Marcus Aurelius On Happiness & Having A Happy Life

Dr. Sandip Roy

It’s hard to imagine that the world’s most powerful ruler, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, found time to be happy during his turbulent reign from 161 to 180 CE.

  • When he was warring against the Germanic tribes along the Danube border, a deadly plague ravaged Western Europe.
  • Marcus wrote “Meditations” while on a military campaign. At the end of Book II, he mentions Carnuntum, a military base on the Danube (near modern Vienna).
  • Another note at the end of Book I refers to “the River Gran, among the Quadi.” The River Gran (today’s Hron River) is a Danube tributary that runs through Slovakia.

But, despite his internal and external struggles, he found happiness, as we see in his handwritten journal “Meditations”—one of the best and most loved books for a modern Stoic.

History remembers Marcus Aurelius Antoninus as the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome. Many call him The Philosophical King, as Socrates, Cynics, and Stoics influenced his thoughts.

To me, like many modern lovers of Stoicism, Marcus was a true Stoic, and his wisdom on a fulfilling life still makes sense.

Marcus Aurelius On Happiness And A Happy Life

Marcus was clear on two points about happiness in life:

  1. the requisites of a good life and a happy life are the same, and
  2. we don’t need money, fame, or possessions to be satisfied.
Marcus Aurelius on Happiness-Pin2
AI imagines a happy Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius: Happiness Quotes:

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts, therefore guard accordingly; and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. Now in order to this, you must be wary in your ascent, obedient to the gods, and benevolent to mankind.

— Conversation of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, 3.9, (Apology of Tertullian, page 162)
Happiness of your life depends on the quality if your thoughts - Marcus-Aurelius-Apology-of-Tertullian
Conversation of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Apology of Tertullian, page 162)

Gregory Hays translates that quote as:

Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.

Marcus meant that your thoughts shape your life, and you can be happier if you do not let unrighteous and unreasonable thoughts come to your mind.

“What injures the hive injures the bee.”

— Meditations, 6.54. trans. by Gregory Hays

Robin Hard translates 6.54 as “What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee.”

Just like a bee cannot thrive if the hive is damaged or dysfunctional, your happiness is affected when your society is harmed.

It points out how people in society are interconnected and how each person’s happiness is linked to the overall well-being of their community.

Marcus suggests that we act for the greater good, foster empathy and compassion toward each other, and build a harmonious and supportive society if we wish to be happier.

“For the life of every one of us lasts but a moment, and yours is almost done, and yet you have no respect for yourself, and allow your happiness to depend on what passes in the souls of other people.”

— Meditations, 2.6. Robin Hard trans.

Hays translates 2.6 as, “Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul. But soon your chance at dignity will be gone. Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.”

By “degrading yourself, soul,” Marcus cautions against demeaning our self-worth based on how others judge us.

“Your chance at dignity will be gone” is a powerful way to say that we have limited opportunities to strengthen our character and self-dignity in this short life. Marcus encourages us to seize those few chances before it’s too late.

“You have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others” warns against seeking validation and happiness from external sources.

Since life is short, start working on building your self-worth right away and stop focusing on what others say or think about you.

Don’t let others determine what makes you happy, and how much. Rather, find happiness within yourself.

Statue of Marcus Aurelius On A Horse
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Rome (Picture: Steven Zucker on Flickr)

“But the person who is blessed by good fortune is the one who has assigned a good lot to himself, and a good lot consists of this: good dispositions of the soul, good impulses, good actions.”

— Meditations, 5.37. Robin Hard trans.

Hays puts 5.37 as, “I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.”

Marcus reminds us that luck from circumstances can be unpredictable and short-lived, but when we make our own luck, it can last a long time, regardless of what happens outside.

He also tells us the formula for good fortune: cultivate good morals, have noble intentions, and perform good actions.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations 5.25
XXV, Book 5 of Meditations (Apology of Tertullian, page 184)

“So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.”

— Meditations, 5.25, Gregory Hays trans.

Robin Hard puts 5.25 as, “Another does me wrong? Let him look to that; he has his own disposition, and his actions are his own. For my part, I presently have what universal nature wills that I should have, and I am doing what my own nature wills that I should do.”

Marcus Aurelius tells himself that when others hurt him, it reflects their character, not his.

They have chosen their actions, and he has no control over them.

They did what they did — why lose your peace and stress about what they shouldn’t have said or done? Why let your happiness be destroyed by their words and actions?

But we can control our response. If we focus on what we do, and do it well, we can follow Nature and be true to ourselves despite how others act.

“Happiness (eudaimonia) is a good guardian-spirit (daimon), or ruling centre within. What is this that you are doing, my imagination? Go away in the name of the gods, just as you came; for I have no need of you. But you have come according to your age-old habit. I am not angry with you: only, go away!”

— Meditations, 7.17. Robin Hard trans.

Hays translates 7.17 as, “Well-being is good luck, or good character. (But what are you doing here, Perceptions? Get back to where you came from, and good riddance. I don’t need you. Yes, I know, it was only force of habit that brought you. No, I’m not angry with you. Just go away.)”

Here, he says that our happiness must not depend on our preconceived opinions.

Marcus tells his perceptions that he acknowledges their presence but dismisses their influence.

Those biases or prejudices might have come from his unconscious habits. But if he chooses not to react (with quickness and anger) based on those, he can keep his emotions in control.

And maintain his inner peace.

“Always keep this in mind, and also this further point, that happiness in life depends on very few conditions; and just because you have resigned any hope of excelling in dialectic and natural philosophy, do not on that account despair of becoming a free man, and one who is modest, concerned for his fellows, and obedient to God; for it is possible to become a wholly god-like man and yet be recognized by nobody.”

— Meditations, 7.67. Robin Hard trans.

Hays puts 7.67 as, “Nature did not blend things so inextricably that you can’t draw your own boundaries—place your own well-being in your own hands. It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that. And this too: you don’t need much to live happily. And just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, obeying God.”

Marcus emphasizes that we can take charge of our well-being because happiness requires little.

And we can practice goodness without drumming about it.

Even if we don’t become great thinkers or scientists, we can still strive for freedom, humility, and serving others and a higher power.

“When you want to gladden your heart, think of the good qualities of those around you; the energy of one, for instance, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and some other quality in another. For there is nothing more heartening than the images of the virtues shining forth in the characters of those around us, and assembled together, so far as possible, in close array. So be sure to keep them ever at hand.”

— Meditations, 6.48. Robin Hard trans.

Gregory Hays thinks 6.48 reads as, “When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.”

Marcus Aurelius suggests we can seek encouragement by seeing and appreciating the virtues of those around us, like their energy, modesty, and generosity.

Witnessing people practicing positive qualities can be uplifting and motivating.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations by Tertullian p 223
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, by Tertullian, page 223

“The cucumber is bitter? Then cast it aside. There are brambles in the path? Step out of the way. That will suffice, and you need not ask in addition, ‘Why did such things ever come into the world?’ For anyone who has made a study of nature would laugh at you, just as a carpenter or shoemaker would laugh at you if you criticized them because you could see in their workshop the shavings or parings from the items that they were working on.”

— Meditations, 8.50. Robin Hard trans.

Hays explains 8.50 as,

“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. That’s all you need to know. Nothing more. Don’t demand to know “why such things exist.” Anyone who understands the world will laugh at you, just as a carpenter would if you seemed shocked at finding sawdust in his workshop, or a shoemaker at scraps of leather left over from work. …

“But the wonderful thing about its workmanship is how, faced with that limitation, it takes everything within it that seems broken, old and useless, transforms it into itself, and makes new things from it. So that it doesn’t need material from any outside source, or anywhere to dispose of what’s left over. It relies on itself for all it needs: space, material, and labor.”

Here, Marcus Aurelius teaches how to approach life’s challenges with acceptance and adaptability.

  • Accept what you cannot change without complaining about their why.
  • Make your best efforts on whatever limited resources you are left with.
Bitter cucumbers and  & brambles Marcus Aurelius
Dall-E-imagined “bitter cucumbers and brambles” (AI can be funny!)

His bitter cucumber and brambles examples show us how to tackle obstacles by doing, not whining. Discard the bitter fruit, bypass the nettles—rather than question why they are there.

Marcus thinks, focusing on the “why” behind such obstacles is fruitless, just as useless as being shocked by sawdust in a carpenter’s workshop or leather scraps in a shoemaker’s workspace.

“People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection, and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility, I mean a kind of harmony. So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic.”

— Meditations, 4.3. Gregory Hays trans.

Robin Hard’s translation interprets Marcus Aurelius 4.3 as, “People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills; and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul, especially when a person has such things within him that he has merely to look at them to recover from that moment perfect ease of mind (and by ease of mind I mean nothing other than having one’s mind in good order). So constantly grant yourself this retreat and so renew yourself; but keep within you concise and basic precepts that will be enough … to cleanse you from all distress and to send you back without discontent to the life to which you will return.”

Marcus talks about how people often want to escape their problems by going to peaceful places like the countryside, beach, or mountains.

You could, instead, find peace within yourself, in your own mind and soul. Your “soul” is the best place to find calm and quiet, harmony and relaxation, better than any place you might visit.

In one of such moments, Marcus mused about how quickly life passes: “Existence flows past us like a river: The ‘what’ is in constant flux, the ‘why’ has a thousand variations.” 


We can do the same — take short breaks to introspect. These brief moments of self-reflection can help renew our energy and spirit, find inner peace, and prepare us to face new challenges.

What is happiness for the Stoics?

Stoicism holds that a happy life is seeded from a state of moral excellence.

The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, defined happiness as a smooth flow of life. His successors, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, took forward this definition.

Marcus Aurelius said, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius - The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.

For Stoics, a happy mind is grounded in reason and virtue. And, an ideal life is living in harmony with Nature, being indifferent to circumstances, and in friendship with others.

They also point out why what might make us unhappy

  • judging people and things,
  • clinging to what other people think, or
  • worrying about how people might judge us.

They say if we take away the judgment from the fact, it can no longer steal our peace.

Imagine you spill coffee on your favorite shirt. Instead of feeling frustrated, you remind yourself it’s just a stain on fabric, thus freeing the fact from the unhelpful judgment.

“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.”

― Marcus Aurelius
  • Do you feel happy when someone praises you, or sad when someone criticizes you?
  • Does your new gadget make you happy, or feel bad when your friend says you made a bad purchase?

Trying to source your happiness from praises or possessions is futile, as they are based on judgments that are beyond your control.

We should rather try to live a simple and virtuous life, and seek inner peace by focusing on what we can control, like our thoughts and actions.

Today, we see happiness as a positive emotion or a good mood that lasts a short time. But, the ancient Stoics used the Greek term eudaimonia to describe happiness.

Eudaimonia does not exactly translate as happiness, but rather as a long-lasting positive emotion. It is how a person feels about their entire life up to that point.

An eudaimonic life is both rewarding and satisfying.

Final Words

Throughout Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reiterates, almost obsessively, the idea that everyone ultimately shares the same destiny in this short life: death.

“Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls.”

To be happy, Marcus Aurelius says that we must let go of our judgments about other people and external events, and accept them for what they are. A simple formula he holds is:

“Accept without arrogance, relinquish without a struggle.”

— Meditations, 8.33. Robin Hard trans.

Stoics, like Epicureans, believed that the quality of life, rather than the length of life, was more important. They felt that pursuing virtue (and hence happiness) was preferable to living a long life.

Finally, here’s what Marcus might have said to you if he saw you trying to please a narcissist:

“Do you want praise from a man who curses himself three times an hour? Do you want to please a man who is unable to please himself? Or can a man be said to please himself if he regrets nearly everything that he does?”

— Meditations, 8.53

√ Also Read: “Death Smiles At Us”: 5 Stoic Lessons To Live By

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