The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

How often have these words been proven true in my life? I can dislike even the most pleasant things if I set my mind to it (a rather perverse thing to boast about).

Like many people, this truth is most apparent when I am being forced to do something against my will. Even when it’s something I enjoy, if I feel that I’m being cajoled or pressured to do it, I will instantly become stubborn and bitter. I love to sing; but if you pressure me to sing, I will take a vow of silence; and if you somehow make me sing, I’ll hold a grudge against you for as long as I live.

Once we realize how much our happiness is a product of our mentality, it frees us to choose to think differently, and thus to feel differently. This is the principle behind many philosophies and religions—Stoicism, Buddhism, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For me, learning to focus on my mindset rather than my circumstances has been enormously beneficial; sometimes it’s impossible to change the world, but you can always change your mind.

Yet there is a limit to this. Some situations are just more pleasant than others; and some conditions are dehumanizing and dreadful. Milton implies this when he puts this quote into the mouth of Satan, who was just recently banished to hell. Satan is really deluding himself that he can be just as happy in hell as in heaven. The differences between his fallen state and his former blessed life is too apparent.

Even so, I think it’s generally true that the greatest source of our happiness or unhappiness is our expectations, assumptions, interpretations, and our fears. We may not be able to make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven, but we can make both a heaven and a hell of earth.

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