's currency of talk, where we would blithely argue that black was white just to sharpen our debating skills.

When I joined the real world, however, it took me a while to realize that the argumentative style I had honed at university did not go down well outside it. My colleagues at the oil refinery in Essex, England, did not appreciate my verbal jousting quite as much as I did. I learned to reserve it for my close friends, until I discovered that most of them didn't like it either. I didn't want to give it up, but I had to, to avoid making enemies out of friends.

Then I found out that giving up my love of argument wasn't all that painful after all. I learnt that approaching people in a friendly way gave better results, for me as well as them. (Though I still make exceptions!)

Eight months ago, my left knee turned dodgy, and my doctor recommended an operation. I had to give up tennis, a game I loved and played several times a week. And guess what? Giving up tennis was nowhere near as bad as I imagined. Walking the dog and bike riding more than made up for the loss. (My knee is now fully recovered, without an operation, due to a change in diet and exercises -- thanks to Patrick Holford for his brilliant book, Say No to Arthritis. I now play tennis again but nowhere near as often.)

What is it about "giving up"? There are small things and big things we can give up, the latter being, as M. Scott Peck says, "the giving up of personality traits, well-established patterns of behavior, ideologies, and even whole life styles. These are major forms of giving up that are required if one is to travel very far on the journey of life."

If you observe married people or other long-term couples -- or your own life -- you often find that there are persistent and recurrent sources of conflict. These can be minor forms of bickering, which nonetheless cause pain or friction. One person wants to go out to dinner with friends, the other wants to stay in. One likes to eat earlier, the other later. One likes to drive fast, the other more slowly. One likes to work late at the office, the other wants a quicker return home. One likes surprises, the other set patterns. Our habits and inclinations can become a form of tyranny, often encapsulated in "games people play" which perpetuate conflict with the people we love most.

In persisting in our habits and personality traits, we are not valuing results. An 80/20 approach would be to look at all our set patterns and personal preferences, and ask which of them are really delivering the results we want. The short answer -- very few of them. There may be one or two personality traits that are awkward for some people but really do deliver outstanding results -- for example, the willingness to stand alone on an issue, the habit of independent thought, and the occasional tolerance of conflict. If these have worked before and look as though they will produce results in the future, cling to them. But most of our habits and preferences? They typically produce more bad than good results. Judge by results. Give most of them up.

Giving up is less painful than we think. And far more productive. Giving up produces better relationships. As Scott Peck says, it takes us further on the journey of life.

The most important form of giving up, though, go further. It is yielding part of our personality, part of our whole approach to life, to a higher goal. This is giving ourselves up to -- you choose the word or words you prefer, because this is delicate territory -- to a cause, to God, to our conscience, to our better selves, to "the universe." It means being willing to trust to doing the right thing, even if it is really painful, even if -- in extreme cases -- it is fatal. If giving up habits can be easier than we think, giving up our "selves" is always hard, at least at first.

Why do it?

Again, the reason is results. I am not going to appeal to your good nature, because if it is anything like mine, that may not take us very far. Instead, look at the results that come from yielding yourself up to the universe. Instead of enemies, you see friends and allies. Instead of fear, you find hope. Instead of pessimism, optimism. Instead of hate, you find love. It is all there. You find what you expect to find, and if you trust in goodness, you find goodness.

For sure, there is a battle going on in life -- between what produces better results versus poorer results. Some of this may be thought to be morally neutral, and "just" a matter of knowledge -- this drug rather than that one is better at curing a disease, for example; this traffic scheme causes less congestion than that one. But actually, if you think about it, in terms of results, better knowledge is not morally neutral. And the pursuit of any activity to help other people has an element of goodness inherent in it.

The big breakthrough comes, though, when we try to consciously position ourselves on the side of goodness, when we yield the control of our lives to the power beyond ourselves, the goodness that lives and breathes in people, in insight, in science, and in the universe generally. This, too, is a form of giving up, the highest form that there is.

In our culture, giving up is generally frowned upon. But what if our culture is wrong? What if giving up is really the beginning of wisdom, and the only route to deep peace and happiness?