Stoicism is a philosophy of ethics founded upon the idea that the path to happiness can be achieved through accepting that which we have been given in life and not allowing ourselves to be controlled by thoughts or feelings that arise from wanting things to be anything other than what they are.
In a world where we’re increasingly influenced by external forces, it’s essential for us to have an internal set of values and with this in mind, here are my top five Stoic principles for how to live a good life:
1) Appreciate what you have
We should be free to enjoy the good things that life has to offer, but only if we do not become attached to those things. A lot of people experience unhappiness because their desires are insatiable; they work hard to get what they want, then once they get it, they become disinterested and go on to form new, even greater desires. This is what’s known as “hedonic adaptation”. According to the Stoics, the easiest way to break this cycle is to learn to want the things we already have.
One way they encourage this is through the practice of “voluntary discomfort”: choosing to go without our daily comforts for a period of time in order to appreciate them when we do have them. For example, rather than eating regularly for the sake of eating, we could skip a meal or two to truly experience what being hungry is like. By doing this, we inoculate ourselves from the potential fear or panic that may arise if we were to experience these things in the future.
2) Prepare for the worst
No matter how hard we try to prevent bad things from happening to us, at some point, some of those things will happen anyway. Seneca, a prominent Roman Stoic, believed that if we practice “negative visualisation”, or the act of contemplating bad things happening, we decrease the impact they can have on us, when despite our best efforts, they do happen.
He would encourage his students to take some time each day to imagine they’d lost the things they value – their wife, their car, their job etc – and believed that in doing so, over time, they would come to value these things even more.
Through contemplating the impermanence of everything, we come to recognise that every time we do something, it could potentially be the last time we do it, and therefore each moment is punctuated with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.
3) Stop trying to control everything
Most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them. However, the Stoics believed that we can gain contentment by changing ourselves – namely our judgements – about the world around us. To illustrate this, they divide all human experience into two main categories: things we control and things we do not control. We don’t control the weather, other people, the past or the future, for example; we can influence them, but we do not control them. The only thing we can control is our reaction to these things. If we try to exert complete control over situations in which we have none, we become angry and frustrated when it inevitably doesn’t go the way we desire.
4) Give yourself to fate
According to Seneca, we should offer ourselves to fate, in as much as “it is a great consolation that it is together with the universe we are swept along.” We should keep firmly in mind that we are merely actors in a play written by someone else – namely fate. We cannot choose the role that we’ve been given, but we can play it to the best of our ability; rather than wanting events to conform to our desires, make our desires conform to events. We should, in other words, want events to happen as they do happen.
The Stoic version of meditation is slightly different from the more commonly practiced Zen meditation. A Zen Buddhist will typically sit for hours trying to make their mind as empty as they can. Stoic meditation, by contrast, is more active and requires the individual to reflect on the events of the day. Did I experience anger? Jealousy? Did something upset me? If so, why? Is there something I could have done to avoid getting upset? By making small adjustments over time, we can become much more well rounded in the future.
For me, Stoicism is more than a set of ethics; It’s a recipe for happiness and if followed correctly, can transform the way we view and interact with the world.