By nature, human beings seek happiness and fulfillment in life. But our world today is getting more and more complicated and turmoil-ridden. We do not know anymore if we will have worthwhile and satisfying memories to look back on when we get older.
Perhaps so, many are turning to Stoicism – a Greco-Roman philosophy of the yore that has made a resounding comeback.
So what could be a few simple ways to start as a beginner Stoic?
What Is Stoicism Philosophy
Before we look at the seven introductory lessons to test the waters of Stoicism, a little primer on the philosophy.
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in the 3rd century BCE in Athens. Stoicism gets its name from the place where its founder, Zeno of Citium, lectured — the Stoa Poikile or the painted colonnade.
It was Zeno who first divided philosophy into three parts: logic, physics, and ethics.
From Greece, Stoicism found its way to Rome in the 2nd century BCE, where it flourished and found its four most influential proponents — Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics firmly believe humans cannot, and therefore should not, try to control events outside themselves. By doing so, one can only destroy their peace of mind.
The Stoic happiness or eudaimonia was bounded by virtue, control, and responsibility.
Since we cannot control what lies outside us, we should also not rely on the external events to make our judgments, shape our behavior, or live our lives.
The Stoics say we cannot have a world of perfect situations and perfect fellow humans. What we could try, instead, is to live in a way so that we do not lose control on our feelings and thoughts.
Before you get going in the morning, say to yourself, “Today I’ll meet people who are meddlers, ingrates, bullies, cheaters, envious and antisocial people. All of this happens because they don’t know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1
We could use our imagination to interpret the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius as saying to himself each morning:
- Today I will meet fools and cheats who will irritate.
- But they do not know what they are doing. Whereas, I do.
- They are my fellow human beings created by cosmic goodwill.
- They and I were put on this earth to work together combinedly.
- So it is in my nature to work with them and not dismiss them in anger.
The Stoics ask us to remember we live in an unpredictable world and our lives are short. And living our short lives virtuously is both essential and sufficient for happiness.
The ancient Stoics had some distinctive beliefs about death — read their quotes on death here.
What Are The Basics of Stoicism
The Stoics believed a life of eudaimonia or flourishing essentially comprised building and strengthening of the moral values. They thought for becoming a good person and living a good life one has to have Virtue, which they further divided into the four cardinal virtues.
These four virtues form the basic pillars or basic principles of Stoicism. The 4 cardinal virtues of Stoicism are Wisdom, Justice, Temperance, and Courage.
It can come to our help by pointing out any result should not hold us down far below our full potential. It can also show us how we can avoid our natural overindulgence that ultimately results in anxiety and agitation.
What Are The Beliefs of Stoicism
The Stoics believe the universe works on the authority of reason, that is, by the God Zeus who is enmeshed in, and an integral part of, nature itself. To live a happy and eudaimonic life, one needs to think with logic. The Stoic logic works on the principle of “if this, then that” and “either this, or that.”
Stoicism holds being fair and honest helps one grasp Stoic logic, which includes rhetoric, grammar, semantics, epistemology, and logical reasoning. Logic helps one cultivate self-control and resilience as effective strategies to overcome our negative emotions.
Stoicism not only teaches us how to live well and become better humans but also shows us how to live through tough times without losing our values. As a beginner, the one pivotal Stoic belief one can adopt in their lives is:
Here are 7 quick lessons to teach a beginner Stoic on how to live a happy life:
1. The Mind Is One’s Real Power
Stoics believed the rational perception is the basis of genuine knowledge. Knowing our mind is our power is the same as having self-awareness of our being. If only we could realize we can control our mind, we could make ourselves happy and content with our surroundings.
All we need to control to shape our experiences and feelings is our mind, not the surroundings. If our mind can be tuned-in to our desired state, the external circumstances cannot harm us, no matter what.
As Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king, said: “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you’ll find strength.”
So, use your mind as the only power you can truly have at all times.
2. Time Is A Precious Resource
Nobody has unlimited time in this world, and we all know it. But most of us do not appreciate it the way we should. We tend to waste our time more and more in this internet-powered world today.
If you do not believe that, check the total time you spent last week on your social media on your phone and laptop. You might be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Unless we see it with our own eyes, we do not realize we have been letting days and months pass by without doing something worth our time and potential.
An employee who is fed-up with his boss continues with his job for years, just because he does not get a better job offer. But he never gives it a chance he could start a venture in that time, however small, that would make him his own boss.
According to the Stoics, such people are wasting their time. In other words, they do not realize the potential value of time.
People keep doing the same stuff for years that does not give them any fulfillment. But they keep doing it anyway for the fear the society would otherwise brand them as hustlers.
If we keep reminding ourselves our time on this earth is scarce, we could change our mindset and begin striving for more wholesome experiences and achievements in life.
How many of us can say we take out some time each day to do what matters most to us? Spending time with family, expressing our thoughts as writing or painting, or working on a craft that we like, are all activities that can give us true happiness.
But nowadays, most people like to spend their free time scrolling through social media news-feed, gossiping with friends, or randomly browsing through the Internet, thinking these could give them happiness.
If we try to reflect on the way we spend most of our free time, we would realize that we are wasting it. In search of happiness, we are exposing ourselves to fake stuff, which can at the most give us fake or short-lived happiness. If we observe the behavior of high-achievers, we notice that they always prioritize their activities based on how productive each is and how good each makes them feel in the long run.
We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.— Seneca
So guard your time well — it is one thing you cannot replace. Do not say yes to commitments you cannot sustain; do not let people and apps distract you; do not keep busy at the cost of spending valuable time with those you love.
3. Be Present In The Moment
In an attempt to re-live our past or dream about the future, we often forget to be present within the moment. We let our minds get preoccupied with worries, responsibilities, and tensions, and do not realize the importance of living the present moment to the fullest.
Our minds compel us to be partially present, rather than fully enjoying the moment and the place we are in. People who work hard on the quality of their minds are not like this. They have this remarkable ability to cherish every moment of their existence and be fully aware of what is going on around them.
Anyone willing to practice this tactic can easily do so. All you need to do is to take out some quality time for yourself. Sit down in privacy, take a deep breath, feel your chest rising, sense the muscles in your body, and vision all senses around you as beams of bright light.
Donald J. Robertson, in his splendid book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, suggests:
- Throughout the day, practice bringing your attention back to the present moment, rather than allowing it to wander off into daydreams, rumination about the past, or worry about the future.
- If you have to think about something else, that’s okay, but try to keep one eye on the present moment, by noticing how you’re using your body and mind – try to be aware of each second that passes.
- If it helps, imagine that you’re seeing the world for the first time, or that this is your last day of life, and concentrate your attention on how you actually think and act, from moment to moment.
- Remind yourself that the past and future are ‘indifferent’ to you and that the supreme good, and eudaimonia, can only exist within you, right now, in the present moment.
So, how are you feeling right now? Do you know how to practice mindfulness as a beginner?
4. Show Gratefulness For What Is
Gratefulness is a guaranteed means of making yourself happy. It pushes us to see the positive aspects of our lives and shuns away from negative feelings or memories. Scientists can now back this concept through research findings.
Being grateful does not mean that we stop aiming for higher. It means we need not focus too much on what we do not have, as that would only pull us down and make us unworthy of getting anything that we could otherwise achieve.
It creates an optimistic approach to life, which is the first step to getting closer to opportunities for personal development.
5. Remember The Original Reasons
When we are struggling to achieve something, it is so important to remember why we are going for it in the first place. The motive to have a goal and want to work towards it is more important than the goal itself.
But sometimes, we tend to forget the charm of the journey we go through once we achieve the goal. Remembering the reasons behind our wishes and goals is crucial to our happiness. It helps us identify the experiences that make us feel good so that when things turn bad, we can find solutions out of our misery.
6. Material Things Do Not Give Joy
Materialism is a dangerous disease that almost every person suffers from in the modern age. Excessive materialism is a sign of being empty and void from the inside. When we feel that something is missing in life or within, we develop this urge to keep wanting more and more.
That’s our entire economic system: buy things. Everybody buy. It doesn’t matter what you buy. Just buy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have money. Just buy. Our entire civilization now rests on the assumption that, no matter what else happens, we will all continue to buy lots and lots of things. Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy. And then buy a little more.– Matt Walsh, If You Shop On Thanksgiving, You’re Part Of The Problem
It is as if there is a gap in our hearts we want to fill with material things; it points to a meaningless life we are living. This concept gets further reinforced by advertisements and promotion campaigns of fancy products and brands.
There is some truth in getting happiness out of material things, but that happiness or joy is always short-lived. We can fill a real void with love and fulfillment, and by living our life to our maximum potential. Wise people seek long-lasting happiness by spending time with their loved ones and doing things that ignite their passion.
7. Change The Perspective On Failure
Failure has a negative connotation to it. But we should not see it as a negative aspect of life. Failures are temporary, and can become a source of inspiration; if we know how to get back on our feet and move on to try again. We can truly enjoy success only when it comes after a few failures, small or big.
Effortless excellence is a lousy teacher and a fickle friend.
The ultimate mission of our life should be to become the best version of what we are. We could achieve that only if we go through the various experiences, some of which fail us while others give us success, but all of them together give us the capability to make our progress worthwhile.
Any failure can become a stepping-stone towards outstanding success. It is all about how we take it. It should not be difficult in today’s day and age to gather information, gain knowledge, attain insights, and turn any failed experience into inspiration for future success.
If only we can convince ourselves all failures are temporary, we can gather the strength to strive again and in a better way.
Stoicism Quotes by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 CE. His early education was guided by the Emperor Hadrian. Marcus was later adopted by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in 138 CE. Marcus himself became the Roman Emperor in AD 161. He died in AD 180.
His reputation as a philosopher rests upon his one work: the Meditations. The Meditations takes the form of personal writings that he probably wrote while on war campaigns in central Europe, between AD 171 to AD 175.
Marcus Aurelius is said to be the most powerful Stoic to have walked this earth. After all, he was the Emperor of the mighty Roman Empire for almost two decades. Here below are 8 of his quotes:
- The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
- Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
- Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
- All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time — it will all be the same.
- When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.
- Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together.
- If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
- You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there. And you will immediately make vast space for yourself by grasping the whole universe in your thought, by contemplating the eternity of time, and by reflecting on the speed with which things change — each part of everything, the brief gap from birth to death, the infinite time before, and the equally infinite time that follows.
These Stoic principles can be a means to help us identify the changes we need to make in our mindset and routines, as we could gradually build up the life we dream. Through these principles, the Stoics can teach us how to open our minds and see our full potential.
We all want a happy and comfortable life, and would ideally like to get it by working at our full potential. Think about it. If you can become what you have always dreamed of, and feel happy, what more could you ask for from this life?
Watch this short animated video in which Massimo Pigliucci beautifully captures the essence of Stoicism:
The Stoics saw death differently than other philosophers. Look at these 21 Unforgettable Stoic Quotes On Death.
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Authors’ Bio: Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. Writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.
Isabell Gaylord, an essay writer and journalist, contributed to an early, short version of this article.
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