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.
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.
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…
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.
“If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage... turn to it with all your heart... but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue, give no room to anything else.”
- Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
The oddest thing happened when I first met Dominique. She is an experienced instructor in the Alexander Technique—a healthy way of using the body that I had come to her to learn. As she began giving me directions about my movements, she noticed I kept saying “I will try.”
Dominique asked me to “stop trying.”
Simply trying, she pointed out, wouldn’t enable me to accomplish my goals of learning better body use and gaining a stronger, more flexible spinal column. It wouldn't help me stand, walk, or run. It wouldn't energize my movements.
All my life I have said this. “I will try” has kept me going when I had lots of doubts. For that, I'm thankful.
But it’s also a crutch, a protective mechanism, in a way. The word “try” is closely allied with “I might fail.” It implies, “perhaps I can’t do this.” It evinces anxiety. And it also suggests that a ton of effort will be needed to force myself to do what’s hard.
These thoughts have gotten me in trouble many times as I scolded myself for being a failure, not living up to my imagined potential, not being the person I dreamed about becoming.
In the Alexander Technique, we learn to direct our bodies to use involuntary muscles, focusing our thoughts on a few key intentions: freeing the neck, keeping the head forward and up, lengthening and widening the back, separating shoulders from each other.
Rather than “trying” to force my body into “good posture” or a straightened, upright position, this technique encourages me to imagine how my body could be if it were always ready to jump, like a spring. It enables me to break old habits of movement and posture, habits of slumping through life. Instead, I am focused on awareness of simple core principles. It's led to a revitalized use of my body.
One of the biggest challenges in re-thinking movement is what F.M. Alexander, the technique's founder, called "end-gaining." That's where we work to obtain a goal no matter the means, losing sight of all else. This attitude results in abuse of our bodies. Just one example: hunched over our computers or phones, we're constantly bending our bodies to our tools rather than using them in the way nature intended. Then we experience spinal compression, muscle overextension, and pain.
"The difficulty for all of us is to take up a new way of life in which we must apply principles, instead of the haphazard end-gaining methods of the past," Alexander said.
I believe this kind of change is possible for our souls—our ruling centers, in the Stoic sense—too.
It is not easy. For years, I “tried” to improve myself. While this project encompassed many activities, from the artistic to the educational to the psychological, much of my effort and "trying" focused on writing. I knew I had skills, but I struggled to put them to use, to reach people, to fulfill my idea of what my writing “should” be if I just tried hard enough.
Each time I attempted to force my pen to write simply in order to succeed in showcasing my talents and gaining recognition, it fell flat. I wasn’t happy with the results. And I got frustrated. My writing didn't seem to touch anyone. Why wasn’t all my trying working?
I became subtly angry at my shortcomings, and at the world for failing to fulfill my ambitions. And as I did so, I got further and further from understanding and protecting my ruling center... and I distanced myself from my true strengths. I was doing everything for the sake of an audience that was either absent or just didn’t care.
It was when I reached inside to find what truly mattered to me that my work became meaningful to me. And that, too, is when readers started to tell me that they had learned something, or that they had achieved an insight into their own struggles after reading something I shared.
There's a lot to learn here, though it's not so easy to see in our competition-driven culture. We have become accustomed to trying to dazzle others with our achievements and talents.
Both Stoic philosophy and the Alexander Technique encourage those who practice them to adopt simple core principles, from which all else flows. These basic ideas resonate universally.
In my current Stoic practice, I have been turning back to the key virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance. Those are the basic ideals to live by, the crux of the work of Stoicism. For me, it is a lifelong process to live a good life (and I think ancient philosophers would agree). There is no Stoic sage nearby to show me the path; I am feeling my way forward as best I can.
Every day I ask myself, how can I be wise, honest, just, brave, and self-controlled? I fail often. But I gradually through these principles I’ve begun to develop better habits of the mind and to alter my own behaviors and habits too.
This happens in ways large and small. I ask myself, how can I exercise self-control today? Is it by simply not checking online news headlines all afternoon, or skipping that tempting slice of cake? It is by refraining from pitying myself when something goes wrong? When it comes to wisdom, have I questioned my thoughts (and fears) about that email exchange that bothered me at work, rather than falling into paranoia? Have I been brave about providing honest feedback to colleagues and management, even when it's easier to stay silent? Have I been fair to my children and have I been open to their honest thoughts? How can I temper my high expectations of them, letting them find their own path forward while still offering good guidance and support?
It is an ongoing struggle - but not one that I’ll win by just trying.
So, after years of doubtful trying, I know that I can indeed change... gradually. Everyone can. It starts with a willingness to adjust your intentions, question your thoughts, and evolve your habits.
It's the kind of work that I'm glad to undertake for a lifetime.
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.
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.