Adapted from Forty Things I Wish I’d Told My Kids

Happiness is an art — and, like other arts, it requires practice and effort. Our happiness depends, in part, on our being able to start over when we find ourselves caught or stuck. This usually means letting go of harmful mental states or patterns and taking up something more skillful and beneficial. Often this involves dropping habits like anger and hopelessness and developing certain qualities we already have, such as gratitude, compassion, forgiveness and generosity.

These efforts do more than just bring us happiness; they also help us weather the storms of unwanted and unexpected events. The term “let go” is widely used, and perhaps overused. Yet, properly understood, it may be the single-most important key to our happiness. The obvious question is, let go of what? Depending on your situation, you might let go of particular ideas, beliefs, practices, habits, attachments, hopes, demands, expectations, relationships, strategies and inner stories that don’t serve you (or others) well.

Letting go does not mean letting go of your drive to live fully, to be present and engaged with the world. It doesn’t mean becoming a passive recipient of whatever comes to you in life. That’s not letting go; that’s apathy.

Sometimes we need to fight for what is genuinely important in life — things such as freedom, equality, safety, fairness and respect. Letting go doesn’t mean dropping, or even lessening, the vigor with which we pursue these important values. In fact, some of the world’s experts at letting go are also known as warriors for humanity. Look at Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Study their lives and you’ll see that their ability to act courageously, often in the face of danger and difficulty, was directly related to their ability to let go and begin again. These people teach us that when we let go of the things that don’t serve us, we become better able to make good decisions and take wise action. Having let go of despair, frustration, anger or an unhelpful pattern of thought or action, we are free to improve the situation, often in a unique or unexpected way.

Every act of letting go has both an of and an into aspect. When, for example, we let go of an old habit or cherished idea, this allows us to move into a new way of seeing, understanding, or working with the situation. We let go of fear and into courage. We let go of greed and into gratitude. We let go of blame and into cooperation. We drop something that’s unhelpful and replace it with something better. When the question facing us is “What do I do now?” letting go is often the answer — or, at least, part of the answer.

Let go of the story that you are a failure. Let go of the habit of playing video games to avoid grieving the end of a relationship. Let go of the habit of reliving painful memories. Let go of the notion that you are entitled to a perfect life. Let go of the hope that you will change your partner. Let go of the expectation that you can (or ought to) perfectly control your subordinates, or your kids, or your cat. Let go of the assumption that life can be what you want it to be, if only you do everything perfectly. Let go into something new and different — perhaps into generosity or gratitude or loving kindness. Sacrifice what you are — or think you are — for what you can become.

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