Three years ago, I stumbled upon a splendid little book entitled A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. By Professor William Irvine, the book promised something extraordinary: that happiness can be found in the doctrines of the aging, often-misunderstood philosophy of Stoicism if one will only take its teachings to heart by becoming a practicing Stoic.
Needless to say, I was initially pretty skeptical. My only prior exposure to Stoicism had come from a cursory reading of a battered old copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the personal journal of a Roman emperor who doubled as a philosopher. While Aurelius’ exhortations to stand firm in the face of hardship — to be like “the rocky headland” that prevails in the midst of the ocean’s battering — left a mark when I first read them years ago, I’d never actually attempted to put Stoic teachings into practice. Yet after reading Irvine’s book, I decided to do just that.
It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Indeed, over the past three years I’ve read the works of all four great Roman Stoics — Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, Seneca and of course Marcus Aurelius — and with their help I’ve come to a few realizations:
1. Although we have a lot to be grateful for, we aren’t grateful for those things because we’ve taken them for granted.
As Irvine writes in his book, too often we feel dissatisfied with our lives for the simple reason that we’ve taken valuable things for granted — our health, our wealth (however great), our personal relationships, our family and, indeed, the incredibly improbable yet wonderful fact that we are even alive at all. Because we’ve taken such things for granted, we assume wrongly that many immensely valuable things are mundane, and as a result we don’t give thanks for things that should be sources of great happiness. Personally, for example, I often take for granted that I am a healthy 25-year-old, and as a result I don’t derive much day-to-day happiness from a precious trait — health — that many others desperately desire.
Recognizing this tendency to disregard what we have, the Stoics developed an immensely simple yet valuable technique to help us regain the happiness we used to feel for things we now take for granted: Negative visualization. The idea behind negative visualization is simple, albeit counterintuitive: Spend 10 minutes or so every day visualizing various things that could go wrong. For example, I could imagine losing a limb or being diagnosed with cancer. According to the Stoics, this form of meditation will make me feel better, as imaging all the things that could go wrong will cause me to feel grateful for all the things that haven’t gone wrong. In other words, if you imagine losing something, you will become grateful that you in fact have that thing.
For example, after just a few minutes of the meditation described above, I will become grateful that I do have all my limbs, that I haven’t been diagnosed with cancer and so on. I will, in short, stop taking my health for granted and feel grateful for the simple fact that I have my health in the first place. In addition to health, I can do the same thing when thinking of my personal relationships (imagine losing friendships), my personal success (imagine losing a valuable accomplishment), and so on.
Theoretically, negative visualization works no matter how bad off you are. If your sole possession is a blanket, you could still imagine the loss of that blanket. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and a bad back, you could still visualize an even worse situation — being diagnosed with HIV too, for example. If you are poor, homeless, lonely and have been diagnosed with ten long-term illnesses, you could at the very least be grateful that you are alive. Alas, I personally don’t think negative visualization is too helpful in these extreme instances, but for the large proportion of us who have relatively mundane problems that we exaggerate (I put myself in this category), it can go a long way towards helping us feel grateful for what we have.
2. External events cannot harm us — only our judgements of those events can.
A second piece of Stoic wisdom is even more helpful, I think, than the first: External events cannot harm us. As Epictetus writes: “Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”
At first this piece of wisdom, like negative visualization, sounds counterintuitive. Of course external events can harm us, one might understandably protest! If my arm gets sliced off, I’ve been harmed; if I’m jailed, I’ve been harmed; if I’m starved, I’ve been harmed; and so on and so forth.
But according to the Stoics, this view of things is far too simplistic. Losing an arm, starving, or facing imprisonment are at core only harmful because I think they are harmful. My judgement about those events is negative, and therefore if those events happen I believe I am worse off. Yet because our internal judgements are independent of external events, the occurrence of a bad event does not necessarily have to result in sadness. (A Stoic would add that — given the immensity of time and space surrounding us in all directions — nothing that happens to us, even death, is really all that big of a deal anyway.)
Thus, if I lose an arm and am depressed as a result, Stoics would place the blame for the sadness not on the event (the loss of the arm) but rather on me, on a problem in my own internal outlook that causes me to feel sadness at an external event. This sentiment is captured by Cicero: “We blame circumstances [for our sadness] when what we ought to be blaming is a deficiency in our own character.”
Obviously, most of us are not wholly immune to external events. The bad things that happen to us result in bad feelings within us. But recognizing that there is an inner core that is free to be happy or sad no matter the circumstances, recognizing that our positive or negative judgement of our lives is not at the mercy of external events but rather is something that is in some sense independent and under our own control, can go a long way in fostering a healthier outlook. More importantly, it can help us stay strong when bad things do happen.
So sure, I might lose my health; I might lose an arm; I might lose a job, my wealth, my house and indeed everything and everyone I know, value, and love. But it is only my judgement about the loss of these things — not the loss itself — that makes me sad. This suggests that one does not have to become despondent when bad things happen; to a degree, one can choose to remain happy.
3. Chasing future happiness is self-defeating. We can find happiness if we simply accept the past and present.
A final nugget of Stoic wisdom is that in refusing to accept our reality, in always holding out hope for a better future where — if only we can attain it — we will find happiness, we are robbing ourselves of present happiness. By seeing happiness as a result of some future act (dating this or that girl, attaining this or that grade, finding this or that job and so on), we lose sight of what we have to be happy for in the present. Worse, if our plans for future happiness go awry we grow depressed.
The Stoic remedy for this is reflected by the Ralph Ellison quote: “Life is to be lived, not controlled …” That is, if we accept whatever reality throws at us, if we determine that our internal judgement of external events will remain positive no matter how bad those external events may seem, we will be happier for it. More, if we stop trying to control what we cannot control, if we do the rational thing and only worry about those things that are in our power (not much, if you think about it), then this acceptance of destiny will allow us to accept all the fickle turns of fate with dignity and acceptance.
As the poem in Epictetus’ Enchiridion goes:
Lead me…O Destiny,
the way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch, and still must follow.
Alas, I am at best a flawed Stoic. I take a lot for granted, external events do make me sad, and I have not yet completely accepted those aspects of the past that I wish I could change. Yet Stoic philosophy has proven to be a surprising and unexpected source of strength.
If, then, like me you too are often dissatisfied with life and ungrateful for what you have, I invite you to take the plunge like I did. (Specifically, I suggest you start out with Irvine’s great book, which I linked in the first paragraph.)
Who knows? Reading the Stoics just might, for you as for me, be the first step towards a happier life.
A version of this article was previously published on Huffington Post.
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