They—the great they—say that most of our stress results from doing things we don’t want to do. Granted, life hands us trials that create stress as well, but much of our daily angst comes from frustration and feeling out of control. Duty-bound. Overwhelmed. Helpless.
As Latter-day Saints, we’re used to living the examined life. We take personal inventory often, measuring our growth in weak areas, setting goals, repenting, striving for constant improvement. We look at our accomplishments, we check off “to do” lists. Yet we don’t always look at the motivations we have for all that we do. And our motivation is key.
We can run around serving all day, we can gather family names for the temple, we can juggle jobs and wash and iron and cook and clean and help with homework until we’re blue in the face (or just blue), but if our motivation isn’t pure, it’s going to leave us feeling burned out and unfulfilled.
Here’s how to get centered again and strip away the exhausting extras. Every time you do something, mentally or verbally say these two words: “So that.” Here’s how it works. “I’m going to the supermarket to buy food so that my family can eat.” It’s a good reason to run that errand! But if you say, “I’m going to the supermarket to buy food because I have to make homemade cookies for the school fundraiser so that Amy Collier won’t sneer at my store-bought stuff again,” you’re doing it for the wrong reason. You’re trying to impress someone, compete, show off, or “be seen of men.” It’s never going to feel right, and the elephant in your room, or in this case—in your brain– will be resentment.
How about purchasing new shoes? “I’m buying new shoes so that I’ll have ones that fit and/or aren’t wearing out.” Good reason to get new ones. But what if it’s “I’m buying new shoes so that I’ll feel better, because shopping always puts me in a good mood.”? Shopping provides an endorphin rush for some people, a thrill, a sense of prosperity. If it’s taking the place of self-examination and constructive action to solve other problems, you’re avoiding an area of unhappiness that you should deal with instead of hide from. And you’re also not managing your finances wisely, which leads to a nagging sense of guilt.
Let’s say you get into your car and think, “I’m commuting more than an hour to work so that we can afford a house in a more prestigious area.” It’s costing you time with the family, and all so that you can impress others. It’s never going to feel right. But what if your long commute is the only job you could find? Now it becomes a sacrifice of time, but a job you’re grateful to have in a terrible economy when others are out of work. Now the drive feels like an investment in keeping your family afloat, rather than an embarrassing choice made from twisted priorities.
This “so that” formula can apply to anything. Going to school, taking a vacation, putting on makeup, losing weight, dating a particular person, watching a TV show, helping a neighbor, reading a bedtime story, taking a bath, mowing a lawn, you-name-it. Each one of those things can be done for a good, wholesome reason. And each one of them can be done for the wrong reason, and be resented, only compounding your problems.
Happy people usually have honest motives and resist doing things for the wrong reasons. They feel they have a measure of control over their lives, and enjoy their work more because they’re doing it with intention, deliberately bettering their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Happy people may have as many problems as the next guy, but they frame them as trials they can address, often with God’s help.
When we’re brutally honest about why we do the things we do, sometimes we’re surprised, and a little dismayed. We find out we have pride issues, insecurities, the need for attention. But that’s okay, because at least we’re in the honest zone now, and we can address the issues and resolve them. Then we can proceed through life far less obligated for the wrong reasons. The tangled web smooths out and we choose more thoughtfully before we take on responsibilities. We actually work in our jobs and callings with more joy and efficiency because we’ve committed to them for the right reasons. It could even be that we work harder than ever, but it feel less exhausting because our motives are love and caring instead of fear or reward.
Honesty is one of the greatest virtues, made greater still when we’re honest with ourselves.
Watch the music video of Hilton’s song, What Makes a Woman, from her new musical, The Best Medicine (with music by Jerry Williams). Her books are available on her website, here. Hilton currently serves as a Relief Society President.