What Stoicism Can Teach Us About Happiness
For many of us, there comes a time when it becomes clear to us that a pursuit of happiness through amassing material wealth and power does not do the trick. Whether or not we’ve attained some level of external security, that inner peace and contentment we’ve sought can feel tenuous and overly reliant on situations that could change at the drop of a hat.
All it takes is a look at the news from day to day to see how rapidly and often unexpectedly circumstances can do a dramatic about-face. Especially in today’s unpredictable political and social climate, quite a lot of people are experiencing troubling levels of anxiety and depression. How do we develop and nurture a deeply rooted happiness that can withstand the numerous concerns in our world, communities, and personal relationships?
The philosophy of Stoicism may hold some answers. Stoicism maintains that developing certain character attributes is the foundation of happiness. The virtues in question are wisdom, courage, justice (or morality in dealings with oneself and others), and temperance (or moderation). If we focus on nurturing these virtues (i.e., on becoming better people) and base our responses (in word and deed) to life accordingly, rather than giving in to impulses and rash actions, we will experience happiness in a deep and enduring sense.
Things may not always go our way, but if our intent is to live in accordance with these intentions, and to work for the best, not only for ourselves for our community and the world, we will always have a strong sense of purpose and the contentment that comes from knowing that we are doing our part, to the best of our ability. This is preferable to basing our happiness on the whims of fortune, circumstances, and other people’s behavior, which are largely outside of our control and are thus tenuous foundations on which to base our contentment.
Stoicism is associated with three figures. Marcus Aurelius, at one time the emperor of the Roman Empire and thus one of the most powerful people in the world, maintained a practice of daily writings on character, compiled in the book Meditations. Seneca, an advisor to an emperor, was also an acclaimed playwright and amassed tremendous wealth.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Epictetus, born a slave about 2000 years ago, who eventually got the chance to pursue advanced education and then taught philosophy for several decades.
All three men, from varying societal viewpoints, espoused Stoic principles, demonstrating that this way of life can practiced in all walks of life.
Some principles of Stoicism:
Happiness is the result of right actions. “The happiness of those who want to be popular depends on others; the happiness of those who seek pleasure fluctuates with moods outside their control; but the happiness of the wise grows out of their own free acts.” (Aurelius) The only path to reliable happiness is to make it an inside job, and one dependent only on the wisdom of your own acts and attitudes. As Viktor Frankl, who survived the horrors of concentration camp during World War II, and who went on to write Man’s Search For Meaning, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Even if you feel hemmed in by circumstances beyond your control, or you have to deal with people who are challenging, you have the freedom to choose how to view the situation, to examine your internal reactions and what they might tell you about yourself, and to act with integrity. Look in the mirror. “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” (Aurelius) Often (although not always) we become the most incensed by those characteristics or actions of others that we have not come to terms with in ourselves (a defense mechanism known as projection). Consider the adage that when we point one finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at us. Instead of focusing on other people’s shortcomings, consider how you could improve on this very issue in yourself. By doing so, you will exert your energy in the one place it can make a significant change: in yourself. We become what we focus on. “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts”. (Aurelius) What we choose to focus on influences our character. Examine what you tend to think about. Are your ponderings bringing about the sort of world in which you want to live? If you dwell on resentment, anger, self-pity, or fear, you’re likely to find examples of these everywhere you go – in other people, your personal circumstances, and the world at large. On the flip side, if you concentrate on love, forgiveness, kindness, and courage, you will be more attuned to demonstrations of these in your outer and inner world. Pay attention to how you are molding your character. Look for the lesson. “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” (Aurelius) When we are on the receiving end of constructive criticism and we focus on learning the associated lessons, we will be all the better for it. We can, in fact, be thankful for the feedback, for it can help us progress into more emotionally mature, insightful, and wise people. You are in control of your attitude. “Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘this is misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune’.” (Aurelius) When we find ourselves in upsetting situations, one option is to dwell on the unfairness or difficulty of our plight. While it’s natural to have such a knee-jerk reaction, to remain in this state will not do us any favors. If we turn our attention to asking ourselves, ‘What is the best possible attitude to have right now?’ and ‘What is the next and best indicated step I can take?’, we are in the position to both grow in character and to take wise actions in the best interest of all involved. Such a stance is also empowering, because while we cannot always choose what happens to us, we have a choice as to who and what it makes us become. Appreciate what you have. “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” (Aurelius) It is such a waste of time and energy, not to mention being wearing on our souls, minds, and bodies, to wish for things we don’t have. To do so is to be forever chasing a mirage which will always be a bit further down the road, and to miss out on appreciating the many blessings we do have in our lives. It’s wiser and healthier to be grateful for all the things we have right now. To quote Seneca, “No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is within their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” To take it one step further, we can imagine what our lives would be like without those things we most cherish, be they our spouse, our friends, pets, enchanting sunrises, eyesight, or home. In doing so, we are likely to become more conscious (and more often) of how fortunate we are right now. Behave honorably. “Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.” (Aurelius) No acquisition is worth degrading your soul. How would you live with yourself? How could you experience any lasting peace or happiness, when you’re not comfortable with who you are inside? Be true to yourself and your values. “Whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my colour.” (Aurelius) While doing so may engender opposition from other people at times, because they may have competing interests, your duty (at least if you want to live with a modicum of inner peace and dignity) is to live in alignment with your chosen principles. Don’t worry about other people’s opinions of you. “If any man despises me, that is his problem. My only concern is not doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.” (Aurelius) Focus on living in a honorable and moral way. If such is the case, keep in mind that it would be much more unfortunate to be the person who is consumed with hatred towards you, because that individual is undoubtably unhappy and at war with himself/herself.
The principles of Stoicism have been incorporated into various religions and spiritual philosophies throughout the ages, to our present day. In fact, even the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous contains an oft-quoted passage about acceptance and attitude which reflects Stoic tenets: “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today…. Unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.” (Anonymous)
We could all benefit from a liberal dose of Stoicism, which could help us not to fall victim to excessive emotionality, reliance on other people’s opinions for our self-esteem, or wasting our time and energy bemoaning the sorry state of things over which we have no control. Instead, we can turn our attention to that we can do something about – namely, our character and attitudes.