What do you want out of life? You might answer by saying that you want a good job, a nice house, and in general to be successful. But those are things you want in life. When you ask what you want out of life do you want material possessions, to reach predetermined goals, or the perceived happiness and tranquility that they will bring? It’s important to identify a grand goal and what will bring that outcome. People are so caught up in the daily, yearly, and even every ten years goal that they are blind to what may be truly important to them.
What is Stoicism?
When I first heard the word Stoic, I thought of a chiseled roman statue that showed little to no emotion, I really had no idea what it was. It’s an ancient philosophy that is meant to bring tranquility and happiness to life regardless of your situation. And when I say ancient, I’m talking over 2,000 years ago, peaking in popularity with the roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
What does a 2,000 year old philosophy have to do with today? Quite a bit. It’s surprising to see how little life has changed. The stoics wrote about how money will not bring happiness. How when people insult you it hurts. How to overcome anxiety. All things you see as topics in talk host shows. I had the pleasure of learning about stoicism through the book, “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irvine and I have summarized the key concepts below.
How to Reduce Anxiety
Stop Worrying! Easier said than done but if you are freaking out about being on a plane. Remember, you always have the choice of not being on the plane, but if you find yourself with seat belt fastened then take a deep breath and enjoy the complimentary peanuts. All the worrying in the world won’t make a difference at that point. And if the plane does crash, do you want to spend your last couple of hours worrying or enjoying a good book or a conversation with the person next to you. In short, focus on the things you can control and not on the things that you cannot.
The Stoics believed in fate. That we are actors in a play already written and our roles in life are predetermined. The only thing we can do is live life to its fullest.
Stoics did not advocate sitting around all day because our actions would not impact our fate, on the contrary they worked hard at everything they did. Their fatalistic belief was more of a way to help them cope with past events and enjoy the moment. For example, one should not spend their days agonizing on what they could have done differently. Rather it was fate. All we can do is learn from those events and use them to make us a better person. Also, while our actions can impact future events to a degree, fate has determined this very moment. There is nothing you can do to change this exact instance in time. Sure, you can change what may happen half a second from now, but not this exact moment. Thus, even though you may wish to be somewhere else, you should embrace where you are and make the best of it. While this is a conflicting message about life being predetermined and working your hardest to live life, it offers a coping mechanism for the past and a reason to embrace the present.
This reinforces the view on control. Concern yourself on things that you can change, but not on things that you cannot. This will reduce your anxiety and allow you to be happy in the present moment.
Compete against yourself
Here is another example of focusing on things that you can control. Let’s say you are competing in some sport, bowling, golf, tennis, whatever it may be. Instead of a goal to win the competition, your goal should be to play to your utmost ability. This would be within your control where winning the game is not. You cannot control how much better the other person is, but you can strive to reach your upmost ability. A goal of winning the game can lead to disappointment, but if feel you are playing your best it will always be a victory.
Humans are Insatiable
This is one of my favorites stoic concepts and core to leading a happier life. It may also make you rich, giving you everything you want in life. Simply put, the ordinary person is never satisfied. Once we achieve some desire, we get bored and dream of something greater.
Imagine a time where the joy of a bowl of macaroni and cheese or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich brought a tremendous smile to your day. But as years passed and your budget and palate for finer foods increased, you are now only satisfied by high end restaurants or an expensive bottle of wine. People who have reached this culinary milestone may brag that they only eat the finest foods. On the contrary, this person has lost the ability to feel immense pleasure out of the simple things in life.
People who live luxurious lifestyles are rarely satisfied. Experiencing luxury only whets their appetite for more luxury. Imagine how much easier life will be if you stop wanting. If you are content with what you have and spend more time enjoying rather than striving for something better.
Psychologist have given this phenomenon a name, hedonic adaptation. The concept is that once you reach a certain lifestyle, you adapt to the new normal. What was once luxurious is now common place. Think about people who live with an out-house. On a cold winter night, they must leave the warmth of their house and sit in an unheated shack to do their business. How much joy do you think in house plumbing would bring to that person? Do you experience that same joy when you use the restroom in your house?
While I am not advocating getting rid of your indoor bathroom, it clarifies the phenomenon of humans adjusting to a new normal. Here is where the new normal starts to detract from our happiness. You are working hard and making a lot of money. You go out and buy yourself a luxury car with all the upgrades. You feel a euphoria upon feeling the fine leather seats, fast engine, and premium sound system.
After a few weeks the happiness starts to fade, after a few months it is now common place. But one thing has not faded, the high monthly car payments or the money that you have tied up in the car that could be earning you an investment return. With this cash shortage you must work harder and longer to pay for it. This increased work takes away your free time to spend building relationships and instead adds stress to your life. You also have the additional worry of taking care of the car. What if it gets scratched? Now ask yourself this question, would you rather have this luxurious car along with the added work hours, stress, and reduced free time or have a used car with cloth seats that performs that same function of transporting you from point A to B?
How do you stop this never-ending game of not being satisfied? We must convince ourselves to want the things that we already have. But how?
Appreciate the things that you have
The stoics answer was negative visualization. Think of an experience in your own life or someone else’s where something was lost. It could be an elderly person who lost their site, mobility, or ability to eat a steak. Or it could be a younger person who lost their job, lost a loved one, or lost something that that was of value to them. Have you or that person said, I really miss it. I didn’t realize what I had until it was gone.
Now the stoics had the foresight to say, why wait until it’s gone to miss it. If you imagine it’s gone today, then you will learn to truly appreciate it. It will bring you happiness at this moment and you will feel less of a need to upgrade to the perceived better job, car, relationship or whatever else it may be that you are chasing.
The author of the book told a story about his mother. She was unable to drink liquids such as water because of a respiratory issue. Liquids had to be chunky such as thick soups or smoothies. She begged and begged for water, but it could drown her if it went down the wrong pipe. She was able to suck on ice cubes, as they limited the quantity of water she was ingesting at any given time. Oh, did she love ice cubes. She adored them. Imagine to be so content, that ice cubes give you pure joy and a terrific smile to your face.
I conducted a small experiment myself where I did not speak for 24 hours. Which is much harder than you might initially think. It taught me some surprising things and most importantly gave me the ability to sympathize with other people’s disabilities as well as being appreciative of the smaller things in life. Things that you don’t even consider being a gift, such as the simple pleasure of saying hello to someone who passes by.
Advice from stoics was to imagine things and people were on loan from Fortune. Fortune can take them back at any moment. We must anticipate this and cherish these things while we have them.
But negative visualization was not the only tool that stoics used, they were also optimistic. They took optimism to the next level. An optimist would say a glass is half full. A stoic would say the same thing but also be grateful for having the glass. They would not stop there, but rather continue to reflect on how great glasses are. They are cheap, impart no taste on the liquid they contain, and the best part, you can see right through them to what you are drinking! Glasses are awesome! I love them! Recently our neighbor broke her rolling pin and improvised by using a glass. They have no limits!
Nothing in life is permanent. While that may be dreadful thought, use it to your advantage. There will come a last time for everything. The last time you smell popcorn, the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms, watching snow fall, or even going for a walk. Enjoying these moments as if they are your last will bring you joy in experiencing them. Recognizing the impermanence of everything will prevent us from sleep walking through life.
Stoics went as far as celebrating old age as death is a constant reminder. Thus, it forces us to celebrate every day. To be more joyful. Every morning that we wake up is cause for a party.
On examining our life, we will find that other people are the source of the greatest delights life has to offer, including love and friendship.”
William B. Irvine
A Note on Social Status
Why do insults hurt? After all people’s words do not bring us physical harm. Do a person’s words cause us to bleed or leave bruises on our body? It essentially comes down to that we care what people think about us. We care because we are seeking approval from others in order to raise our social status.
For another example of seeking approval of others let’s explore why we make certain financial decisions. Why do people buy expensive cars or big house? Who are you really buying it for? For yourself or to prove to others that you have succeeded. Sure, we can justify these purchases in many ways such as reliability of a car or the extra space in a big house, but in some way, it’s a status symbol.
By seeking social status, you are giving other people power over you. We have to do things to please them and avoid things that won’t. We no longer have freedom of our own actions but rather have enslaved ourselves to others. Stoics recommend not concerning yourself with what others think. We can influence what they think but it is ultimately out of our control.
At first seeking wealth may seem independent of seeking fame, but they may be closely linked. We may seek a nice house and car to win the admiration of others, which is similar to seeking fame. If fame will not make our life happier than why would a life of wealth?
Wealth cannot console us in times of need, it cannot keep us company in old age, it cannot bring us contentment or banish our grief. It can force us to do things out of our control. To work longer hours that will keep us from building and nurturing relationships that will make our lives better. While a certain level of wealth is needed to provide housing, food, and medical care, an excess will not add to our well-being. Here is something to ponder:
Not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself.”
Definition of Being Rich
If someone had zero dollars to their name most would not consider this person rich. But what if this person had everything they wanted? Isn’t being rich being able to afford all that you want? By reducing our wants and being grateful and happy for what we have, we have moved ourselves a huge step closer to being rich. As an added benefit you will have more free time to do more things that make you happy. That is how stoicism can make you rich. It will reduce your need to work and allow you to focus your time on relationships that have been proven to allow people to lead a good life.
Something that really stuck home with me in this book was towards the end the author goes on to explain how he is a college professor of 20-year-old students. They often view stoicism for losers. They are full of ambition and desire to become rich and famous. They believe doing so will bring admiration from friends and family as well as happiness. They embark on life with a sense of entitlement that the red carpet will be rolled out for them. When they see otherwise, they are astonished, how can that be. What am I doing wrong? They then work harder to achieve their goals. Their work is rewarded but by the time they are 30 life is not quite what they hoped. They double down again, working harder, buying bigger houses and more expensive cars. Salaries increase and so does spending. Yet they are no happier, perhaps less, than their early 20s. It’s at this point that stoicism may be more appealing.
If this sounds familiar you are not alone. It does to me as well. That is exactly what I would have said at 20 and those are the things I did in my 20s and 30s. I give credit to this blog for giving me the focus to explore such topics of adopting a philosophy of life. Time will tell if stoicism is the right choice for me or for you, but it certainly highlights useful takeaways that are sure to make anyone’s life a bit richer.
Cliff Notes on Stoic advice for seeking tranquility:
- Reflect on how we act throughout the day.
- Use reasoning to overcome negative emotions.
- Don’t pursue wealth, but if you find yourself wealthy then enjoy it.
- Seek and maintain relationships with others but be careful who we befriend.
- Don’t let insults of others affect you.
- To overcome always wanting more, visualize losing what you have in order to appreciate it.
- Focus on things that you have some or complete control over, ignoring everything else. This will help overcome anxiety.
- Compete against yourself, not others. We cannot control beating others but can control doing our best.
- What happened to us in the past or the present moment is beyond our control, thus don’t dwell on them and move on.