It is safe to say that you – at least once in your lifetime – have experienced something that you can refer to as happiness.
How long did it last? Not long, I imagine. Perhaps, you uneventfully transitioned to something that resembled ‘normality’, or worse, other issues came up immediately and spoiled your mood.
Even though happiness didn’t last long, it does not stop you from seeking more of it.
But what kind of happiness are you seeking? The immediate kind? Fuelled by sex drugs and rock and roll? Happiness as a reward for your hard work and sacrifice? Maybe by obtaining an object of desire, such as a new house, job, car or spouse? Or are you just, “kinda-okay” – happy to sit and wait?
The choice seems to be between obtaining happiness now, later, or not seeking it at all. With the first, you will be happy immediately and miserable later, with the second, you will be waiting agonic until your goal materialises, and maybe, in the long run, you will feel happier. With the third, you are not even trying.
These are the options, are you ready?
If you haven’t chosen to give up already, maybe there is a better option. Let’s see what ancient Greece and Rome thought about this topic!
Let’s go back to the concept of happiness. Stoics define happiness as the good flow of life! A life without friction and disruption!
In my mind, I like to picture it as easy sailing on calm blue sea.
In the original ancient greek, the word for happiness was eudaimonia, that in the literal translation means “going around with a good spirit”.
This mood doesn’t sound terribly bad, and it is something that can actually last a bit longer than a simple spark of joy.
Ok brilliant – how do they suggest to achieve that?
In primis, the Stoics tell us that our own happiness and unhappiness is due to our own thoughts and intentions and by changing them we can turn our unhappiness to happiness.
So what is the source of our unhappiness?
Put simply, it is due to a mistaken judgement of what happens around us.
The Stoic philosopher Epecticus said: “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”
If we judge and consider things correctly, those events will not cause our unhappiness. We think that our discomfort is due to what happened to us but in reality it is our interpretation of them. This means that there is an intermediary step between an action (the event) and a reaction (our response) in which our rational mind is present, and in this step we have our freedom and that we have to rely upon.
Therefore, the correctness of our thought has the power to create our own happiness. As buddist saying goes: “(physical) Pain is inevitable, (emotional) suffering is optional”.
Let’s move deeper: How do we judge the things in life correctly?
Once again the answer is simple but not simplistic:
“In any situation of life, try to discern what is under your control and what is not; act on what you can control, accept the rest.”
In other words: we need to accept what is not in our control and focus our attention and energy on only what we can control. This last aspect is called the dualism of control (more on that in future posts).
Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, referred to the discussed aspects as “living in agreement with Nature”.
This expression became the motto of the Early Stoa, around 24 centuries ago.
In contemporary Stoicism, this motto has lost much of its original meaning and some oppose its use, but for now it’s worth keeping it, to better explain a good chunk of what Stoicism can offer.
Let’s examine it in more depth:
What does it mean to be in accordance with nature? Living in accordance with nature is to live in harmony with two levels: Internal and external:
- Live in accordance with our nature, thus what we are: As humans – social and rational beings – and as individuals – with our personal characteristics, perks and defects.
- Live in harmony with the nature of the universe: Universe means what surrounds us, what happens without our control or influence. From the people around us, politics, weather and everything that is present in the physical universe.
To live in accordance with nature means that you don’t live in conflict with reality and with reason.
For all the things we have to distinguish what we can or we cannot control. What we can control are called the internals: our thoughts and intentions, and what we cannot control are the externals.
A rational person will accept as an inevitability, the externals, and will work only on what he can control, the internals.
The following exercise are meant to help us to break the action/reaction event of our emotions, to make us live a bit more in the moment, and to analyse our actions.
It is safe to say that you, at least once in your lifetime, have experienced something that you referred to as happiness.
Reading and exercises
1) Reason, our best gift
If you are writing a letter to a friend, grammar will tell you how to write correctly, but not whether you should write that letter. If you are studying music, music will tell you whether something is melodious, but not Whether it is proper to sing now. It is so with all disciplines. They cannot judge themselves. What can? The faculty of reason can.
Reason alone can understand and judge itself: what it is, what it is capable of, and the power it has. It can also pass judgment on other disciplines.
Reason gives us the ability to act or not act and to desire something or move toward or away from it by properly judging our perceptions or impressions. If we pay attention to just this one thing, we will never be hindered, and we will never complain, flatter, or find fault. Does this seem like a small gift to you? Of course not!
2) Don’t burden yourself with concerns
But instead of doing just this one thing right-managing impressions to arrive at the right conclusion-we burden ourselves with many things: Our body, our possessions, our brother, friend, child, and the like. We concern ourselves with so many things that they weigh us down. So, when bad weather prevents us from sailing, we become anxious and start fretting about reality:
“What wind is it?”
“When will the west wind blow?”
“When it chooses, my good friend. You don’t control winds.”
“What should we do then?”
“Make the best use of what lies within our power and deal with it according to its nature.”
3) Don’t become an obstacle to yourself
[The Stoic philosopher] Agrippinus said, “I will not become an obstacle to myself.”
On hearing that he was being tried in the Senate, Agrippinus said, “Hope it turns out in my favor. But it is five o’clock. Time for my workout and bath.”
Off he went to do his workout. When he was done, a friend came to inform Agrippinus that he was convicted.
“Death or exile?”
“What about my property?”
“You get to keep it.”
“Let’s go to Aricia and dine there.”
This is how you should train yourself to think. When you think this way, what you desire cannot be restrained and what you want to avoid cannot be forced upon you. “I must die. If so, I will die now. If later, I will dine now because It is dinner time. How? Like a person giving back what is not his own.”
The purpose of this week’s workout is to make you conscious of the many minor (some major) irritations and annoyances you face throughout the day. You may be so accustomed to them that you are not even aware of them anymore. At this stage, it is not important to change your thinking or behavior. All you need to do is notice how often you feel mild-barely noticeable discomfort during any given day.
Use this workout throughout this week as often as possible. If you are like most people, you will have scores of opportunities to practice throughout the day. At the end of the day, before going to bed, ask yourself how many times you remembered to practice today. If you had not practiced many times, mentally go over the day and name situations where you could have practiced it.
How it works:
Carry a pocket counter (which you can probably buy very cheaply in a dollar store) with you all day. If you don’t want to buy a counter, carry a small notebook. Throughout the day, whenever you feel any discomfort coming on-even if it is very minor-click the counter (or tally it in your pocket notebook). Do this right away, or as soon as you can after that. Watch your thoughts around them. See what you are telling yourself.
From “How to be a Stoic when you don’t know how” by Dr. Chuck Chakrapani
In the space below, write an implementation intention to help you remember this First step in catching your impressions. It should spell out how to recognise a harsh impression, and also contain a phrase that resonates with you, that you can say to yourself when encountering the impression.
After you catch the impression, ask yourself whether the object of your desire or aversion lies within your complete control or not. If not, then say to yourself that it’s nothing to you, or something similar (e.g., “my character’s more important than this,” “this isn’t really good/bad,” etc). Write another implementation intention to help you remember how to apply the dichotomy of control to your impressions, and what to say to yourself if the impression you are considering is outside of your control.
|Situation||What is presumed to be “good” or “bad” in this case?||What could you say to yourself to counter this impression?|
|Getting angry at a long wait at the post office||The presumption that others are wasting my time||It’s not a waste of time if I work with my impressions, since that matters more. Besides, it’s my choice to be here. I can simply walk out, should I have done?|
|Getting food craving while not really hungry.|
|Being happy about being praised|
Exercises from “Live Like A Stoic: 52 Exercises for Cultivating a Good Life”
This presente here, is a relocation of the opening speech of meeting of Cambridge Stoics on January the 15, 2020.
I usually wing my intro, however I have borrowed the structure from the source listed below, especially from the first.
- How to be a Stoic when you don’t know how by Dr. Chuck Chakrapani
- Live Like A Stoic: 52 Exercises for Cultivating a Good Life by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez
- More passage I probably from the extended Stoic literature, that I have internalised please look at the best book of Stoicism