We all struggle to maintain a state of happiness and contentment. Even the enlightened Stoic philosophers we admire today had their moments of struggle. Marcus Aurelius, for example, had 13 children with his wife Faustina, and only four of them would out-live their father. Epictetus suffered from an abusive master who injured his leg so severely, it left young Epictetus with a limp for the rest of his life.
Stoic philosophy is practical because it does not coddle us. We aren’t lied to and told that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. Instead, Stoicism acknowledges the challenges we face and teaches us practical lessons so that we may overcome whatever stands in our way. By taking a practical approach to happiness, we learn how to maintain it for longer periods of time and help others do the same. Here are few rational ways in which the modern Stoic can approach happiness.
FOCUS ON HOW THINGS ARE, NOT HOW THEY SHOULD BE
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.”
In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that one of the sources of all suffering is desire: the desire to change things we cannot change, have things we cannot have, and do things we cannot do. The problem with desire is that it clouds our ability to accurately judge ourselves and the world around us. When we want something so deeply, we become more focused on what we want to happen rather than what will likely happen. In doing so, we almost invite unhappiness into our lives.
The Stoics were describing a similar concept when they preached living in accordance with nature. Suffering will manifest in many different ways in our lives. It could arrive as the death of a family member, or coming just short of a goal we’ve pursued for our whole lives. No matter the circumstances, the practicing Stoic must learn that turmoil is a part of life. There are always going to be ups and downs, not because your life is particularly hard, but because life itself is hard. It was Marcus Aurelius who wrote, “External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
The better we become at making accurate assessments of what happens to us, the longer we’ll be able to maintain a state of happiness. Living according to nature means valuing the truth over our emotions. It’s not just that we should accept turmoil when it finds us, we should expect it. We should welcome it. This will be difficult, no doubt. But it will be worth it.
KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING AND WHY
“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”
— Seneca, Letters From A Stoic
Marcus Aurelius never wanted to be emperor. Had it been up to him, he would have spent his days studying, teaching, and writing the philosophy that still touches us today. But when becoming Emperor became his path, he still found comfort in applying the philosophy he loved to his every day life and work. The course of Marcus’ life was suddenly altered when he was made heir to the Emperor, but he maintained that love of philosophy; he stayed the course. Just like Marcus never lost sight of what he was trying to accomplish, we need the same sort of direction in order to live a happy life. If we travel with no destination in mind, we’re not traveling at all—we’re lost.
It’s important to note that the Stoics would also warn us against panicking that we don’t have a direction. When we feel lost, when we don’t know which way to go or how to find what brings us happiness, the last thing we need is to speed everything up. No, what we need is stillness, or as the Greeks called it apatheia. Apatheia means to be free from passion. Free from the wild emotions that cause us to say the wrong thing or act impulsively. The Stoics believed that in order to make rational decisions, we had to harness this state of serene clarity. The same goes for us as we try to find direction in life. We have to meditate on where we want to be and who we want to become. Once we have a goal, a destination that we find is worth the work, we may find happiness in knowing we’re on the right path.
Don’t just learn the principles—remember to act on them
“From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now, you are at the Olympic games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event.”
— Epictetus, Discourses
As we become more advanced in our study of Stoicism, we often get lost in our own heads. Am I mastering my understanding of what I can and can’t control? Am I living each day as if I’m aware of my own mortality? It’s easy to get caught up in the thinking portion of philosophy. But philosophy isn’t just a topic of study, it’s lifestyle. It’s a creed. And in order for any of us to truly benefit from our studies, we must also learn to apply these principles in our everyday life.
It’s an interesting thought to consider, whether we would still admire the Stoics if they hadn’t lived by the philosophy we know and love. What if Marcus had ruled with an iron fist, killing anyone who disagreed with or challenged him? What if Cato, arguably the most devoted to Stoic teachings, had lived as a gluttonous pig who cared for no one other than himself? Or what about Seneca, who still receives scrutiny today for being a pivotal figure in Stoicism who also mentored one of the worst emperors in all of antiquity? The point is, we can’t just talk the talk. We can’t just run around babbling about all the Stoics we’ve read, and still treat everyone around us as if they’re inferior. The beauty of philosophy is in the work, not the text. It’s in the action, not the ideas.
When we study these groundbreaking principles and forget to apply them, we’re denying ourselves the gift of a happy life. Ideas are powerful things. They cause us to think and change the way we carry ourselves all at once. Before we waste our lives pondering, we must act on those principles that were left to us by our philosophical ancestors. In demonstrating our philosophy through our actions, we’ll not only create a happier life for ourselves, but also show the world how to do the same. Above all else, remember to act.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT NARRATIVE—FEED THE RIGHT WOLF
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Think of the most negative person you know. Maybe it’s a coworker who can’t help but complain all the time. Maybe it’s a dear friend, or your parents. These people experience the same things that we do, but in lacking perspective, they always choose to see the glass half-empty instead of half-full.
There’s a great Cherokee legend about the power of choosing how we view the world. The story goes something like this: An elderly Cherokee man is having a conversation with his grandson. He tells the little boy that there is a great battle between two wolves that takes place in all of us. One wolf is filled with anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good, as it is filled with joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The boy looks at his grandfather and asks, “Which wolf wins?” To which the grandfather replies “The one that you feed.”
What we choose to tell ourselves—which wolf we choose to feed—is important. It decides our perspective. And we know from The Obstacle Is The Way that an advantageous perspective is the first step in overcoming any kind of adversity. When we’re faced with difficult scenarios, we ought to remember the importance of choosing the narrative that is beneficial to us and consistent with the truth. Otherwise, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot; we’re feeding the wrong wolf.
ACCEPT AND LOVE EVERYTHING THAT’S YOURS—BOTH GOOD AND BAD
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
We all feel the pain that life brings, but we don’t have to view ourselves as victims. Human beings are adaptable species. It’s why we’ve lasted this long and will continue to last. But while we’re here, we might as well continue to live happily despite the hardships we experience. On the front of every Amor Fati pendant and challenge coin is the image of a bonfire. The image comes from the words of Marcus Aurelius, when he writes that “a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” Marcus’ timeless words are urging us to turn everything that’s thrown our way into fuel. Hardship, disaster, tragedy and misfortune… the only proper response for such occurrences is to accept them for what they are and make the best of the situation at hand.
This same idea is brilliantly described in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus describes the ancient Greek legend of Sisyphus, a man who disobeyed the Olympic gods and as punishment was forced to spend eternity pushing a large boulder up and over a mountain. While the fate of Sisyphus isn’t entirely clear, Camus was fascinated by Sisyphus’ mindset after he sees the boulder roll over the mountain. At that moment, Sisyphus is temporarily free from labor but knows as soon as he gets to the bottom of the mountain, he has to get back to pushing. Camus suggests that Sisyphus might even approach this task with joy after a period of time. The moments of sadness and regret come when he looks back at the world he left behind, or when he wishes for happiness. When Sisyphus accepts his fate, however, the tragedy of it all vanishes. Camus suggests that by acknowledging hopelessness in this way, life becomes far easier. In the very last paragraph of the book, Camus famously wrote that “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Let that sink in. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Here you have a man who is ripped from the mortal life he knows and loves. He knows there is no way out. It’s just him, that boulder, and that forsaken mountain. Despite his situation, despite his memory of the past and all the things he holds dear to his heart, he has accepted his situation; he has won.
We too, can win in the face of such adversity. We too, can find happiness in the uphill battle that is life. So long as we approach happiness with a sense of rationality, utilize our Stoic teachings during the hard times, and learn to enjoy the present when it’s good—nothing can overpower our perspective.
Nothing can keep us from being happy.