Dr. John Izzo’s new book, The Five Thieves of Happiness, defines insidious mental patterns that steal happiness. The five thieves are control, conceit, consumption, coveting, and comfort. I appreciate Dr. Izzo sharing this excerpt from his book, concentrating on the thief of control.
The Monkey with the Clenched Fist
The thief of control makes us like the monkeys of Southeast Asia who were captured at one time by locals through a simple yet cruel trick. Sweets were placed all around a tree, and a coconut was hollowed out, leaving a hole just large enough for a monkey to slip his hand through. Inside was placed a sweet. The other side of the coconut had a bolt that was chained to a tree. When the monkeys came and ate the sweets spread around the tree, one monkey would inevitably pick up the coconut, reach inside, and grab the treat. But the hole was not big enough to get the clenched fist out.
The monkey would often try desperately to carry off the coconut, but, try as he might, the coconut could never be taken nor the sweet removed from its shell. The only thing the monkey had to do to be free was unclench his fist and let go of the sweet. Yet most monkeys fought until utterly exhausted. The islanders would simply capture the monkey in that exhausted state. The monkey’s undoing was his own attachment and inability to let go.
Attention Without Attachment
Happiness is knowing what we can control and accepting what we cannot control. At the most basic level, happiness comes from understanding that we can control our actions and our responses to things external to us, but we cannot control the results of our actions. Focusing on our actions brings happiness; focusing on the result of our actions brings unhappiness.
The Buddha and Jesus often appear to the casual reader to be very different in their approaches to enlightenment or salvation (the two terms used in each tradition). In fact, the more one examines the teachings of each, the more one sees the way that both teachers emphasize the need to surrender to that which is at any moment. This is why the Buddhist Thích Nhâ’t Hanh has written extensively about the similarities of each teacher.
When Jesus encouraged his followers to look to the flowers of the field as role models because they did not seek, he was making a very important spiritual point. When he said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”¹ he was making the same point. It is not the lack of control that brings suffering but the desire for control, which keeps us from lasting happiness and peace.
One of the big moments in my own life was when I first understood the distinction between attention and attachment. Attention is the energy and choices I make, whereas attachment is an inner desire to control what is inherently uncontrollable. Another way to think about this is to see it as intention without tension. Having goals in life, or even desires of what we want to happen in any particular situation, is not a problem in terms of our happiness. It is when we become attached to controlling an outcome that the thief starts to rob us. The theft of our happiness rarely comes from our intentions but from the tension we feel when attached to the outcomes of things.
How do we know the difference between attention and attachment? Attention is about taking action in the present moment toward hoped-for ends, whereas attachment is becoming wed to a particular outcome’s being the source of our happiness.
I play a great deal of tennis, and this point can be illustrated easily there. Happiness on the tennis court is found in the experience of the body playing the game, the joy of experiencing the way the body, the racquet, and the ball all become one. In my most sublime moments playing tennis, my focus is simply on being fully present in the game, attentive to how I am hitting the ball and moving my feet. The moment I become focused primarily on whether I am going to win a point is the very moment when tennis becomes a source of unhappiness. Of course, I have the intention of winning a point and even the match, but this is an outcome I cannot control. What I can control is my intention to be as fully in the game as possible at every moment.
Life is much like that tennis game. We are happiest when we are simply fully present in each moment, expressing our intention through our focus and unattached to the outcome as the source of happiness.
Often we discover that the outcome—the goal we have become attached to—turns out to be less rewarding than the striving (the intention). My partner, Janice, tried out for the national baseball team in Canada for 18 years! For almost two decades, she worked hard, played hard, and practiced hard, and every year she tried to win a spot on the roster. Every year she failed to make it until finally, after all those years, she was given a spot. You would think, of course, that the outcome would have been the highlight of all that struggle. The opposite turned out to be the case. Getting on the team was anticlimactic compared with the present-moment focus, year after year, of trying to be the best player she could possibly be, both on the field and in the inner mental game. Besides, she could not control the outcome, so the more she focused on the process, the happier she was.
In order to center yourself with present-moment focus and deter the thief of control, I recommend this mantra, which has worked beautifully for me:
Dr. John Izzo is a corporate advisor, a frequent speaker and the bestselling author of seven books including the international bestsellers Awakening Corporate Soul, Values Shift, The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, and Stepping Up. His latest book is The Five Thieves of Happiness.
Over the last twenty years he has spoken to over one million people, taught at two major universities, advised over 500 organizations and is frequently featured in the media by the likes of Fast Company, PBS, CBC, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and INC Magazine.
¹Luke 12:25 (New International Version).
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.