A friend who recently became interested in Stoic practice asked me this question: “I know that in Stoicism, you don’t rely on external things for happiness.... but if you stop waiting for—or counting on—those things to be happy, then is our default state to just be happy?”
Her question made me think.
So much of our conversation in the West today is about how to be happy. Can working more productively make us happy? What about buying really cool stuff? Meditating? Spending time in nature? Retiring early? How about having kids? Are parents more or less happy than non-parents? Every week another study comes out attempting to show what brings happiness to modern humans’ lives. A “happiness movement” has captured national attention in the US, followed, naturally, by a backlash against this quest, which asserts that actively looking for happiness may actually be making us LESS happy.
Here are a few reflections based on my study of Stoicism and my personal experiences.
In Stoic thought, our natural state isn’t necessarily happy. We actually need to use philosophy as a means to finding joy. The reason for this is that we may not instinctively know how to use our rational mind and listen to our ruling center—or that instinct may be distracted by everything else we’ve seen, heard, and been taught.
This may sound ironic because one of the key Stoic goals is to “live according to nature.” Shouldn’t we find happiness in our original, natural state? In fact, in my interpretation, Stoic thought suggests that we need to spend time figuring out what our true nature is, and what the nature of the world is, and then sync up the two as an ongoing practice.
We do that by using our ruling center, that “divine spark” that makes humans uniquely able to interpret their world in a reasonable way. Without that spark, and without actively cultivating it, we’d be tempted to follow our animal-like instincts. Or we might be influenced by the whims of whatever society or culture we are living in, which may not espouse good values or ethics. You need a philosophy to guide you.
I think that ancient Stoics would say that you have to actually DO some things to experience joy and the tranquility that comes with it.
First, you have to use your reason well. It means questioning impressions (first reactions/thoughts) and seeking to make reasonable decisions, rather than jumping to conclusions or hot-headed actions; it means learning to use wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control as guideposts in decision-making; it means letting go of blame, anger, and other negative “passions” or emotions; and it means focusing on our moral core, and our own “assent” to what's right.
It's completely internal, happening inside your own mind. That is why it's so confusing to a culture fixated on externally valued objects and possessions.
Here's a suggestion: Make a conscious effort to consider the value you’re adding to the world just by making good choices (or the best choices possible in your situation) and by being a proponent of virtue ethics. In Stoic thought, having a good moral intent and making reasonable judgments, no matter your circumstances, are all you need to be a good person. Many philosophies over time have emphasized this kind of moral cultivation. As 18th-century thinker Voltaire said, "cultivate your garden." (In this case, cultivate your ruling center!) Knowing you're doing what you can to be a good person can bring you a contented feeling.
Second, you need to make peace with yourself, and accept reality as it is, to be content. If you are constantly trying to change what is outside your control, you'll be frustrated, angry, and you’ll be likely to give in to bad passions. A Stoic goal is to elevate healthy emotions by thinking clearly, realistically, and acting with reason. That doesn't mean we will be cold robots. Instead, we can draw on compassion and the common humanity (more on that in the third point below).
We can recognize that in fact, struggles and difficulties are inevitable, and part of the human condition. Yet we can still be present in the moment, taking what joy is possible, without obsessing about the past or the future. That’s what I’d call Stoic mindfulness.
Third, because Stoics believed in the common humanity of all people, doing good with and for others in the world can and should also bring you joy. That is because you know that you're acting in an ethical way, and in accord with the social element of our nature, which is designed (by nature) to partner with other humans to accomplish things and make the human world better.
I interpret this "doing good" as including any kind of activity that brings some healing, hope, learning, or delight to others. Marcus Aurelius had a famous quote about humans working together like sets of teeth (a bit odd to picture but true. One tooth can't chew!).
All of these paths can unite into a Stoic-inspired life and can help ease anxiety about finding happiness, and about the value we add to this world. They can bring some measure of contentment and yield tranquility. And these are good reasons to continue pursuing a Stoic approach, even when the whole world tries to convince us not to.
This Friday, I'm trying something different: a pop music-inspired philosophy reflection.
My kids got me into pop. I had always preferred jazz and classical, aside from a lingering love of 1980s-era Police and Talking Heads.
When my daughters were very small, I played recordings of Mozart and Beethoven for them, in addition to lots of kids’ songs and folk music. They seemed to like it all, but really gravitated towards songs they could sing along with. Another favorite I shared was Allan Sherman, the musical comedian (his parodies of 1960s and American folk songs are still classics).
It was my daughters’ early experiences at summer camp finally made me start to appreciate frothy pop. They attended programs run in our neighborhood, where day camps rent out private schools for the summer. In the tradition of camps, they are staffed by teenagers. And both my girls, starting at age 5, would come home singing tunes loved by teens, mostly songs I’d never heard. They even made up special versions just for camp.
Camp Galileo was at the forefront of this cultural appropriation. They subbed in “Galileo” for many other lyrics. For example, the 1980s German pop song “Amadeus” became “Galileo, Galileo, oh, oh, oh, Galileo” rather than “Amadeus, Amadeus, oh, oh, oh, Amadeus.” The lyrics from Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” were altered this way:
“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes,
Saying ‘Ayo! GALILEO!’
I want to celebrate and live my life,
Saying ‘Ayo! GALILEO!’”
The kids got to know these songs well, performing some of them for an audience of parents and caregivers on the last day of each week-long camp session. Seeing the children sing and dance made me smile. The kids' enthusiasm was palpable. Slowly I dropped my negative judgments, my pre-existing bias against pop. I let the words and sounds wash over me. I felt myself start to move to the beat. Suddenly I realized: This is fun!
A song that both my daughters loved, and one that helped finally break down my skeptical armor when it comes to pop music, was “It’s Always a Good Time.” This 2012 song, by Owl City and Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen (of "Call Me Maybe" fame) is about as fluffy as pop gets. The female and male singer croon about what a great experience they have going out and how everything in their lives is pretty great.
As unexpected as it sounds, I’d like to take the opportunity to point out some ways in which the lyrics (such as they are) support my life philosophy inspired by Stoicism.
“We don’t even have to try, it’s always a good time”:
Remember when I wrote against “trying”? Well, this message is good reinforcement. Rather than tensing up and trying very hard to remain true to your philosophy, ease up. Internalize its key ideas, and work from there. This was the crux of what my Alexander Technique teacher taught me: Learn the method, and then live it. Put your principles into practice, without fear or stress.
The type of stress we develop when we are about to try to tackle something “really hard” creates a physical barrier that makes it tougher. Sometimes it also surfaces a sense of failure before we’ve even begun. So go ahead, live with the energy of the universe flowing through you and have a good time!
“Doesn’t matter when—it’s always a good time then”:
I love this line even more. Anytime is the time to put your principles into action—and to live life to its fullest. This is the core of mindfulness, too. Any moment is a good time to acknowledge the extraordinary world all around us, and to become more aware of what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
Marcus Aurelius wrote about concentrating on the present moment: "We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found."
So did the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: "The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all other moments."
Both of these quotes inspire me.
One of the concepts I’m trying to live by these days is reducing resistance to the world around me. Resistance in this sense is when I feel a conflict between what I want/expect and what reality gives me. (I know there are many other terms for this, and many other uses of the word resistance.) I’ve had a habit of noticing, commenting on, and quite frankly overly focusing on this frequent gap. It creates suffering. And it’s largely unnecessary.
(That is, aside from when we witness real injustice, or danger, or truly immoral behavior. Then, noticing and pointing it out, and fighting it, is our duty as followers of justice, wisdom, and courage.)
How does this align with a Stoic-inspired life philosophy? Starting with Zeno, the Greek founder of Stoic thought, the Stoics wrote about living “in accord with nature.”
This means, in part, living without resistance. Being in accord with nature means using that spark inside us that’s rational. It means being truly human, and I think we can express that in the very human balance of work, play, and reflection.
“Happiness is a good flow of life,” Zeno is also quoted as saying. The flow happens when we align with the universe and build our capacity for making good decisions and forming excellent judgments.
In mindfulness meditation, people sometimes speak of “being breathed.” It’s when the air flow seems to be happening on its own, our lungs perfectly able to manage this process masterfully, and naturally, enabling us to let go of our fears and distractions. Perhaps the “good flow of life” feels that way.
I can picture Zeno now, talking with his students. I’m wondering if he might, just might, enjoy pop music if he were around today…
When I was in high school, after my classes were done, I’d walk towards Lake Michigan and wait at the public bus stop on nearest large road. There was not much to do as the cars whizzed by. Not too many kids relied on the public bus, so many times I was alone facing the road and the lake shore park across the way. Sometimes I’d read. But often, I would sit there on the concrete and look up at the sky.
I’d watch the movement of white against blue against gray. I’d see just a small opening in the clouds beginning and then gathering clarity, revealing azure behind the mist, and finally rays of sun visibly filtering across a milky white backdrop.
I’d try to read the clouds for impending weather shifts, which could happen moment to moment. But mostly I’d take in the beauty of it. The fluffy cloud formations and play of light reminded me of a renaissance painting. Magic.
Even now, looking at clouds above, I imagine sitting up there. It looks so close I could nearly touch it. There’s a reason those fantastical Italian ceiling frescos feature the sky, clouds, and beams of light so prominently, and why we picture the gods in this "celestial" realm. It’s otherworldly.
As I look up today, I stop to consider two ways my sky-study supports my life philosophy based on Stoic principles.
First off, I think looking up offers a kind of reverse "view from above." We could call it “a view from below.”
Traditionally, the ancients practiced the “view from above” by picturing themselves floating high over the people and cities and world that they knew, and seeing things from a new perspective where our problems and, indeed, our whole lives look small and inconsequential.
If we try the “view from below”as a practice, as we look up, we are reminded of the beauty and structure of our whole planet and the environment we live in—and of how small we are in the wider perspective. Seeing the timeless sky above, one that originated with the dawn of Earth, also serves to indicate how fleeting and short our time is.
Looking up, we can also feel very keenly that we all see the same sky, the same clouds. Every human being, no matter his or her location or profession or status, can study those remarkable clouds and sinuous patterns of light and shade. And we all can appreciate them.
In that way, it’s a reminder of our inter-connectedness as well. Looking at the clouds and sky can serve as an exercise in what the ancients called cosmopolitanism. Because we all share the same sky, and we can all potentially respond to its beauty and its life-giving light and air.
So the next time you’re outside, take a few minutes to turn towards the sky. Really study it. Be moved by it. And let it serve as a vivid reminder of our small place in this world, of the beauty and joy we can find here, and of the millions (billions?) of other people who are also looking up at this very moment.
One afternoon, my ten-year-old daughter confessed that she had been quite frustrated after a few long days at a local summer camp. The atmosphere there was chaotic and some of her experimental projects weren’t working out.
She knew intellectually that it wasn’t a big deal, but it did have an impact on her emotions. The amazing thing was, when she reacted by over-snacking on late-afternoon slices of toast, she was fully aware of what she was doing.
“I’m eating my emotional bread, Mom,” she said.
I understood just what she meant. I’ve long suffered from bouts of emotional eating. This has happened when I was stressed, bored, sad, or felt empty. Food is instantly enjoyable, and can seem, momentarily, to counteract negative emotions and the fatigue of dealing with everyday challenges.
“Eating my emotional bread” is something I recognize and want to avoid, and when I can’t, I try to forgive myself.
One year and a month ago, I decided to try a new eating plan. I became more cognizant of food quantities, using a hunger scale to measure how much my body needed to eat. It was an effort to counteract years of emotional eating.
The plan helped me reset how I think about food. I do indeed still eat when I am stressed or feeling low or sometimes just bored. But I’m more aware and honest about it, and I more often listen to my body when it says “enough, I’m overfull, I don’t feel well anymore.” By stopping myself before I over-consumed, I reduced some symptoms I used to get more often (for instance, heartburn) and positively affected my waistline.
And I became much more willing to leave food on the plate or on the table. If I am bored or anxious, I try to substitute other more healthy alternatives, like taking a walk or jog, reaching out to a friend with a text, doing a small piece of art or craft, reading a book or article, or watching a funny video.
This is a more “mindful” approach to food that keeps it in its proper place. I know that food will never make me emotionally better. My daughter comprehends this, too.
Yet emotional bread has a powerful pull. It’s a choice that’s not always as “within our control” as we think, despite what Stoic thinkers may tell us. In today’s Western world, we are often surrounded by large quantities of food, either offered to us by friends, family, or co-workers, or for sale at reasonable prices. (My particular weakness is free food at the workplace.)
Our world is also one where the stresses, emotional needs, personal challenges, and environmental and international problems seem to be ballooning, and eating is a less destructive response than alcohol, drugs, extreme thrill-seeking, or other forms of “self-medication” that help us avoid the causes of our suffering. (I should note: Even if overall world problems such as war and famine are on the decline in recent decades, the demands of everyday life in the West still seem to be overwhelming to many people.)
We can’t always change the causes for our distress, just our responses, as Stoic thinkers often remind us. Bad things do happen. But in the bigger picture, I’ve tried also to reduce the number of issues or stressors that I carry with me, and, through Stoic practice, to keep in perspective all the silly “small stuff” that used to bother me much more.
For my daughter, who feels things deeply, gaining a sense of perspective is hard. It takes time to learn to see the world that way. Luckily, a serving of bread here and there won’t hurt her too much.
Even better is for her, or for any of us, to tell our family or friends, “I guess now is a time when I need emotional bread,” and to lean (just a bit) more on their shared wisdom, support, and love. When I think of my loved ones, I know I can find emotional nourishment far more meaningful than that in the pantry.
Remember that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future. The space of each person’s existence is thus a little thing….
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3, Section 10
How much time have I wasted mulling over mistakes of the past? Thinking about unfulfilled hopes from younger days? How many moments have I squandered worried about the future: about what would happen later today, about next week, next month, next year? Anxious that I might disappoint other people or let myself down?
I realize I can’t eliminate these kinds of thoughts, but these are things that I strive to notice. I want to at least be aware of them. I would like to recall Marcus Aurelius’ lines continuously, but it’s very hard to make my brain think that way.
Marcus’ wisdom resonates with what I’ve learned about mindfulness and Buddhist meditation practices. By focusing on the current moment, by just being present now, we can (even briefly) escape our “stories” about ourselves (often filled with insecurities, defensiveness, and misjudgments), the litany of fears that have governed us in the past, the bad habits we find hard to break, and the anxieties that plague us about tomorrow. This is a difficult practice for someone steeped in concerns, cautions, and sometimes-unrealistic expectations (about myself and my world), but very much worth trying.
I’ve been pouring over Marcus Aurelius’ work recently to try to re-ground myself in a time of stress. And I’ve found another book that offers a different kind of grounding. It’s Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, a study of how reason and science have led to progress throughout the globe since the Enlightenment period in the late eighteenth century.
The book is filled with facts about improvements in the standard of living, health, education, food availability, women’s rights, and more. This knowledge needs to be verbalized much more in society today. Those who decry science and say that the world is getting worse seem to be winning for the moment on our public stage. But it need not be this way in the future.
Look how far we have come in terms of laying the groundwork for more and more people to live a good life. We can quibble about exactly what values we should subscribe to, but knowing that reason, science, and humanism have yielded a world in which things have gotten a great deal better—so much better that more of us can afford to spend time thinking, reading about, and practicing practical philosophy, among many other good and useful things—is eye-opening.
It’s far better to be a woman and a mother today than in past generations, however rose-tinted our backwards-looking glasses may be. And I’m even more optimistic for my two daughters. They are living in a time when people are working hard to expose and diminish bias, fight against harassment, and offer the best education possible for girls as well as boys.
There’s much, much more work to be done, surely. In fact, education is one of the most problematic areas today in terms of inequality and issues of access. But knowing that something’s not perfect doesn’t mean we should decry it, or give up on it. Letting go of the past and remaining cautiously optimistic (though realistic) about the future, we can carry on today.
And as for me, I’ll try to use whatever time I have given to me in the now to live in accord with nature--and to make my best efforts towards wisdom, justice, and self-knowledge.
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.