Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness – 5 Gruesome Facts
“What happens when a cat gets philosophical?”
“It likes to paws and reflect on life.”
Yes, philosophical puns. They really are a Nietzsche on their own.
In part 1 of my mini-series on how to lead simpler and more meaningful lives, I told you the story a potential client asking me which school of philosophy I’d compare my life coaching too.
I scared her away with a response that managed to be both semi-accurate and vulgar. So, having previously spoken about Essentialism and Minimalism, I’ll use this article to clear up any remaining confusion with a response that’ll be no less vulgar, but at least accurate.
An unlikely bunch of practical jokers
When it comes to personal development, the majority of life coaches, counsellors and therapists focus mostly on behavioural, cognitive and social psychology. We often forget there’s a wealth of practical wisdom to be found in ancient and contemporary philosophy which we can easily apply to our daily lives.
And when it comes to useful life wisdom, it’s the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome who win pants down. Or tunics up, rather.
There are striking similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. For example, both philosophies stress how important it is to be accepting of all things that happen in life – the good and the bad. Yes, a lot of those things involve pain and suffering, and Stoics believe this is best tackled by taking on a cheerful and humorous approach to life.
Sadly, the moment we hear ‘stoic’ or ‘stoical’, the words ‘unemotional’ and ‘aloof’ come to mind. We forget that many Stoics had a dark sense of humour and were masters of dry wit.
Take Chrysippus for example – a famous Stoic philosopher who literally died from belly laughing. What was so funny, you wonder?
He was watching a donkey eating figs in his garden one evening.
Must have been a real fat ass.
Before I go into some of the more gruesome aspects of Stoicism, let me set out one of its core principles first. Stoics believe you can achieve happiness by making the best of the only two things you have real control over – your actions and your judgements.
It’s only once you accept that happiness is purely internal and can’t be found in external sources, that you’ll stop being a puppet to the ups and downs of life.
Stoic philosophy is enjoying a bit of a cultural revival. Think Mark Manson’s negative self-help or Oliver Burkeman’s Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. I’m happy about that because it’s the perfect antidote to the shallow positivity we’re being subjected to – a lot of which is doing more harm than good.
Besides, “Life sucks and then you die” provides a more solid foundation to build a vibrant and meaningful life on than any of the unicorn and rainbow quotes we see on Instagram.
1) Memento mori – Remember you’ll die one day
“Think of yourself as dead. You’ve lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” – Marcus Aurelius
Of all the gruesome truths, this one’s my favourite. The legend goes that after a prominent battle generals would walk triumphantly through ancient Rome being cheered on by a star-struck crowd. A slave would walk side-by-side with the general repeating the words ‘Memento mori’ – which translates as ‘Remember thou art mortal’.
Think about that for a second. How different would life be if every time we were told how kick-ass we’d been in a sales pitch, someone else would whisper ‘you’re going to die’? Or when counting the likes on our semi-naked selfies? Or when being awarded a long-overdue promotion? How much more humble and graceful we would walk through life when constantly being reminded of our mortality.
Allow me to be the one who delivers that mortal reminder by telling you that your number might be up soon. Indeed, you may kick the bucket and die tomorrow.
Truth be told, I might be kicking that same bucket the moment I post this article. I’d be disappointed, but it would prove the universe has an excellent sense of irony and timing.
For many of us, the idea that we might die soon is pretty depressing. It makes us angry at our humanity. But instead of thinking that life’s too short, listen to the words of Seneca, one of the fathers of Stoicism, who said:
“Life is long if you know how to use it.”
The Stoics knew that coming to terms with mortality, rather than being defined by it, is an essential path to happiness. We should therefore use our imminent death as the guiding principle for living a more meaningful and productive life, giving it a sense of purpose and priority.
And if you’re still worried about dying, remember you were dead a long time before you were born. It wasn’t all that bad back then, was it?
2) Amor Fati – love your fate
“Not merely to bear what is necessary, but to love it.” – Nietzsche
One of the things I love about Stoicism is that it reminds us of how little control we really have over the events that rule our lives.
Amor fati conveys the idea that whatever happens – and regardless of whether we perceive it as good or bad – we should just accept it as it is.
Similar to Buddhism, Stoicism teaches us that while we often can’t control external circumstances, the decision on how we then choose to respond to those circumstances is entirely ours.
There's no way for us to avoid adversity. We have little power over the vast majority of things in life that upset us – whether that's the muppet who's blocking the traffic in our lane, or the doctor delivering the devastating diagnosis that our body's turned against itself. And it drives us nuts.
There’s a famous story that illustrates an impressively Stoical approach to drama. On the 10th December 1914, Thomas Edison’s factory went up in flames. By then he was already one of the world’s most celebrated inventors. Upon seeing the fires rage, he famously called out to his son: “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
Legend has it that when his son told him he was mad, he calmly responded: “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
You might assume that Edison was well-insured – he wasn't. He could have chosen hatred and anger as a response to seeing his life's work destroyed, but he did the opposite. By witnessing the fire objectively for what it really was – an event outside of his control – he was able to make the best of it. And just as well that he did, or we'd still be using gas lights and messenger pigeons.
Amor fati urges us to look at life through a wider lens. Rather than identifying a situation as good or bad, we ask ourselves how we can make it helpful to us. We then seek to understand the valuable lessons that are hidden in every setback and how we can grow from them.
Stoicism teaches us that our internal response is the only thing we truly have control over. Everything in the external world is highly uncertain. We may not feel good about what happens to us, but it’s through our subsequent thoughts and actions that we decide whether a mishap breaks us or helps us transcend as individuals.
3) Premeditatio Malorum: hope for the best, prepare for the worst
What catches us by surprise hurts us double. – Seneca.
If you hate ‘The Secret’ and other Law of Attraction nonsense as much as I do, you might want to tattoo this one on your forearm.
While looking good as a quote on Pinterest, thinking positively and lazily putting things ‘out to the universe’ while waiting for abundance to flow into your bank account is unhelpful and disempowering.
Premeditatio malorum turns that thought on its head. Loosely translated as ‘prepare for all evils’, it encourages you to always look out for what might go wrong. It’s a negative visualisation exercise that forces you to consider everything that could go south. As a mental tool, it’s great because it prepares you for the many uncertainties in life.
You may be thinking ‘Alright then, enough with the doom and gloom now’ and I hear you. But to truly live a good life and become successful – whatever your definition of success is – you mustn’t close yourself off from what might be perceived as bad outcomes.
And although preparing for the worst won’t do anything to change the worst, it trains your resilience. When challenging circumstances do occur, you’ll be much better equipped to deal with them. Instead of being blown off course by events, premeditatio malorum allows you to hold your nerve because you already decided beforehand on the way forward.
And yes, life will still kick you in the balls, but at least you’ll be wearing a nice jockstrap.
This idea of preparing for the worst may ring a bell with those of you familiar with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Indeed, as part of a technique called emotional habituation, CBT therapists often ask their clients repeatedly to visualise fearful events as if they've already happened. By training them to confront these events in a controlled manner, clients become more effective at managing their anxiety and worrying less about the future.
A word of warning though. Simply hoping for the best might be delusional, but so are catastrophising and too much negative thinking. A Stoical approach to loving your fate forces you to look at events and outcomes from all angles – the good and the bad. The overall position then becomes one of neutrality.
Ryan Holiday puts it nicely:
“Expect to have a pleasant and successful day. Just be ready in case it isn’t.”
4) The obstacle is the way
Stoicism teaches us to welcome adversity and respond to it with a sense of lightness and even cheerfulness.
Indeed, despite the morbid touch, Stoics are a pretty optimistic bunch. Turning the idea of premeditatio malorum on its head, they believe that every negative has an equal and opposite. Indeed, every negative is a positive.
According to Stoic teachings, we should welcome obstacles and view them as opportunities to practise some of the Stoic virtues of Charity, Fairness, Faith, Fortitude, Hope, Prudence and – God forbid – Temperance.
They encourage us to view every drama as a chance to thrive – not in spite of what's in front of us, but because of it.
In the words of Mark Manson:
"Yes kids, you too can get your shit together and live a more satisfying and meaningful life by pursuing less, by letting go of all the stupid assumptions you've accumulated throughout your self-absorbed life, by forgetting about happiness and accepting that everything meaningful in this world requires struggle and sacrifice. So you might as well start picking out the scars you want for your birthday, kiddos because we're all going to get them anyway."
We're all human of course. So, even when we do try to show up as our best selves, several irrational emotions will probably play havoc with our decision-making. The only way to counter this is by keeping our emotions in check and staying steady.
That doesn’t mean pushing away or ignoring bad thoughts and feelings. On the contrary, our emotions are a fundamental part of who we are, and we don’t want to become apathetic or lose our ability to feel things.
Stoics encourage equanimity instead – a calmness and composure that allows you to steady yourself and not panic. It’s a sense of poise that stops you from being carried away by passion. Instead of getting swept up by the storm, you drop your anchor and become grounded. You then ask yourself: “At this moment, does freaking out add anything constructive to this situation?”
“When I find myself dwelling on something that's upsetting me, and I have a sort of triage of responses. I ask myself (A) can I find an actionable solution to the problem? If not (B), can I get myself to stop worrying about the problem and let go? Can I laugh at the problem? Can I ask myself whether this will really matter in a year or five years?”
5) Ego is the Enemy
It’s impossible to learn that which one thinks they already know. – Epictetus
I’d love to say that humility is the key to success, but you don’t have to look very far to realise that some god-awful people are doing pretty well in life.
Think politicians with egos big enough to destabilise entire regions. Or influencers whose humble brags and inspirational stories ignore the fact we're only interested in seeing their abs. Or colleagues so eager for validation they'll gladly push you under an oncoming stationary delivery truck.
Ego can be a powerful driver for success, but an unreliable one. On a good day, it’ll caress your nipples, whispering you’re invincible and better than everybody else. On a bad day, it’ll kick you in the groin, calling you a worthless piece of shit who’s wearing a ridiculous jockstrap.
Stoicism accepts that having a big ego can be helpful sometimes when it comes to being successful. But it also acknowledges that you pay the price by ruining your character and your soul.
Similar to Buddhists, Stoics believe that ego shows itself as an inflated sense of self-importance. It prevents us from having the humility to accept that we only know a tiny proportion of what there is to know. It stops us from learning.
This is what most divas and buffoons know deep down, yet find hard to admit. That we're not quite as amazing as we think we are. We congratulate ourselves on being the smartest person in the room. Instead, we should be asking why we were so afraid to surround ourselves with more intelligent people in the first place.
I’m obviously using ‘we’ as a literary device.
Ryan Holiday puts it nicely in excellent book Ego is the Enemy:
“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors.”
Or in the words of Atomic Habits author James Clear:
“The surest way to prevent yourself from learning a topic is to believe you already know it.”
Conclusion – Stoic philosophy rocks
Stoicism gets rid of all the fluff and teaches you to look at life in practical, humble and steady ways.
It teaches us that the path to happiness is purely internal and that how we interpret outside events is entirely up to us.
As a reminder, the five core truths of Stoicism are:
1) Use your mortality as a compass for prioritising your life
2) Accept everything that life throws at you
3) Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst
4) Any obstacle is an opportunity to practise virtue
5) Ego is the enemy of learning and growth.
There are several easy-to-read books on Stoicism. I owe a considerable debt to Ryan Holiday and The Daily Stoic blog for gaining some initial insights into Stoicism. I owe an even bigger debt to the original Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers – Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and many others – but I figure they’ll be less likely to sue me for plagiarism.
For those of you interested in digging in a little deeper, here are some excellent resources.
Also, here’s an excellent article that combs through the incredible similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism.
If Stoicism speaks to you as much as it speaks to me, or you're interested in applying some of these ideas in your own life but aren't quite sure how to, feel free to drop me a line. If it doesn't speak to you all, you're still free to drop me a line too.