Stoicism is a two-thousand year old philosophy dedicated to helping people better themselves, stop caring about things outside their control, and live virtuous lives. On the outside, life today couldn’t be more different from life one hundred years ago, let alone two thousand years ago. Humans today have social media, cars, and countless other things that even emperors couldn’t dream of possessing back then. But internally, humans have pretty much stayed the same. We lose our patience over petty things, care too much what other people think, and struggle to deal with change.
Given the accelerated pace of technological advances and the increasing uncertainty associated with everything from the job market to the environment it isn’t unreasonable to say that all humans could benefit from learning to think a little clearer, be a little less anxious, and make the best possible use of their resources in the coming year. With that being said, here are seven benefits you can experience from adopting a Stoic practice into your life in 2020.
1) You’ll care less what people think
“Away with the world’s opinion of you – it’s always unsettled and undivided.” –Seneca, Letter XXVI
One of the most difficult things any human being will ever do is stop caring about the opinions of others around them. It is difficult because this means disdaining the opinions of people you love, and who love you; and it also means living a life on your own terms, based on what you think is right. Living a life on your own terms means taking responsibility for your own actions and not deferring the things you have to do now to your future self. Oftentimes, just doing what other people say is easier than living with knowing that you made the wrong decision because you can just outsource the blame to whoever you listened to.
We shirk from bearing the full burden of our decisions and because of this, feel unhappy with ourselves. For not thinking for ourselves and for not acting based on what is good and true. If we commit errors based on what the world tells us then we end up bitter and resentful at the world. If we commit errors based on our own erroneous judgement, however, we are much more likely to learn and become better. Understand, people, especially those closest to you, will always have something to say about you, your appearance, or your choices. These people may mean well but giving heed to all of these conflicting opinions means that you’re splitting your mind in a thousand different directions. In the words of Seneca “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Instead, we must make a special effort to seek out the truth and make our lives align with that truth. We must also cultivate discernment within ourselves so that, if we do pay attention to others’ opinions, it is because they align with our ideals, not because they are pleasing to our ears. By doing this, we can not only reclaim our self-esteem, but also be more of service to the people around us.
2) You’ll waste less time
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” Seneca
Up until the last hundred years or so, death was everywhere. People watched their parents, friends, siblings die from warfare, the plague, and as recently as 1900 the infant mortality rate was upwards of 150 per 1,000 babies. And all this was out in the open, serving as a reminder to the people of the past that they too could go at any second. Seeing people close to you die has the effect of reminding you of your own mortality and of how fragile life really is.
For some this may be a depressing thought, but for the Stoics it had the effect of imbuing everything they did with a sense of meaning and purpose. By treating every day as if it may be their last, they could rest satisfied knowing that they were making the best possible use of their time. Knowing that you may be doing something for the last time has the effect of making you feel more present and more alive. It also makes you want to do it well. Think about it, if you knew tomorrow was going to be the last time you saw your spouse, parent, or best friend alive, how would you choose to spend that time? You wouldn’t waste it on trivialities, focusing on chastising them for the little things that annoy you. Instead, you’d make sure they know how you feel about them and you’d make sure that you’re living that moment to its fullest because, well, you aren’t getting that moment back.
What the Stoics understood is that we don’t have to wait until the end of our lives to live life to its fullest. We can start by realizing that all the time we’ve lived up until now is gone, never to return. Marcus Aurelius said it best “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” The point of this exercise isn’t to depress you or tell you to act crazy and foolish. It is to remind yourself to live your life with excellence, to spend less time looking at your phone, and to be more present.
3) You’ll remember what’s in your control
“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. 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, 2.5.4–5
All of us carry around hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations. We hope to get our dream jobs and fear the possibility of that not happening. We are frustrated by our upbringings, our current circumstances, and the people around us. Life is difficult and if you look around it isn’t hard to find things that validate those frustrations. But just because we can find things that validate our frustrations doesn’t mean that our frustrations themselves are valid.
The main practice of Stoicism is remembering what is within our control and what is not. What this means is that the things that are frustrating to us are not frustrating in and of themselves. They are just things and it is we, who get frustrated. The Stoics knew that the minute they let something outside their control affect their peace of mind, they lost. They lost because they gave up their most important power which is sovereignty over their emotions.
Understand, by becoming disturbed about things over which you have no power you prevent yourself from giving that energy to the things that you do control. For example, instead of beating yourself up for not being as witty as you’d like, focus in the words of Marcus Aurelius, on “….those qualities then that are altogether in your power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, averion to pleasure, contentment with your portion and with a simple life…” By focusing on what you can control and ignoring what you can’t you’ll become happier, stronger, and more efficient.
4) You’ll stop being so distracted
“When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure” – Viktor E. Frankl
It’s never been more difficult to avoid distraction. Access to limitless amounts of entertainment is nearly ubiquitous and it seems that everywhere we look people are begging for our attention. People want us to listen to their podcast, businesses want us to watch their ad so we can buy their product, networks want us to watch their TV Show. And all of them just want a moment of our time. The list is endless. And the more we consume, the more we want to consume; anything to keep ourselves from sitting alone with our own thoughts. Anything to keep ourselves from getting bored.
The problem is that the very things that keep us from getting bored are the same things that keep us from becoming our best selves. Playing a game on your phone is at first a way to stave off boredom but eventually it becomes a way to distract yourself from your emotions. Understand, by preventing yourself from feeling your emotions you prevent yourself from learning from them. If something makes you angry and your first instinct is to pull out your phone and scroll through instagram, you are depriving yourself of the opportunity to learn from the anger and to, ultimately, be free of it.
5) You’ll stop being so anxious
“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary”– Seneca
Anxiety is more rampant today than ever. We never feel like we’re doing what we should be and because of this constantly fret about the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. Dealing with anxiety is difficult, no doubt about that; but what’s more difficult is knowing that you never learned to overcome it. Epictetus’s remedy to this was simple: Learn what’s in your control, take action on it, and forget the rest. This is, of course, easier said than done. But think about how pointless it is to fear the future when there’s so much to do right now in the present. The future isn’t here yet and the present is the only place where we can truly do something to change it.
The problem is that we often don’t take the time to think about and differentiate between the things that are and aren’t in our control and so we take action blindly and inefficiently; worrying about things that are pointless to worry about. By learning what isn’t in our control, we learn what we CAN take action on thereby allowing ourselves greater tranquility and peace of mind. In the words of Seneca, “True happiness is to enjoy the present without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied, for he that is wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not”
6) You’ll be more grateful
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6
As the emperor of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius was constantly besieged by problems most of us will never have to deal with, at both the professional and the personal level. An empire at war rested solely on his shoulders and his son was a disappointment but that never stopped him from cultivating gratitude for all the circumstances he encountered, both good and bad. Because it was the cultivation of this attitude that allowed him to move forward and act righteously when any other man would have crumbled under the pressure of being Emperor.
Marcus viewed every single challenge and setback he encountered as an opportunity to get better. And he believed that all of these challenges were preparing him for the ultimate test, death. This sentiment is echoed in his Meditations “Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.” Marcus understood that if you are grateful for, rather than resentful, at your circumstances you’ll be both more peaceful and more content.
7) You’ll want less
“It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more, that is poor.” -Seneca
The natural human tendency is to compare ourselves with others. Others that seemingly possess luxuries we don’t, are better looking than us, and seem happier than we are. When we are comparing ourselves with others we forget that we have everything we need to be healthy, happy, and strong. In one of his famous letters, Seneca encouraged his friend Lucilus to “practice poverty” every once in a while by eating the “plainest of foods” and wearing “rough, coarse clothing.” The point of this exercise, according to Seneca, was to make us see that poverty really isn’t something to be afraid of. More so than this, Seneca makes the case that this is the only way a person can be rich without being constantly plagued by anxiety over losing their fortune.
Practicing poverty has the effect of making you see how silly it is to torture yourself over wanting something you don’t have because you already possess everything you need to be happy. The “lack of” you’re experiencing is all in your head and it won’t go away until you realize that you can live a happy life without these things. Therefore, to be truly rich is to not fear having anything taken from you because you know that you already have everything you need.
It’s time to build your inner fortress
“The universe is flux, life is opinion.” -Marcus Aurelius
While we may not know what the coming year or decade will bring us, we do know what we have to do in order to face the uncertainty head-on and come out triumphant. The practice of Stoicism is not aimed at happiness (though happiness may very well be a side-effect of it) it is aimed at doing what’s right. And it is by doing what’s right that we may become more resilient to the inevitable changes and obstacles that life throws at us. Change is the only thing that is certain in this world and it is only by constantly exercising our objective judgement, our gratitude, and our resiliency that we may be best equipped to deal with it.