“Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff.” – Richard Carlson
How do you react?
Ask yourself this question next time you have an emotional moment, big or small, and take notice.
It’s easy to be dragged around by our emotions. In fact, it’s quite natural. We are reactionary creatures, and we evolved our emotions as a way of calculating our reactions, at any given moment, to preserve our safety, reproduce, and manifest a multitude of behaviors to ensure and perpetuate our survival.
And yet, a reactionary lifestyle isn’t really a virtue. We want to be collected and intentional, so that we can harness our well-being, rather than waiting for strokes of luck to bring us positive emotional reactions. Being even-minded gives us that ability. And this ability is a skill.
Did you know you can assess your Equanimity, the other subfactors of perspective, and hundreds of other subfactors of 50+ factors of well-being using the Assessment Center? Go check it out if you haven’t already signed up:
What Is Equanimity?
Here are some definitions from around the web:
mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.
“she accepted both the good and the bad with equanimity”
evenness of mind especially under stress
a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.
In this video, Dr. Chönyi Taylor explains equanimity in very simple terms. She uses this elegant example: you’re a chocolate addict and you see chocolate. On one side is a desperate “I want this!” On the other side is somebody getting it before you do, with the reaction “That’s not fair!”
Equanimity is sort of sitting between these. It is less reactive and unaffected by the ego.“When there’s no ego, we’re not grasping for the chocolate. We’re just saying ‘Well there’s chocolate here. I wonder if I could have some…no disaster if I can’t.’”
Nothing needs to be a catastrophe. Though our egos may liken every craving and aversion we experience to some manner of disaster, it needn’t be so. Psychological stability can factor into every experience, no matter how pleasurable or insufferable.
Equanimity is a fertile and important part of psychological research on well-being, and it is something we can cultivate.
Equanimity vs. Non-Attachment, Detachment, or Indifference
So, isn’t this just, like, not caring?
Well, not exactly. There are subtleties to these concepts, but let’s compare a few words to highlight the importance of the equanimity approach.
- Non-attachment: I will not get tangled in what I want or feel.
- Detachment: I will separate myself from what I want and feel.
- Equanimity: I will remain composed and even-minded before what I want and feel.
- Indifference: I don’t want, feel, or care.
There is a page here about attachment, which expands on the concept. You’ll find that it and other pages from the Freedom from Suffering section center around a core theme: your lived experience needn’t be something that happens to you. Instead, it can happen by you. We can think of this difference as that between our Creative Brain vs. our Reactive Brain.
In short, Equanimity comes from our attentiveness to inner equilibrium, and the choice that we make—and habit we foster—to see and accept our emotions before they affect our sense of inner peace.
Check out the page for more on this:
How to Cultivate Equanimity
Buddhism, in addition to being a widely-followed spiritual tradition, contains a lot of helpful philosophy and techniques on equanimity.
Across the web, you’ll find loads of resources from Buddhist teachers to expound on the concepts of equanimity. You can practice meditation exercises on youtube (1, 2, 3), and read interviews and articles (1, 2, 3) to practice and hone your understanding.
As you will notice, equanimity is a pretty universal psychological practice, and even in Buddhist contexts, it has a lot of helpful overlap with Mindfulness.
Our section on Mindfulness provides a well-rounded-yet-practical approach to the topic. It will lay a straightforward foundation for the concept, cutting through the hype. You’ll learn about benefits, recent science, and how to optimize Mindfulness for well-being.
And, as usual, you’ll find ample exercises and resources within the section too.
Here are a couple of exercises that you can try now, or put in your back pocket for later.
Practice: Emotion Labeling
This helpful, mindfulness-based exercise can be done at any time and place. We recommend re-visiting it regularly, and, once you feel fairly proficient, adding it to your toolbelt for when you’re facing difficult obstacles.
The action is simple. As you feel emotions, converse with yourself about what you’re feeling, as if looking at a map and locating/pointing out locations: “I am feeling angry,” or “this is frustrating” is all you need.
Research has shown that simply putting feelings into words can be a form of ‘implicit regulation.’ That is, it can attenuate our emotional experiences without actually feeling like emotion regulation.¹²
It’s important that, as you label your feelings, you don’t ruminate over them. The whole point of the exercise is to label, then move on without overanalyzing. This can get easier over time as you practice. Not only can you make a habit of labeling and moving on, but you can also gain greater literacy in the area of human feelings.
We go into great detail on feelings and needs in our section on Compassionate Communication, also known as ‘Nonviolent Communication,’ or ‘NVC.’ You’ll find a number of insightful things there, including a list of human needs and feelings.
“None of us can control our emotions. We can only control our reactions to our emotions.” –Neil Pasricha, The Happiness Equation
Exercise: Foster Equanimity by Breaking Negative Thought Patterns
We all struggle with negative thinking from time to time. This is an example of a break in equanimity. For example, we may get over-fixated on the sources of our stress, rather than solutions. Sound familiar? Though you may wonder if you’re crazy during such stress cycles, it is a normal aspect of human life and a result of our habitual nature and over-grasping for control.
This exercise is Martin Seligman’s ABCDE method for Learned Optimism, and it is one of the most powerful and practical methods for shifting from negative thought patterns to a positive focus. (Check out our section on Hope to learn all about Optimism)
Whenever you feel a cue for rumination brewing, grab a pen and paper and begin to write:
- Adversity – Write down what happened. What adverse circumstances occurred. You can do this in as little as one sentence, and be sure you’re writing the objective facts without any value judgments or subjective interpretations.
- Belief – Write down what stories and reactions this triggered in you. What did you end up thinking because of this? You can include negative self-talk, judgments, etc. here. Let the ego have its fearful say, uncensored.
- Consequences – What stemmed from having these beliefs? How did those thoughts affect your feelings and behavior? Give words to the feelings you’re experiencing.
- Disputation – Write a new story. You can list alternatives to why things may have happened that way, like “He may have been late because he wasn’t feeling well.” Also, challenge the usefulness of your prior narrative, and revisit the implications of what occurred. This step is where you look at the issue—AND your reaction to it—from various angles, at different scales, and with new consideration.
- Energization – How do you feel after the last step? Did your behavior change? How about your body? It’s encouraged here to celebrate positive shifts in feelings and behavior.
If you’d like a printout for this exercise, check out this one from our Hope section: