Personal Finance

How Becoming a Stoic Can Make You Happy

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201009171517 Merriam-Webster defines a Stoic as “a member of a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium about 300 b.c. holding that the wise man should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submissive to natural law.”

After reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine, I would say that this definition, while sort-of correct, really misses the point of Stoicism. Irvine makes a convincing case that the ancient Stoics, far from being humorless individuals who silently suffered a life of privation and discomfort, were actually curious scholars and experimenters who sought to optimize their appreciation of life. Not only that, says Irvine, there’s a lot that we moderns can learn from the Stoics about living a joyful life.

Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, writes that Stoicism was one of many competing philosophies (such as the Cynics and the Epicureans) that ran schools to teach a “philosophy of life” to students in ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoics were interested in leading a life of “tranquility,” meaning a life free of “anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy.” To achieve such a life the Stoics developed, in the words of historian Paul Veyne, a “paradoxical recipe for happiness,” that included the practice of “negative visualization.” By frequently and vividly imagining worst-case scenarios — the death of a child, financial catastrophe, ruined health — the Stoics believed you would learn to appreciate what you have, and curb your insatiable appetite for more material goods, social status, and other objects of desire.

Reading the book, I had no trouble understanding how negative visualization could be an effective antidote against “hedonic adaptation.” By imagining ourselves to be homeless, for instance, we can reset our desire for a more luxurious home and once again appreciate the roof over our head that we started taking for granted shortly after moving in.

Irvine has taken the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and turned it into a modern day self help book. I dislike most self help books for being superficial and unrealistic, but I found Irvine’s to be beneficial for two reasons. One, it tells the history of Stoic philosophy in an exciting and engaging way, and two, the advice for living as a Stoic makes a lot of sense. Irvine’s explanations of how the early Stoics dealt with insults, grief, lust, jealousy, anger, the desire for fame and fortune, aging, and death show that these problems are timeless, and the Stoics’s methods for dealing with them are equally timeless.

Mark Frauenfelder – Editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine and the founder of the popular Boing Boing weblog, Mark was an editor at Wired from 1993-1998 and is the founding editor of Wired Online.

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  • ch3

    This is one of the keys to Stoic philosophy:
    “Think of your life as if it were a banquet where you would behave graciously. When dishes are passed to you, extend your hand and help yourself to a moderate portion. If a dish should pass you by, enjoy what is already on your plate. Or if the dish hasn’t been passed to you yet, patiently wait your turn.
    Carry over this same attitude of polite restraint and gratitude to your children, spouse, career and finances. There is no need to yearn, envy, and grab. You will get your rightful portion when it is your time.
    Diogenes and Heraclitus were impeccable models of living by such principles rather than by raw impulses. Make it your quest to imitate their worthy example.”

  • Lazarus Long

    Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks!

    • Rick Williams

      You should read the book before making this comment. Your expressed attitude in fact represents the most common philosophy of life found in the world today. It is actually the default “philosophy” most people have, for lack of thinking about it much. It’s called hedonism.
      Irvine’s book explains, patiently, clearly and (I think) persuasively how the philosophy you expressed ultimately fails to provide true happiness.
      Good luck!

  • Danielle

    Greetings Mark,
    I look forward to reading this book, as I also recall having learned (back in the day) that Stoicism had definitely been given a bad rap by the word “stoic”, and that it’s a surprisingly attractive and practical philosophy.
    Isn’t the “negative visualization” just a fast-forwarding of what life experiences do for us, anyway? I see this kind of wisdom in older people, even in myself as I get older. Events teach us that we can survive most “catastrophes” primarily because what we worry about is both survivable and probably not that important to begin with. And so you learn that applies to nearly everything. This is also the reason why Stoicism seems compatible with most religions, I think. One has to learn to let go.
    But it’s a fine line- because if you live free of “anger, anxiety, fear, grief and envy,” it’s possible you will live free of joy, exhilaration, excitement, happiness, passion and love. That’s what gave Stoics a bad name. Maybe that’s why it takes our whole lives to figure it out how to strive for something and at the same time be able to accept a failure to reach it.

  • Brian C.

    Or, to put it a nerdier way, McCoy, Spock and Kirk: Cynic, Stoic, and Epicurean.

  • PacRim Jim

    “free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief”
    What’s the point of living?

  • Swiss

    You might enjoy “A Man in Full” by Tom Wolfe. It is heavy on Epictetus.

  • Tom Morris

    It’s so important for us to reclaim the stoics. Up until about a hundred years ago, every well educated person knew something about Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, or Epictetus. I was not long ago asked to recommend a book as a Christmas present for an old friend who is president of NBC Sports. I picked Seneca’s Moral Essays, volume 2 – chock full of great advice about life, happiness, tranquillity and such.
    Irvine has done a great job of reintroducing the stoics with his book. My own little effort a few years ago was the book “The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results.”

  • David

    It is also well worth the consideration what early Christians thought of the Stoics; in fact, gained mightily from them. So much of what has been lost in modern Christian thought and practice comes almost directly from loss of stoic dispassion in favor of a sort of religious romanticism.
    Most moderns, even if they chose to remain firmly rooted in modernity, would benefit from rediscovering this important school of Greek thought.

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