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.
Many of us feel under stress, facing competition to “succeed” in a society increasingly divided into winners and losers in terms of economics and social status. To me, much of Stoic practice is about unwinding this deeply-rooted impulse to compete and prove ourselves superior, and to cope the emotions we feel about status.
The work of Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and Stanford professor, helps to explain how very important this issue is. Understanding what he has uncovered about stress and society can help us find a new path forward both as individuals and as a culture—one that strongly resonates with Stoic practices.
Sapolsky has spent much of his career studying baboons in Africa. Baboons have a strict social hierarchy. Sapolsky discovered that male baboons with low social status, who were picked on and attacked by other males, were suffering from high levels of stress hormones. These biological molecules have a terrible impact, causing a higher rate of a disease.
This linkage extends to other primates, including humans, Sapolsky indicates. Humans, too, crave high social status, and those who lack it, suffer stress and, potentially, disease. Here’s how a WIRED magazine article on Sapolsky summarized this connection:
"The power of this new view of stress — that our physical health is strongly linked to our emotional state — is that it connects a wide range of scientific observations, from the sociological to the molecular… And now we can see, with scary precision, the devastating cascade unleashed by these [stress] chemicals. The end result is that stress is finally being recognized as a critical risk factor, predicting an ever larger percentage of health outcomes."
There is a silver lining to this knowledge: once we understand it, we are motivated to find new approaches. It’s hard to change, however, because our evolution primes us to climb social hierarchies based on strict forms of judgment about each other. We need retraining to practice respect for others, to see the human being behind surface appearances, to respond with reason, and to ignore insults to our egos.
For me, the key is Stoic practice. This approach is an antidote, if we are able to internalize its ideas no matter the consequences. (We should be aware that the consequences of not striving for/conforming to social status can be vicious, as the ancients knew.)
Stoicism offers guidance. A core principle is that we should not jump to value judgments, about ourselves or others. We can pause and question our impression. Recall Epictetus’ way of talking back to our initial reactions: “You are but an impression, and not what you appear to be.” We turn to our ruling center.
Epictetus explained how to handle with insults this way:
"What does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to an insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?" (Discourses, 1:25:28)
Interestingly, certain baboons have also found a way to manage stress—and improve their situation. And it’s remarkably similar to what Epictetus advised.
From WIRED: "Sapolsky found there was a set of personality traits linked reliably with lower levels of stress hormones. One of these was the ability to walk away from provocations that might send a normal baboon into a snarling hissy fit. Interestingly, this less aggressive personality turned out to be exceedingly effective: The nice baboons remained near the top of the troop hierarchy about three times longer than the baboons who were easily provoked into a fight."
If we can conquer our ego-driven and status-motivated reactions, if we can learn to respond to insults “like a rock,” if we can find peace in our ruling center, we too can combat stress and the risks that go along with it. Stoic ideas offer an antidote if we can remind ourselves of their power and benefits, rather than being sucked into the endless competition and status jockeying all around us.
This post first appeared in The STOIC magazine. Learn about it here and see an archive of issues here.
Stoic life philosophy and others’ judgments
In the series Black Mirror, there’s an infamous episode where the main character is judged for her actions minute-to-minute by her peers, gaining and losing points via a social media-style app. A cascade of missteps, largely outside of her control, results in a lower score—and, as a result, a disturbing downgrade in her real life. The episode is called Nosedive, and it’s terrifying. (But apparently not so scary to those who turned it into a "fun" game sold at Target!)
This sounds like a futuristic nightmare. But it’s already happening in some countries. Artificial intelligence is quickly combining with facial recognition, social media, and crowdsourcing to become tools of social control.
I find this situation of great concern as a human being—and also as a follower of Stoic practices. It makes me wonder: No matter what scary impositions technology enables, how can we, as individuals, effectively cope with others’ judgments?
Ancient Stoics, with Epictetus the strongest voice among them, teach us that we have no control over what other people think or do, and therefore should ignore others’ opinions. In day-to-day life, this is hard. People’s judgments happen everywhere, all the time, and they can affect our lives in real ways. Others’ opinions cost us jobs, school admittances, relationships, and more.
At times, I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of criticism, and it’s toxic. As a student and a young professional, I would slave over projects trying to perfect them and protect them from criticism, trying so hard to please that my own unique imprint got lost. (In that way, worries about others’ judgments actually kept me from doing my best work.) I wanted my efforts and my external persona to be bulletproof. This tendency among girls, in particular, has been highlighted in recent media stories that try to explain why girls' high achievement in school does not always translate into success in the workplace: perfectionism is the enemy of more lasting, real-world accomplishment.
But critiques of my work (and of me!) inevitably happened, and though I tried to maintain a brave face, I was crushed inside. That was before I accepted that I couldn’t control or change others’ reactions, and that I could still live a good life no matter what they thought. Before I began practicing a Stoic life philosophy.
Now, as I have developed a more self-reliant idea about my own value and core principles, I’ve come to see interactions with others as a dance with an often-unreliable partner.
The ancients knew this. That’s the source of all the language about being able to “bear” other people. Marcus Aurelius had to do this as emperor, and I think he spoke most eloquently about what needs to be done: As humans, we are built to work together in society, so we have to balance our wishes and drives with those of others. That means we must put up with people who are separated from reason and their ruling center.
So we have to learn this dance. Even if our feet are often stepped on, bringing involuntary tears to our eyes.
This is a lifelong project. We can interact with our coworkers, gathering input, without letting their agendas penetrate too deeply into our ruling centers. We can learn from mentors, without being controlled by their point of view—asking ourselves, like Socrates, “Is it true?” We can share what we create, and hope that others, through our common humanity, will respond to the work as intended or will offer ideas to inform us—but we can’t expect this to happen. We can be close with family, yet still follow our own paths.
We could learn to view our work, and our relationships, not as finished, polished, perfect things, but as living entities, like trees in the forest, always expanding and shifting. That way, everything is a work in progress, like our own moral development, where there’s always room for growth ...that is, until we somehow become Stoic sages.
I’ve found I make more progress on this when I heed the advice of my daughters’ teachers, who inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You don’t know everything to begin with, and you learn through making mistakes. Mistakes are “expected, respected, inspected, and corrected,” says a classroom poster. The teacher reminds them: Your work won’t be perfect. If you’ve developed a new skill, you’ve won. (This is NOT how I was taught in school, where perfection was expected and the rest was disrespected.)
Where does that leave our “score”—in other words, how we are assessed by others?
The hard truth is that we must learn to ignore it and endure the consequences. As I feel myself being judged by peers or colleagues, I tell myself: This is yet another opportunity to exercise my core principles and hope that my truth will win out. After all, a good social or professional rank is not essential, but rather a preferred indifferent in a self-reliant life lived according to the virtues.
Imagine living this way:
Nothing—and I mean nothing—truly matters except your intention to do the right thing.
Not your wealth
Your level of education
Your profession or job title
Your relatives or loved ones
Not even your health status.
None of those things are truly important in comparison with following the spark inside you, the ruling center, that guides you to act in the name of justice, wisdom, self-control, and courage.
That’s the core of Stoicism. And it forms the basis of the tension between ancient philosophy inspired by Socrates and Zeno, and the values, goals, and beliefs of most of today’s Western world.
Let me say this another way. Many Americans believe that 1) we control—or should control—our own level of wealth, status, job, our relationships, health, and even our manner/time of death… and 2) that these are the things necessary for a good life.
Certainly, these things go enormously far in living a comfortable, serene, and pleasant life. But they are not what is truly critical. They are “preferred indifferents” for Stoics. That is because the only real necessity to be good for followers of Stoicism is to have the right moral intentions and to commit to persevering, as much as possible, in order to fulfill those intentions.
All the other things are, as they say, gravy.
Ideally, if you follow this principle, your life “flows” easily because you are in accord with the best elements of humanity (and the universe). In other words, you are living “in accord with nature,” as the Stoics called it since the day of Zeno.
Followers of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy have been reminding themselves of this for centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote about it in his Meditations, a private journal. Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher who delved deeply into Marcus Aurelius' work in his book The Inner Citadel, explains it this way:
“We encounter the same fundamental principle again and again: the only absolute value is moral intention, and it alone depends entirely on us. It is not the result that counts—for this does not depend on us, but on Destiny—but rather the intention one has when seeking the result… If our activity is animated by the perfectly pure intention of wishing only for the good, it attains its goal at every instant, and has no need to wait for its achievement and result to come from the future.” (The Inner Citadel, Michael Chase transl., p. 195).
It’s difficult to keep this at the forefront of our minds as we proceed through a world bent on judging us and molding us to pursue its outward goals. Yet it is ultimately reassuring in the extreme. It proves that we all have the capacity for great goodness and intrinsic value, if we choose to act for good, and if we can prevent ourselves from being caught up in the many rat races that surround us in the modern world.
When my daughters are upset about a small reversal at school—a test grade below their expectation, a friend ignoring them, a teacher responding negatively—this lesson about our intentions is a good reminder of what matters most. And of the true wellspring of our worth as humans.
A modern interpretation of this way of thinking might say: "Yes, you can be good, if you stay focused on making good choices. In fact, you are already good! Your intentions and wishes show it. Keep going!"
I hope this thinking could give any of us a sense of perspective on our numerous small annoyances, as well as our genuine grievances and serious troubles.
Given all that we are juggling these days, it is easy to spiral into a cascade of worries, which I’ve heard my older daughter voice this way: “If I don’t do well on this test, I won’t do well in this class, then I won’t get into the advanced math class next year, and if I don’t get into that class, then I won’t be able to take an even more advanced course in high school, and then I won’t be a top student in math and science, and then I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t have a good degree, and then I won’t get a good job, and then I won’t have a good life.”
Notice the use of “good” in this spiral of negativity. It's not exactly the moral sense, is it? Of course, there’s a kernel of something valuable in this fatalistic line of thinking. We do owe it to ourselves to try to do well and to learn and to achieve what we can in our time on earth. Certainly sitting on our hands because we are afraid of / uninterested in trying would be a bad idea. But thinking that a grade or a college or a job offer or house size or vacation defines our value is far from the truth. I did do well in school, got what I considered a good degree, work at a job I like (after a meandering career path), and have lots of outward things to be thankful for—most of all my two children. Yet I don’t believe these outward things make me a “good person” or ensure that I live a “good life.”
And that’s why I’ll keep chipping away at this Stoicism thing, tapping into mindfulness and compassion studies too, to build my own sense of how to choose that all-important moral intention carefully, and how to not be weighed down by negative emotion or psychological baggage in making that decision. I'll keep following this guiding star as a wellspring of human value and meaning in our chaotic, often superficial world.
When she was about 6, my older daughter got pretty busy with school, activities, friends, and family. She wished she had more time.
I remember one day when she said she wanted time to fit in an extra gymnastics class. After a quick conversation about how hard it would be to add another lesson to our packed schedules, my daughter piped up.
“I’ll do gymnastics on Washanzga Day,” she told me and her little sister on the drive home from swim lessons.
“What’s Washanzga Day?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s this extra day of the week. It's the eighth day. And it’s a day when you can do all the things you don’t have time for during the regular week.”
Maybe it was the day when she’d be able to meet up with her imaginary friends Cuppa or Layla—I heard a lot about how busy they were too--for an extended playdate. Or maybe she could do a few extra activities that her family’s schedule couldn’t accommodate other days. Or just play around, with a boon of free time.
She talked about it like it was a real thing. Her power of imagination was always strong, and her will to conjure this special day amazed me. I laughed at first, and then I started to think. What if we did have an extra day?
I’ve never forgotten Washanzga Day. In fact, I’ve longed for it.
I’m the kind of person who is very busy. As another mom friend once said, “we are all busy, but no one is busier than Meredith.” I took it as an extreme compliment!
I like to be busy—not doing “busy work,” but doing things that I love and that strengthen my interests and impact. In fact, I am pretty selective and exercise caution when it comes to long term commitments. But when I do commit, I don’t go by half-measures. I put in lots of energy and my full heart and soul.
Deciding what to do, and what attitude to bring, is central to the Stoic project. I love Epictetus’ discussion of the difference between times when we should use caution and those when we should be confident to forget ahead. It’s a bit counterintuitive:
“Nothing is impractical in the philosophers’ advice to ‘Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will’s control.’” (Discourses, Book II, II)
In other words: Be bold with—and untroubled by—the things you can’t control. After all, you can’t really change those things, so your actions won’t have significant impact. And it’s not the things in themselves that bother people—it’s the fears they engender. Epictetus puts pain and death in that category: don’t fear them, and they won’t trouble you. (Markedly easier said than done! Speaking from several weeks of dental pain, this is a tough principle to live by, though it is at the core of Stoic practice.)
On the other hand, he argues, be very careful with the things in your power. That is where you need to exercise your own judgment, and you have the opportunity to change your own thoughts and actions for the better. That’s the work that truly matters.
Maybe we'd feel less pressed for time if we all had a Washanzga Day for the extra things we might like to magically fit in to our busy lives. And if that day could expand to encompass everything we want to do. Making choices and living well is hard, and in the end, it is impossible to fathom the limit on our days. Our real lived days, not our Washangza Days.
We just don’t know when the Fates will stop us short.
Here’s where Seneca's writings on the shortness of life call out to us. As Seneca reminds readers, it is essential to keep control of how we devote our attention and—whenever possible—how we spend our time. Granted, we may need to work at jobs for income and we may have to change diapers and do daily kid pickups, just to keep things going. It’s not always negotiable. But when it is, it behooves us to make wise choices with our time. It’s our most precious resource. We’d better not waste it.
This brings us back once again to the question of how to figure out what’s worth our time. There is no easy answer.
Like Japanese organizing maven Marie Kando, we could ask: does this activity spark joy? Does this add value to me? Or even if I don’t love doing it and rather might not, does this add value to my community, my family, my job or organization in a way that promotes one of the key virtues? Am I acting with courage, justice? With compassion? If so: Is this more worthwhile than other ways to spend my time?
How do we know the right attitude to take when making commitments? Question your impressions, the Stoics would say. If everyone around you seems to expect you’ll be this year’s Cookie Mom for Girl Scouts, ask yourself, is this really how I should spend my time? Is it using my strengths and is it my choice, or am I doing this because of the way other people would judge me if I said no? Be cautious in proceeding, as Epictetus tells us. You could find another path—a role that suits your abilities and interests is ideal. If you decide to go forward, commit.
Let's recall Seneca's words (using male language, but this applies equally to women), "You'll find no one willing to distribute his money; but to how many people each of us shares out his life! Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it's respectable to be greedy."
I can be greedy with my time, but I love to spend on my favorite things. In my free time, I gravitate towards immersive “flow” activities and try to squeeze them in as often as I can.
For me, these are the creative pursuits or activities with my family where I lose track of time completely. Perhaps that is a tiny way to defeat time’s dominance over our lives. It’s a way of maximizing the moment by being completely enveloped in it.
I find "flow" when I’m working on an artistic project. Or hanging out with my daughters dancing to pop music (for which I’m mercilessly mocked!). Or learning about the latest research in my field in an online seminar. Or playing piano. Or writing this blog.
How do you decide how to spend your time? What would you do if you had a Washanzga Day?
Last weekend, 11 people were killed by a hate-filled shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The news devastated far more than one community. People across the country and world were filled with horror and disbelief.
There are many ways to become unmoored in modern America. Every day, people are alienated from family, friends, workplaces, communities. And in their quest to connect somehow with other human beings, their minds are twisted into a victim mentality fueled by hate.
Hatred makes people feel powerful. In our society, people are being constantly told they are powerless victims (of conspiracies, of immigrants, of other religious, ethnic, or racial groups, of women's rights and Me Too, and more), and in the public arena, limitless power is craved, praised, and ruthlessly pursued, no matter the means or the cost. Combined, these things motivate people's horrific actions against other human beings. And with easy access to weapons, they can do massive harm.
Stoic thinkers spoke of a very different approach, centered around actively practicing justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, and self-control. All of these things are lacking in a meaningful way from our public discourse, especially the rhetoric of those currently in power.
I personally hope to live by those virtues. It is a lifelong effort, and not easy. I’m reminded of Epictetus’ quote about the “real good or evil” of human beings. He was asked if there is a difference between a human and an animal, such as a stork. “Yes, surely,” he responds. "How so?" he is asked. He says:
See whether it be not in rationality of action, in social instincts, fidelity, honor, providence, judgment.
"Where, then, is the real good or evil of human beings?"
Just where this difference lies. If this distinguishing trait is preserved, and remains well fortified, and neither honor, fidelity, nor judgment is destroyed, then he himself is likewise saved; but when any one of these is lost or demolished, he himself is lost also.
-Epictetus, Discourses, 1.28 (in a historic translation)
Those virtues and practices define humanity. We must work to “preserve” them always, even when it feels more appealing to give in to the latest conspiracy theory. There’s a beauty in those lies, of course—they feed on people's worse fears, confirming our anxieties, and they make us feel better about ourselves. But we must cultivate courage, refusing the psychologically-easy fix that extremists proffer to make some people feel superior to other people…. and the slippery slope of falsehoods that they are built on.
Stoic philosophy demonstrates distinct ways that you can shift your way of thinking. You can say no to sellers of hate or discord. You can refuse to participate in name calling or in demonizing people who are different. You can choose to value other people, no matter their background, as members of the human family.
Just as important: In Stoicism, you are never a victim. That’s one of its greatest appeals. If you adopt this life philosophy, as long as you have breath left in your body you can be a virtuous person pursuing and growing the good and a role model for others. In so doing, you are a part of forces for good throughout our world. That is especially important during dark times.
Even people who are victims of crime or persecution or disease (or in ancient times, banishment or political execution) have used Stoic thinking to endure and to fight and to stand for what’s right. They do not let being victim define them.
Instead they use their freedom of thought and judgment to take back power from people who try to insult, harm, or even kill them. Consider Socrates, Seneca, or Cato in ancient Greek and Roman times. In modern times, one might think of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks.
Even closer to home, we can find the power within ourselves to cope with daily trouble large and small. Take the example of a recent post on the Facebook Stoicism group. A woman described how she used Stoic ideas to help her endure longterm physical illness and disability. She found the strength to keep going, to say "this doesn't define me."
Sometimes hate starts almost imperceptibly. Prejudiced "dog whistles" can have an impact. But people who aren’t conditioned to feel like victims, constantly under threat by "the other," are much less likely to respond to such calls for bias, racism, and anti-Semitism. They know better. They know their own inner freedom. They live their own power, exemplifying what’s best about humanity.
I repeat: All the best elements in us—justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, self-control—are lacking in a meaningful way from the rhetoric of those currently in charge of our nation. I strive to live by those virtues, to teach them to my children, and to express them through writing, speaking out, teaching (as a volunteer), parenting, and voting. We must find a way to turn people away from hatred-based beliefs, actions, and power-seeking through violence. And we must remain rooted in the good.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, 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.