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Action and Reaction

Two simple letters change the word “action” into the word “reaction,” but when it comes down to it, the two concepts are more different than they may seem.

In fact, understanding the concepts of action and reaction are essential to creating a happier, more meaningful life. 

The difference

What is it that makes action and reaction so different from each other?

To start, let’s look at the definitions of the two words:

ac·tion

/ˈakSH(ə)n/

noun

  1. the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim. (source)

re·ac·tion

/rēˈakSH(ə)n/

noun

  1. an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event. (source)

Breaking down each of these definitions can help us distinguish key differences between these two concepts.

“…to achieve an aim.”

This phrase, used in this definition of action, tells us that action is intentional and purposeful. When you “take action,” you are doing something for the purpose of achieving something else. This makes action productive and useful.

“…in response to a situation or event.”

On the other side of things, reaction is not deliberate or purposeful. Rather, it is in response to something else that has already happened. Reactions are rarely intentional, and as such, they rarely have purpose. Because of this, a reaction is far less likely to be productive.

“…doing something…”

Stripped down to the most basic level, an action is doing something. It’s movement, progression, process, and industry. It’s acting.

“…or a feeling experienced…”

It’s interesting to note, however, that a reaction can manifest itself as an action or as a feeling. This means that while action, by definition, results in “doing,” reaction does not—at least not always. This also suggests lower productivity or effectiveness when someone relies on reaction.

Actions are deliberate. They are chosen specifically with a goal or end in mind. They tend to be thought-through and more on the logical side.

Reactions are less controlled and often happen thoughtlessly. They tend to be more emotional and are not deliberately chosen.

To sum up:

ActionReaction
ProactiveReactive
Often more logicalOften more emotional
ControlledUncontrolled
PurposefulDone “without thinking”

What this means for your thoughts

Your thoughts are your biggest asset in your search for a happy and meaningful life. Because happiness depends less on your circumstances and more on your mindset, you need to learn how to control your thoughts if you want to be happy.

To put it another way: you need to learn how to keep your thoughts focused on action instead of reaction. You need to learn to be a person that thinks and acts because of what you want to achieve, rather than because of what someone else said or did.

How action helps

When we come from a place of action, we are taking time to think and make purposeful, logical decisions. Action:

How reaction hurts

Reaction, on the other hand, puts us at the mercy of the world and people around us. Reaction:

  • Results in rash behavior
  • Is unpredictable
  • Does not move us toward our goals
  • Can come across as defensive, putting us at odds with others
  • Puts us at the mercy of others, who may manipulate our reactions to their benefit
  • Lets fear and insecurity drive our lives

Clearly, it is in our best interest to learn to act more and react less.

Respond, don’t react

“It’s not the situation, but whether we react negative, or respond positive to the situation that is important.”

Zig Ziglar

So are we just supposed to not react when something bad happens? 

Short answer: yes.

You shouldn’t react, but you should respond.

When you respond, you act. You think and take a proactive approach toward a problem. You use your brain and deliberately make a choice that will get you want you really want.

Consider this: you want to contribute more at work, but you have a hard time getting your boss to listen to your ideas. During a meeting, you try to offer a suggestion, only to have her cut you off.

A reaction to this might be exploding in anger, whether by yelling, leaving the meeting, or discussing your dislike for your boss behind her back later.

A response would more likely involve waiting until the meeting was over, requesting a private conversation with your boss, and discussing your concerns in a calm way.

The reaction isn’t likely to gain your boss’ favor. The response has a much better chance of getting you want you want.

In many cases, the difference is simple mindfulness—being aware when you’re about to react, and choosing to respond instead.

(We discuss more ideas about how to regain control in these situations in the “Try this” section of this post.)

Victim mentality: a life of reaction

When a person adopts a mentality of reaction, and tends to react more than act, they often develop what’s called a victim mentality.

A victim mentality is mostly what it sounds like: it’s a person thinking that they are a victim to their circumstances and to others.

Sure, some people are “victims” in the truest sense of the word: they are attacked, accused, or wronged in one way or another. But a victim mentality isn’t the same thing. A person with a victim mentality can take a minor setback or a day-to-day occurrence and always find someone else to blame. They struggle to take ownership for their own actions, and have a general “woe is me” attitude.

The problem with this is that it tends to severely inhibit growth. Because someone with a victim mentality feels beholden to the actions of others, this mindset results in a feeling of powerlessness. And if you feel powerless, are you even going to try to accomplish anything?

Allowing yourself to react, rather than disciplining yourself to act, is going to further entrench this notion that you have no control over your life, and anything you do is merely a reaction to someone or something else.

That won’t take you anywhere near reaching your own goals and realizing your own ambitions.

Only action can do that.

Learning to act rather than react can turn your life around, but not overnight. The important thing is to make deliberate action a habit, not an occasional occurrence. 

This is why action is one of the major steps in The Egg, our framework for designing a happier life. Learn more about action’s role in the Egg, and take our free assessment to help get you started down the path toward action, not reaction.

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