Stoicism is a practical philosophy with the aim of living a meaningful life, and becoming one’s best self.
The Stoics believed in living a virtuous life, one with the potential to bring us personal happiness and fulfillment. And that’s one of the reasons a person may choose to live after their fashion. After all, what good is philosophy if it doesn’t ultimately bring us happiness? But in Stoic philosophy, it’s the pursuit of virtue and good character that allows us to get there. For the Stoic, the pursuit of virtue is the pursuit of happiness. If we can live virtuously, a good life will follow.
“A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
But what does it mean to pursue virtue?
Simply put, acting virtuously means striving towards one’s ideals and becoming the best version of oneself. In becoming the person we want to be, we will be happy. But the Stoics also teach us that happiness is our personal responsibility. The first and most important thing we can do is take ownership of who we are and of the state of our lives. Only then can we become the people we want to be, and find fulfillment and happiness in our lives.
With that said, here are some Stoic principles that can help us become better, happier people.
Stop Worrying About What You Can’t Control
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” –Epictetus, Discourses
Stoicism is built around the foundational idea that we can’t control the world around us, but we can control how we respond to it. The Stoic reminds themselves that in life, there are things we have absolutely no control over, there are things we have partial control over, and there are things we have complete control over. The only way we can have peace in our lives is to accept this, let go of what we can’t control, and then focus on that which we do control.
What don’t we control?
We can’t control the world around us, external events, other people, nature, our genetics, or the past. To try to, or to worry about any of these things is pointless, and only makes life more difficult. It’s in our constant attempt to try to control these things that we end up suffering.
“Suffering is our psychological resistance to what happens. Events may cause physical pain, but they do not in themselves create suffering. Resistance creates suffering…The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to it as it unfolds.” –Dan Millman
Our unhappiness is, in large, caused by thinking that we control things we can’t. In a sense, this is like arguing with reality, and it’s at the root of many, if not most of our problems. So, first accepting that there are things we just don’t control is essential if we want to move forward with our lives.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Serenity Prayer
Focus on What You Can Control
If we can’t control the world, external events, or other people, what is left in our control?
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing.” –Epictetus, Enchiridion
The Stoics argue that the only two things that we have absolute control over are our thoughts and actions. We can’t control the world around us, but we can control how we respond to it through our judgements and reactions. Inevitably, things will happen in life that we can’t control, but it’s our perceptions of events followed by how we respond to them that makes these things good or bad.
“Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”-Epictetus, Discourses
The most important practice for the Stoic is to differentiate between the two, and then to focus on what we can control: our judgements and our voluntary actions, and our choices. We cannot completely control what happens to us, but we can control how we perceive it, and how we choose to respond and react. That is where our power lies.
“You have power over your mind-not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.” –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Of course, understanding this dichotomy is only a part of it. What we must also do is remember it. The more we remind ourselves of this, the less we will suffer from fear and anxiety, and the easier it will be for us to invest our energy and efforts into becoming the people we want to be.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” –Epictetus, Discourses
Think About Death
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
We all know we are going to die at some point, yet we live as if our lives will last forever. Thus, we waste a lot of time doing things that are unimportant and do us little to nothing to move us in the direction we want to go in. We waste time, and then we complain that we don’t have enough of it. All the while, death hangs over our shoulder with every second that goes by.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” –Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
The reality is that life is just long enough to do what’s important to us. It’s short in that there is no time to waste. Our time on this earth is limited. Time is something we cannot get back. So, we mustn’t spend it on trivialities or the unnecessary. If we want to be happy, we must let the thought of death change our relationship with time. Let it teach us to be fully present, and to make the most of every moment.
“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” –Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
The reality is that life is short if you waste time. Time is the one thing you can never get back. Therefore, you have to spend your time wisely. So, meditate on death. Let it clarify who you want to be. Then let it drive you to take the right actions, using every single moment to become the person you want to be.
The thought of death doesn’t need to scare us, nor does it need to depress us. Rather, it can motivate us. In fact, death is the strongest source of motivation there is. There is nothing quite as vitalizing as the idea that your life or the lives of your loved ones could end at any moment. It creates a sense of urgency, and drives us to take action like nothing else. It motivates us to aggressively pursue what’s important, it fills us with purpose, and it also encourages us to act right.
To be the people we want to be, we must meditate on our mortality, and we must do it often. Only through the knowledge that our lives will someday end, can we learn to truly live them.
One of the most prominent lessons in Stoicism is learning to want less. Most people believe that happiness comes about through obtaining more of something. We believe that it’s in having more of things like success, money, fame, talent, time, or possessions. Once we achieve these things, we believe our problems will go away, and then we can finally be happy with our lives. The issue is that it’s our incessant want of more that only makes our lives more difficult. We become slaves to our own desires. But the opposite is also true. The Stoics teach that we can free ourselves by simply wanting less.
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” –Epictetus, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus
Living a good life doesn’t happen through attaining more things. In fact, even if we do get all the things what we want, it’s never enough. But also, the reality is that won’t get everything what want. If we attach our happiness to things we don’t have, the unhappier we will be.
“It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present should ever be united.”-Epictetus, Discourses
Instead, we can learn to want what we already have. Life has given you a lot, you just have to recognize it. This is not just a matter of being grateful, it’s about being pragmatic. Look at what you do have, and then put it to good use. You can’t control what you don’t have, but you can control what you do have. True wealth and power arise from your ability to make use of what’s in your possession. What gives it value is how you use it, not just in having it.
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” -Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
If you go about expecting life to give you everything you want, you will be constantly disappointed and you will never find happiness. It’s far better to accept it as it is, recognize what you do have, and then make the most of it.
Yes, it’s ok to want certain things such as the essentials for a comfortable, thriving life, and it’s also good to have dreams, aspirations, and goals. You should be striving to improve yourself, your circumstances, and to build a better life for you and your loved ones. These things are part of improving ourselves and our lives. The Stoics aren’t telling us to eliminate desire completely, rather they’re just encouraging us to want the right things, to practice appreciation of what we do have, and then to use them to our advantage. Everything we need we already have.
“Cure your desire—don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.”-Epictetus, Discourses
Simplify Your Life
Stoicism is, at its core, about simplicity. It’s about simplifying your life in every regard, and living essentially.
“Straightforwardness and simplicity are in keeping with goodness. The things that are essential are acquired with little bother; it is the luxuries that call for toil and effort. “–Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
The Stoics teach that what’s essential to a good life is what we control: our character. Our ability to create happiness comes from this. We must first realize that all we truly need for happiness is ourselves.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself.” –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Yes, there are also basic necessities that we need, but most of us have completely cluttered our lives with things we don’t need. What we can do is cut everything unnecessary. Intrinsically, we think of first clearing material things, though it’s not just material things we have to cut, but also our thoughts and actions.
“Since the vast majority of our words and actions are unnecessary, corralling them will create an abundance of leisure and tranquility. As a result, we shouldn’t forget at each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things?”- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
We should constantly be mindful of whether our thoughts and actions are doing anything to move us forward or improve our lives. What’s necessary is what moves you forward and makes you better and happier. Anything else is unnecessary. So, to everything in your life, things, thoughts, and actions alike, constantly be questioning whether it’s necessary. If it’s not, cut it.
There exist countless strategies across the spectrum of philosophy and self-improvement that can be used to create happiness in our lives. Stoicism doesn’t claim to have all the answers; nor can it tell you exactly how to be happy. Rather Stoicism teaches us that we are personally responsible for our happiness, and it’s up to us to create happiness through our actions. Stoicism is a practical approach to living, one that doesn’t shy away from the reality that life is hard, and adversity is in its its very nature. Instead of fighting this, running from it, or trying to achieve happiness as if it’s an end in of itself in which all our problems cease to exist, Stoicism teaches us accept reality, embrace it, and make the most of it. It teaches us to approach happiness as more of a process that parallels self-improvement and the pursuit of our higher selves. Only through this process can we take the necessary actions to become the people we want to be, and, ultimately, create the happiness we seek.