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Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a four part series about a new Happiness Paradigm that replaces the attitudes of control, ownership and independence with their more spiritual alternatives. Read the first overview article here.
Our Addiction to Control
The term “Control Freak” brings to mind a certain type of person—a type none of us want to be, but that many of us feel that we are becoming.
Oh, how we long for Control. We try to control the events of our day by making lists and checking them off. We try to control our children by disciplining and rewarding them. We try to control our destiny by deciding who and where and what we will become. And when things go a different direction than our plans and our lists and our goals, we feel frustration and stress.
But think about it. What do you really control? You are one tiny individual in a world full of forces and circumstances that operate completely apart from your will. Think about the folly of trying to control everything. Life is essentially unpredictable. It happens; little of it is within our control. The measure of our success and happiness lies not in controlling what happens, but in how we handle and respond to what happens. Constantly trying to control what can’t be controlled is a recipe for stress and frustration.
Of course it’s good to control our checkbooks and our emotions. But when our desire for control goes beyond the basics, it quickly becomes problematic.
Would you really like to control your life and the lives of those around you, or is that control better left to God?
The history of the
quest for control is essentially the history of the world. Human beings
seem hard-wired with the desire to control things around them. This
internal programming has probably saved our lives individually and
collectively. However, in recent
history, the instinct to control has been institutionalized by the whole
industry of time management and goal-setting and by the notion that control is
what can bring us happiness. The sound notion of setting goals and making
plans and controlling oneself gets expanded into the false idea that we should
be able to control and manage everything (and everyone) around us. In
reality, we have control of a tiny island of things around which swirls a huge
sea of uncontrollability and unpredictability. Our challenge is not to control
the ocean, but to see its beauty and appreciate and learn how best to ride on
its waves and currents.
In the control mode, surprises annoy or irritate us because they may prevent our day from going exactly as we had planned. Our friends annoy us because they don’t do things the way we would. Our children annoy us because they don’t seem to want to do exactly what we want them to, or be quite what we want them to be, or to be interested in just what we think should interest them. And days when we don’t get everything checked off of our list get chalked up as failures because we have defined success as control.
Striving to control our emotions, our appetites, and our habits is good and praiseworthy. However, we must strive with equal diligence to acknowledge that we are fragile and vulnerable and need help in everything we do, even our most personal improvement goals. It is essential to understand that we have the power of choice and that we can expend it on our own appetites or harness and bridle it to serve the greater good.
Bottom line: There must be a better and more accurate attitude than Control!
Instead, Learn to Flow with a Serendipity Attitude
The best antidote to a Control Attitude is a Serendipity Attitude.
This marvelous word has been adopted and over-simplified recently by popular culture, becoming the name of ice cream stores, boutiques, and clothing lines–and even the title of a major movie. In its new popularity, Serendipity is often defined as “fate” or “luck” or “having something good happen to you purely by chance.”
It’s true definition though, is much more interesting and illuminating.
The word was coined by a 19th century English author named Horace Walpole who loved an ancient Persian fable called “The Three Princes of Serendip” (“Serendip” was the early name of the beautiful, teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India that the British called Ceylon and that we, today, call Sri Lanka.)
In the fable, each of the three princes sets out in search of his fortune. None of them actually finds a fortune, but all of them, through their extraordinary awareness and perception, find things that are better than a fortune: love, truth, and opportunities to serve. They are able to make these discoveries because they notice things that other people miss, and thus discover unexpected joys and opportunities.
Walpole, reading the fable, said to himself, “We do not have an English word that expresses that happy ability to find things that are better than what we think we are looking for.” So, he made up the word “Serendipity”, and defined it as follows:
“A state of mind whereby a person, by good fortune and through awareness and sensitivity, frequently finds something better than that which he is seeking.”
Think for a moment about the elements and implications of Walpole’s fascinating definition. First, it is a person’s state of mind or attitude. Second, it requires awareness and sensitivity. Third, it implies that the person is proactive, because he or she is seeking things, or has goals. Fourth, it suggests that, as life spontaneously happens, we get opportunities, or impressions, or ideas—perhaps related to things most people miss—that are actually better or more joyful than whatever we were consciously doing or seeking.
Walpole’s definition implies that even as we live our lives, going about our business, controlling what we can, pursuing our goals, we should strive to stay aware and in tune, using both our senses and our intuition or inspiration. As we do, we may well see better paths—things both more important and happier than what is on our to-do list.
These “serendipities” can be big or small. They might involve little opportunities or small beauties like an unexpected call from a friend or a lovely sunset. Or they can be big connections or discoveries. For example, Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics by the serendipitous observation of how the mold blown in through an open window started killing bacteria on a Petri dish in his lab. And Charles Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize rubber by noticing what happened when a pot boiled over on his stove.
On the micro or the macro level, the search for serendipity puts the premium not on controlling, but on observing. Our focus is not on forcing things to be the way we want them, but on seeing the possibilities in things as they really are.
“Serendipitous,” by the way, is the adjective form—and a highly useful and descriptive word as we shall see.
Serendipity gets even more interesting when the spiritual dimension is brought in. We can strive to be more aware and observant not only by way of our five senses, but also through our intuition and spiritual sensitivity. As we strive to become more attuned to the feelings of our soul, things come to us via impressions, “nudges,” promptings, hunches, and inspiration. Through these we become more in touch with what is really going on around us, and we begin to see things in a more complete and insightful way. In this spiritual dimension, serendipities become what scripture sometimes calls “tender mercies” and we begin to perceive the unexpected (and certainly beyond-our-control) blessings that a higher consciousness might put before us every day.
An enhanced, spiritual definition of Serendipity then, would be “A state of mind and spirit wherein we strive for awareness of divine blessings, purpose and will. As we go about our lives and seek our goals, we try to notice all that is around us and inside us, happy for the adventure and spontaneity of life and willing to detour or depart from our plans as we become aware of something better.”
Contrasting the Deceiver with its Alternative
Control or Serendipity: Which is most true, which best accommodates and attracts love, which is most motivating, and which produces the most happiness?
The fact is that we control so very little—most is beyond and above our control, and yet unexpected opportunities, circumstances and blessings are all around us, along with incredible beauties, and we need only the awareness and spiritual sensitivity to notice them. We can cultivate this awareness, and we can ask for it. As we do, we use our agency to take the spiritual initiative that allows the divine to bless us in ways we could never have planned and to prompt us in directions we never would have thought of. This kind of subliminal guidance is infinitely more valuable and more worthy of our desire than our own personal control. And Serendipity is the mind-state or paradigm that can attract these gifts.
Love has many definitions, but all involve care and concern and deep feelings for others, all of which are fostered more by the awareness of Serendipity than by the self-focused elevation of Control
Control can seem motivating because it appeals to our lust for power and domination. But it is a dangerous kind of motivation because it is often unbridled by humility and can lead to the worst kind of pride. With a serendipity paradigm, we are motivated by our desire to discover what is happiest and best rather than trying to manufacture it all the time. We begin to see life as a great adventure where our challenge is not to control but to notice and perceive and understand. We become as interested in learning how to “watch and pray” as we are in learning how to “work and plan” and the two sets of skills complement and enhance each other.
The results of a Control paradigm (“control freaks” are actually pretty well named) include obsessive behavior and a lot of irritation and frustration at all the situations and circumstances (and people) in life that simply don’t happen the way we want them to. In a control mentality, we are annoyed by surprises or unexpected occurrences that distract us from the things on our list. Things that don’t fall into line with our plans and our controlling idea of how things should happen are seen as interruptions, irritations, impediments.
The results of a Spiritually Serendipitous paradigm are happier, more peaceful, and much more exciting. Through our increased awareness, we learn to live in the moment and enjoy the present. We do our best to plan our future, but we relish spontaneity and become good at expecting and looking for surprises and unexpected opportunities. We take off the “blinders” of our obsessions with our own wants. With our peripheral vision restored, we notice both the needs and the beauties of others.
A serendipitous attitude seems to slow time down, to take the pressure off, to make us observers of God’s world rather than feverish little worriers, trying to control our own little imagined world, and continually failing to do so.
A serendipitous approach opens us to our own Souls, while a control approach closes that inner door.
Be a Serendipity Parent, Not a Controlling Parent
One of the most powerful applications of Serendipity as a replacement for control comes in the area of parenting.
Controlling parents try to manage all of their children’s actions, thoughts, ambitions, and behavior, to make their decisions for them, and to turn them into their version of what they should be. They often lose their kids or force them to rebel.
Serendipity parents observe and notice who their children really are and recognize and support their unique gifts and attributes; they see teaching moments and find opportunities to ask involving questions and to motivate kids to plan their own lives and make their own choices.
Of course, good parents have goals for what they want to teach their children, and to some extent for what they want their children to become, but if we become too obsessed with our wants for our kids, we can become control freaks and do more harm than good.
Instead, if we can train ourselves to be sensitive and aware enough to notice our kids’ unique gifts and potential, we will find ways to help them grow into their own best selves, and we will enjoy this kind of parenting much more than the controlling kind.
For more insight and practical ideas on how to make the shift from control to serendipity, you are invited to the Podcast:https://www.byuradio.org/episode/112e1496-2b93-4d54-b217-490a3b6b7421
And if you want to read the whole book on Serendipity, Stewardship, and Synergicity, go to
The Happiness Paradox is Richard Eyre’s 52nd book. Richard and Linda Eyre’s books and speaking on marriage and parenting and their website valuesparenting.com have become a template for two generations of families and continue to be best sellers throughout the world. Follow the Eyres on Instagram @richardlindaeyre