“It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom.” — Seneca
We know what you’re thinking.
What do the Stoics know about being happy?
Isn’t a Stoic resigned to whatever happens?
Isn’t a Stoic supposed to be an unfeeling, emotionless brute?
No, no, no. Stoicism is not about eliminating emotions. It’s about minimizing negative emotions like stress and anxiety and anger. It’s not about accepting your powerlessness. It’s about taking power over all that is inside your control. Your attitudes. Your wants. Your desires. Your opinions about what has happened. Your happiness.
Happiness, the Stoics tell us, comes from within. It is a choice. And, as the slave turned teacher Epictetus said, “You can bind up my leg, but not even Zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.”
The Stoics were happy, they wrote about happiness, and they taught others how to be happy. In this article, we want to pass their wisdom along to you. We want to give the Stoic’s time-tested strategies for being happy.
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The greek word for happiness is Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία). It was the fruit of studying philosophy. They used it interchangeably with “the flourishing life” and “the good life.” To the Stoics, the idea of a Sage or a perfect philosopher was a direction, not a destination. And it was on the journey in that direction that one experienced eudaimonia.
As Donald Robertson writes in Stoicism And The Art of Happiness
The ideal Sage is therefore godlike, a mortal having progressed so far that his wisdom and eudaimonia equal that of Zeus. The aspiring Stoic tries to make progress towards perfect wisdom by regularly contemplating the Sage and emulating his thoughts and actions.
The Stoics believed the aim of life, the highest good, was to live virtuously. A life of virtue was one with the potential to bring us personal happiness and fulfillment. It’s the pursuit of virtue and good character that allows us to experience eudaimonia—happiness, flourishing, the good life.
For the Stoic, therefore, happiness is the pursuit of virtue. When we aim to live virtuously, a happy life follows.
“It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more, that is poor.” Seneca
When I get what I want, I will be happy.
This is perhaps the most common of all the human myths—beyond the Hero’s Journey, beyond Icarus’s flight too close to the sun, beyond the various origin stores shared across cultures.
All of us tell ourselves some version of this myth to one degree or another. We think when we get older and free of the control of our parents, things will be better. We think that when we get rich, or famous or powerful, all our problems will go away. We think when we find the right person, we’ll stop being lonely.
We think that when we get what we want, we’ll be happy.
I’ll be happy when I get the promotion. ’ll be happy when I’m a millionaire, when this diet pays off, when I hit the bestseller list.
Conditional happiness is what psychologists call this kind of thinking. Like the horizon, you can walk for miles and miles and never reach it.
It’s a collective delusion. “It is quite impossible,” Epictetus said, “to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have. Happiness has all that it wants, and resembling the well-fed, there shouldn’t be hunger or thirst.”
Locate that yearning for more, better, someday and see it for what it is: the enemy of happiness.
Choose it or your happiness. As the Stoics say, the two are not compatible.
“Trust me, real joy is a serious thing. Do you think someone can, in the charming expression, blithely dismiss death with an easy disposition? Or swing open the door to poverty, keep pleasures in check, or meditate on the endurance of suffering? The one who is comfortable with turning these thoughts over is truly full of joy, but hardly cheerful. It’s exactly such a joy that I would wish for you to possess, for it will never run dry once you’ve laid claim to its source.” — Seneca
We throw around words like “happy” and “joy” casually.
“I’m overjoyed at the news.” “I’m happy you’re here.” “She’s a joy to be around.” “I’d be happy to help.” “It’s a joyous occasion.”
But none of those examples really touches on true happiness and joy. They are closer to “cheer” than anything else. Cheerfulness is surface level.
To the Stoics, true happiness, true joy—these are deep states of being. It is what we feel inside us and has little to do with smiles or laughing. So when people say that the Stoics are dour or depressive, they’re really missing the point. Who cares if someone is bubbly when times are good? What kind of accomplishment is that?
What the Stoics were after was the ability to be fully content with life. Can you bravely face what life has in store from one day to the next, can you bounce back from every kind of adversity without losing a step, can you be a source of strength and inspiration to others around you?
The person that can is truly and deeply happy. They have that kind of happiness that comes from purpose, excellence, and duty. The serious kind—far more serious than a smile or a chipper voice.
“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
Gretchen Rubin is one of the most thought-provoking and influential experts on habits and happiness. She has written several New York Times best sellers, which have sold millions of copies, including The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. She also hosts the award-winning podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. In short, Gretchen Rubin has thought a lot about what it means to live a happy life.
When we interviewed Gretchen just before the release of her book Outer Order, Inner Calm—a playbook that helps readers discover ways to make more room for happiness in their lives—we asked how she maintains that inner calm with something so hectic and uncertain like a book launch.
I think about actions, not outcomes. That way, I stay focused on the things I can control (more or less). So I don’t think about “making the book a success,” but “writing the best book I possibly can.”
Gretchen is describing one of the central tenets of Stoicism. Epictetus is famous for what he called the dichotomy of control. Basically, we can control some things and can’t control others—and we should focus on what we can control. The Stoics knew that in the chaos of life, as in a book launch, fixating on things we can’t control is not a recipe for happiness or success, but for great agony and despair.
That’s a good rule for all of us—focus on the things you can control. Put your best efforts into the tasks in front of you today. Take care of the inputs and detach from the outcomes. Don’t worry about what might happen later. Watch what it does to your happiness.
“A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” — Seneca
Eleanor Roosevelt said that the surest way to happiness was to seek it for others. She was referring to doing good, to being of service. It’s how she found happiness despite the tragic loss of her father, her painful childhood. It’s how she got through her troubled marriage and her husband’s affairs. It’s how she endured the Depression and the wars and so much else. She did good. She made herself useful. She sought relief for others.
Seneca said that every person we cross paths with presents us an opportunity for kindness. They also, therefore, present us an opportunity to find happiness. And Marcus Aurelius said, the fruit of this life is works for the common good.
So if you want to feel better today, if you want to find a bright spot in this dark landscape of uncertainty and fear, the solution is simple: Do good. Help others. Be of service. Think less of your problems and try to help others with theirs. You’ll be amazed at the happiness this brings… to you and to them.
According to the philosopher Blaise Pascal, at the root of most human activity is a desire to escape boredom and self-awareness. We go to elaborate measures, he said, to avoid even a few minutes of quiet. It was true even of the people you think had all the reasons to be happy and content.
“A king is surrounded by people,” Pascal wrote, “whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.”
It’s an observation that puts Marcus Aurelius in an even more impressive light. Think about it: Marcus Aurelius was surrounded by servants and sycophants, people who wanted favors and people who feared him. He had unlimited wealth but endless responsibility. And what did he do with this? Did he throw himself endlessly into the diversion and distraction these blessings and curses offered?
No. Instead, he made sure to carve out time to sit quietly by himself with his journals. He probed his own mind on a regular basis. He thought of himself–not egotistically–but with an eye towards noticing his own failings. He questioned himself. He questioned the world around him. He refused to be distracted. He refused to give into temptation.
People in his own time probably thought he was a bit dour. They wondered why he did not enjoy all the trappings of wealth and power like his predecessors. What they missed, what’s so easy to miss today in our own blessed lives, is that the true path to happiness is not through externals. It’s found within. It’s found in the stillness. In the quiet. With yourself and a journal.
“We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” — Seneca
Seneca wasn’t the only one to talk about the importance of walking as a way to relieve the mind and body. Indeed, philosophers have been walking to think and get perspective—in the mornings, in the afternoons, at sunset—for centuries. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, conducted his lectures while walking around his school in Athens as his students followed him. Nietzsche reportedly walked up to eight hours a day with a notebook and pencil in hand.
Walking doesn’t just give you the chance to nourish your mind and body. Walking also, it turns out:
- Reduces stress and anxiety. Like any physical activity, walking helps release endorphins that can minimize stress hormones and combat mild depression. According to a report published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that physical activities like walking reorganizes the brain so that it can better cope with stress and anxiety.
- A study at New Mexico Highlands University has found that the force from our footsteps can increase the supply of blood to the brain.
- Researchers at Stanford have found that walkers performer better on tests that measure “creative divergent thinking” during and after their walks.
- And a 20 year study found that walking five miles a week protects the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s.
When you are stressed or overwhelmed at the office, take a walk in the parking lot. When you feel suffocated at home, take a walk around the neighborhood. Talk a walk first thing in the morning. Take a walk on your lunch break. Take a walk after dinner. See what it does for your happiness.
Here’s a simple recipe for happiness. It comes from Marcus Aurelius and the fact that it came from such a busy man with so many obligations and responsibilities should not be forgotten.
“If you seek tranquillity,” he said, “do less.”
And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”
Follow this advice today and everyday. So much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. We do it out of habit. We do it out of guilt. We do it out of laziness or we do it out of greedy ambition. And then we wonder why our performance suffers. We wonder why our heart isn’t really in it.
Of course it isn’t. We know deep down there’s no point.
But if we could do less inessential stuff, we’d be able to better do what is essential. We’d also get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.
AJ Jacobs is known for his unique style of immersion journalism. He’s lived, literally, according to the Bible. He’s went out and met every obscure relative he could find in his family tree. In his book, Thanks A Thousand, he went on a quest to personally thank every person who had a hand in making his morning cup of coffee—the farmers, the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where the coffee is stored, the man who designed the lid, the baristas, and on and on.
This last journey was the least physically trying but the most transformative. In our interview with AJ for DailyStoic.com, he explained just how wonderful this forced exercise in gratitude has been:
One big change was related to the Stoic idea of the self-interested case for virtue. The idea that acting badly makes you feel badly. That whoever does wrong, wrongs himself. But when you act virtuously, you get a little burst of happiness.
…I remember I called the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where my coffee is stored. And I said, “I know this sounds strange, but I want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee.” And she said, “That does sound strange. But thank YOU. You made my day.”
And that, in turn, made my day. By forcing myself to act in a grateful way, I became less grouchy. Ideally, gratitude should be a two-way street. It should give both parties a little dopamine boost.
The word Epictetus uses for gratitude—eucharistos—means “seeing” what is actually occurring in each moment. He said, “It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance, and a sense of gratitude.” Part of what made AJ’s journey so meaningful to him and to everyone else involved is that they were really seeing each other for the first time. He was really looking—and when he saw, he said thanks.
It’s a good model for us to try in our lives. Take some time today to stop, take a step back, and get a complete view—like that there are over a thousand people involved in making your morning cup of coffee possible. There’s a lot we take for granted. In every moment, there are limitless opportunities to say thanks. Take them!
“Just as it would not be a foot, don’t you realize that in isolation you would not be a human being? Because what is a human being? Part of a community.” — Epictetus
“The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm.”
In another spot he wrote, “Human beings have been made for the sake of one another. Teach them or endure them.”
And another still, “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”
Although Stoicism is a philosophy that stresses independence and strength, moral rectitude and inner-life, it’s essential that we don’t mistake this as a justification for isolation or loneliness. We are not islands, we are social animals. We need community, we need friends, we need connection—whether you’re introverted or extroverted:
- In five different studies, researchers had introverted participants “act extroverted.” They found a severe overestimation of the negative effects and self-consciousness associated with extraverted behavior, as well as a severe underestimation of the boost in mood and happiness following an extraverted interaction.
- An interesting study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by a team of behavioral psychologists confirmed their hypothesis that striking up a conversation with a stranger has positive effects on the mood and wellbeing of the initiator. What they didn’t expect to find was that the person with whom the conversation was initiated was equally positively impacted. “This mistaken preference for solitude stems partly from underestimating others’ interest in connecting, which in turn keeps people from learning the actual consequences of social interaction. The pleasure of connection seems contagious,” the researchers concluded.
Well of course—we’re social beings! Our nature craves connection. The lack of connection is a poison to our happiness and well being just like cigarettes or alcohol. It poisons our minds. It poisons our relationships. It poisons our society. Step out of your bubble and engage, bond, connect. You will emerge in a great mood, guaranteed.
Yes, in addition to a walk, you should make time for strenuous exercise.
Two decades before the current resurgence of Stoicism, philosophical writer and performing musician Sharon Lebell translated Epictetus in The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. Lebell presents nearly one hundred lessons based on Epictetus’ handbook. As we talked about above, Epictetus said our chief task in life is discerning what’s inside our control and what isn’t, then focusing our energy on making the right choices in regards to what’s ours to decide.
That process can seem distinctly mental—something we must sit down, get inside our heads, deliberate over, and direct our mind’s eye’s full attention to. When we had a chance to talk to Sharon a while back, one of the things we asked her was whether she had any great exercises or strategies to help with that chief task Epictetus spoke of so often. Interestingly, her advice was actually to do something physical.
I get out of my head and into my body. I love Stoicism because it values logos, reason, the discerning mind. But I think our minds are often the wisest when we can settle them down to allow new unsought answers in. I trust the answers that surface during or as a result of my daily yoga practice. Yoga helps me drop all the things I think I know already and be accessible to effortless imagination and intuition. It helps me to listen, to receive, to allow higher order insights in. I’m not trumpeting yoga per se. I think any daily practice that helps a person withdraw from the noise of everyday life so that wisdom’s voice can be heard is valuable. It’s different for different people.
We know from the Historia Augusta that Marcus was “fond of boxing and wrestling and running and fowling, played ball very skilfully, and hunted well.” Epictetus often spoke about boxing and wrestling, as well, and the importance of building a strong body. Philosophers of yesteryear were known for walking as much as reading, writing, or even talking. Aristotle, for example, conducted his lectures while walking around his school in Athens as his students followed him. Nietzsche reportedly walked up to eight hours a day. Charles Darwin took three 45-minute walks per day.
They all knew the benefit of getting out of their heads and into their bodies. Walking, wrestling, boxing, swimming, running, yoga—all of this is a way to move into a happier headspace. And so today and everyday, you should make sure you do it, too.
“He who laughs has joy. The very soul must be happy and confident, lifted above every circumstance.” — Seneca
Do you know that expression, “dying of laughter”? You know, like—“I laughed so hard I almost died” and “Oh man, I’m dying. That’s too funny!”
Did you know that literally happened to one of the Stoics?? It’s true. Diogenes Laertius recorded the story that Chrysippus—one of history’s most important Stoic thinkers, who succeeded his teacher Cleanthes (who had succeeded Zeno) as head of the Stoic school in Athens around 230 BC—died at the age of 73 during the 143rd Olympiad when he saw a donkey eating figs and yelled: “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs!” Diogenes continues, “And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.”
What a way to go! Despite their reputation as being serious and emotionless, the Stoics had a good sense of humor. “Whenever I wish to enjoy the quips of a clown,” Seneca wrote. “I am not compelled to hunt far; I can laugh at myself.”
The Stoics didn’t have the science but they had the intuition to that what they say about laughter is true: it is indeed the best (and cheapest) medicine:
- It may be obvious that laughter reduces stress, but the reason? Laughter and humor trigger the brain’s emotional and reward centers through the release of endorphins. That feeling of euphoria you get after a great long run—that’s from the release of endorphins. The brain’s chemical response is exactly the same when you have a good laugh.
- Stressful experiences in everyday life, even from the simplest most mundane situations like car troubles, suppress the immune system, which increases the risk of infectious illness and heart disease. A good laugh can help prevent stress from accumulating and thus affecting the immune system, protecting you from disease.
Dial up one of your favorite funny movies that you haven’t watched in a while. Or binge watch that series people have been telling you about. Or watch that comedy special on Netflix. Or search YouTube for classic bits from some of the great stand-up comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, or Robin Williams.
Make time for laughter—today and every day.
Epictetus tells us the story of a Stoic philosopher named Agrippinus, who, during Nero’s reign, was delivered some awful news one morning: He was exiled. Effective immediately. Agrippinus’s response? “Very well, we shall take our lunch in Aricia.”
Meaning: We might as well get this show on the road. No use bemoaning or weeping about it. Hey, is anyone else hungry?
That’s how a Stoic responds—they shrug off the emotional weight of even the worst news. As we just talked about above, they have humor about it (“All things are cause for either laughter or weeping,” Seneca said). They focus on what they can control and they let go of everything outside of it.
When we interviewed Neil Pasricha—the bestselling author of books like The Book of Awesome and The Happiness Equation, he talked about how he starts each day by writing down one thing he will let go of. For example, we interviewed him the day his book You Are Awesome released, so that morning he wrote, “I will let go of… worrying if my book will hit bestseller lists.” He explained why he does this,
Research published in Science magazine by the neuroscientists Stefanie Brassen and her colleagues backs up how healing it can be to reveal a tiny worry or anxiety. Their study, titled “Don’t Look Back in Anger!: Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging,” shows that minimizing regrets as we age creates greater contentment and happiness. The research also shows that holding on to regrets causes us to take more aggressive and risky actions in the future. So the healthiest and happiest people are aware of regrets they harbor and then choose to let them go.
You’ll notice that all of the strategies above don’t require much to access.
We think we need a lot to be happy. We need piles of money. We need power. We need fame. We must get that person to marry us. We must, we must, we must—there are so many things we need. Or so we think.
Of course, deep down we know that’s not true. We’ve seen other people get these things and can tell it’s no panacea. We have tasted these things ourselves. And what did we find? Oops, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “Very little is needed to make a happy life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” Seneca similarly suggested that the problem is not how little we have, but that we’re constantly wanting more.
What you must realize today is that you already have everything you need to be happy. You are already rich. You already have an incredible power—the power to determine your own needs and desires, the ability to say enough. That magical word: enough. The happy life will never be determined by external things. No amount is enough for one who has too little, the Stoics said. Meanwhile, the person who can be grateful, who can direct their thoughts properly—towards what is good in this life—will be happy in any and every situation.
That’s all you need for the happy life. Seize it…if that’s what you want.
“Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Other people’s wills are as independent of mine as their breath and bodies. We may exist for the sake of one another, but our will rules its own domain. Otherwise the harm they do would cause harm to me. Which is not what God intended —for my happiness to rest with someone else.” — Marcus Aurelius
“The Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.” — Seneca
“It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom.” — Seneca
“We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of externals.” — Seneca
“Do the one thing that can render you really happy: cast aside and trample under foot all the things that glitter outwardly and are held out to you [by the various sects which professed to teach how happiness is to be obtained] by another or as obtainable from another; look toward the true good, and rejoice only in that which comes from your own store.”
“The things which we actually need are free for all, or else cheap; nature craves only bread and water. No one is poor according to this standard; when a man has limited his desires within these bounds, he can challenge the happiness of Jove himself.”
“Make yourself happy through your own efforts; you can do this, if once you comprehend that whatever is blended with virtue is good, and that whatever is joined to vice is bad.” — Seneca
“If there is anything that can make life happy, it is good on its own merits; for it cannot degenerate into evil. 7. Where, then, lies the mistake, since all men crave the happy life? It is that they regard the means for producing happiness as happiness itself, and, while seeking happiness, they are really fleeing from it.” — Seneca
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living by Russ Harris
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha
The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
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