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.
Do you ever feel so angry you could scream, and then suddenly realize that this feeling goes against all you believe? All you try to achieve as a person, parent, and Stoic?
As promised, my third installment of my conversation with Stoicism teacher and writer Donald Robertson focuses on anger. I am not the most patient of people, and I often wonder how I could avoid becoming upset too quickly and speaking out in anger, especially to my children. I also would like to do a better job of helping my kids manage their own anger (depicted here!).
I asked Donald: What does Stoic thinking teach us about how to cope with anger?
You want to begin by spotting yourself becoming angry. As a therapist, I’ve dealt with anger management. The first stage of therapy is that you have to spot it to stop it.
There are different levels of self-awareness. Everyone knows when someone turns red. But the hard part is noticing anger before you are truly aware of it. There are early warning signs. Earlier than normal, try to notice it. It becomes harder to control passions the longer they go on.
The same thing is true if you are a runner—when you’re going fast, and someone says stop, it’s hard to stop because things have escalated. But stopping when you’re walking, it isn’t as tough. That’s anger. It’s less and less voluntary the longer it continues. Catch it early, and you have more voluntary control.
It’s possible that you are getting annoyed, and you are not aware you are angry. One answer to that is that another person could observe you. Stoic mentors, in ancient times, would follow you and notice your responses, like Rusticus did with Marcus Aurelius. It can be more obvious to others.
Learn to notice internal signs like tense shoulders. Like the specific thoughts you have, such as blaming thoughts. Or maybe it’s the tone of voice I’m using, or I’m frowning – that’s mindfulness training, as well as self-monitoring and self-observation.
Anger is temporary madness. Evidence shows that it creates cognitive distortion. Anger narrows our scope of attention and amplifies our response. We are prone to generalization and can’t problem solve. We have ‘gone crazy and can’t think clearly.’ Awareness of other stimuli will dilute that response—so the more I notice about my body, the more I will be forced to expand scope. That way I can give my mind a bunch of things to do.
As a side note: Seneca wrote a book about anger. He said anger is unnatural and unnecessary. It’s ugly and bad. He says, “Look at people’s faces when they are angry, don’t they look twisted and horrible?”
Are there other specific Stoic-based approaches to calming anger, once we become aware of it happening?
They did cognitive distancing. The ancient Stoics talk a lot about when a thought pops through your mind, you should see it as an arbitrary value judgment. All the thoughts we have are projections. All judgments are fundamentally indifferent. Nothing external is that bad. The only thing we should care that strongly about is our own character. That value doesn’t exist in external world. It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgments about things. I’m externalizing it – you are a jerk, this is awful, you are awful. This is catastrophizing. We need to learn to roll that back.
Epictetus said if you have an angry thought, you can tell it, “you’re just an impression. You’re not the thing you claim to represent.” He is talking to the thought, as if another person, as if it is an outside object. This is creating cognitive distance. “You again, you are my angry judgment that comes up.”
It’s like catastrophe-tinted glasses – there’s a difference between looking through the glasses and taking the glasses off and look at the glasses.
We can try to take a step back and look at our beliefs, judgments, and impressions. Marcus believed in a catharsis—a separation—of our thoughts from external reality. Learning to notice that we are putting those glasses on and looking through them. It’s not a feature of reality. It’s a perspective, a projection. That weakens our emotional and behavioral response.
Having done that, Epictetus says, tell the thought to wait a while, and give us time to rest and respond. You could say to yourself: “Wait until I’ve calmed down and come back to this.” Then you can later be more rational, and ask yourself, what would Socrates do, what would Zeno do? What would the people I admire do?
Also, you could do a cost-benefit analysis of your angry response. Say you do what your anger was telling you to do. What would be the consequences? What would be another way of responding? When we have calmed down and removed ourselves from situation – time out strategies. The Platonists believed in that.
Counting to ten is not long enough. Augustus had a Stoic tutor, who told him to recite the Greek alphabet when angry. That’s longer than counting to ten!
Any other Stoic wisdom on anger, especially when working with kids?
The Stoics believed we are all like children in a way. They didn’t claim to be “wise”—no one was a true “sage.” They thought that we are all in the same boat, and none of us are perfect.
Seneca said of his philosophy, “Imagine this is a therapy, but I’m not a doctor. I’m the guy in the hospital bed beside you who has been undergoing treatment longer. I’ve made some progress.” It’s like peer support.
Getting back to anger: Marcus Aurelius had some strategies for anger management. One of them is to remind yourself that you are just as bad as the person making you angry. Humility could that be enough to stop the feeling. We are all foolish, we all have passions, and you have to figure this out for yourself.
Parents who get angry are child-like. Realizing that is humbling and helps to snap us out of it. “There’s a child within me, who is having a tantrum,” we might say to ourselves.
With kids, when they get angry, we should teach them not to ashamed of anger. But also to tolerate anger. What matters is what they do next, after the angry feeling happens.
Thanks for reading The Stoic Mom. If you have any suggestions or ideas for future 2018 posts or any questions, please write in the comments!
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.