Marcus Aurelius On Happiness & Having A Happy Life

Discover ancient wisdom & practical advice from Marcus Aurelius on happiness. Use his Stoic philosophy to thrive & have a rewarding life in the modern world.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and philosopher best known for his work “Meditations,” which contains his self-talks and philosophical reflections on Socrates, Cynicism, and Stoicism.

The work was not intended for publication. Marcus wrote it for his own improvement and guidance, as a reminder to use them in daily life.

Marcus does not use formal Stoic vocabulary, but the sweeping tone of Meditations strongly reminds one of Stoic principles ti live life by.

It is often the first book picked up by beginner Stoics.

Marcus Aurelius On Happiness: His Quotes On A Happy Life

Marcus discusses happiness several times in his writings, emphasizing its role in shaping our thoughts, judgments, and, ultimately, a good life.

He mentions, for example, a virtuous life is identical to a happy life while other things like health or material possessions are unimportant to happiness.

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

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.”– Meditations, 3.9

Gregory Hays translates quote 3.9 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, your thoughts shape your life, and you can be happier if you do not let unrighteous and unreasonable thoughts come to your mind.

Happiness of your life depends on the quality if your thoughts - Marcus-Aurelius-Apology-of-Tertullian
Conversation of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Apology of Tertullian)

“What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee.” (Meditations, 6.54. Robin Hard trans.)

Hays translates 6.54 as “What injures the hive injures the bee.”

That quote reminds us of the interconnectedness of people within society.

It points out that our well-being is linked to the well-being of the community.

Just as a bee cannot thrive if the hive is damaged or dysfunctional, a person’s well-being and happiness are affected when the society they live in is harmed.

Marcus, therefore, asks us to act for the greater good, and foster empathy and compassion, to build a harmonious and supportive society.

“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.”

Here, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that our life is finite, so instead of basing our happiness on external factors or others’ opinions, we should focus on cultivating inner strength and dignity.

By “degrading yourself, soul,” Marcus is cautioning against letting our self-worth be dictated by other people’s judgments.

The phrase “your chance at dignity will be gone” serves as a reminder that life is short, and we have limited opportunities to develop our character and self-respect. Marcus encourages us to seize those chances before it’s too late.

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

We should rather nurture our virtues and focus on self-improvement to find happiness within ourselves.

“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 himself that external fortune is unreliable and fleeting, and indeed it is so.

But we can create our own good fortune, and it will last, independent of external circumstances.

True good fortune comes from within, through cultivating good character, building moral virtues, having noble intentions, and performing good actions.

“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.” (Meditations, 5.25. Robin Hard trans.)

Hays puts 5.25 as, “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.”

Marcus Aurelius emphasizes that when others hurt us, it reflects their character, not ours.

We can’t control their actions, but we can control our response.

So, why do we let our happiness depend on their opinions and actions? Why bother and get stressed about what they said and did?

Instead, if we focus on our own actions, we can align ourselves with Nature and maintain our personal integrity, regardless of others’ behavior.

“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, Marcus Aurelius asserts that our well-being must not depend on our judgments.

He addresses his perceptions, telling them he acknowledges their presence but dismisses their influence.

He recognizes that those perceptions arise from his habits, but by not reacting angrily, he can maintain his peace and control over his thoughts and emotions.

“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.)

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.

“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. Of course, they have a place to dispose of these; nature has no door to sweep things out of. 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.

He uses the examples of a bitter cucumber and brambles in the path to tell us that when we encounter difficulties, we should address them practically—discard the cucumber, go around the brambles—rather than question the reasons for their existence.

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 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, at first encounter, to cleanse you from all distress and to send you back without discontent to the life to which you will return.” (Meditations, 4.3. Robin Hard trans.)

Gregory Hays’ translation interprets Marcus Aurelius 4.3 as,

“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. A quick visit should be enough to ward off all <…> and send you back ready to face what awaits you.”

Marcus Aurelius talks about how people often want to escape their problems by going to peaceful places like the countryside, beach, or mountains. But instead of looking for peace outside, we can find it within ourselves, in our own minds and souls.

Our “soul” is the best place to find calm and quiet, without interruptions. By turning our focus inward, we can feel harmony and relaxation, better than any place we might visit.

He also suggests taking short breaks to focus on our inner peace, and to renew our energy and spirit. These brief moments of self-reflection can help us feel refreshed and ready to face whatever challenges come our way.

As Marcus Aurelius says, happiness is not an external goal or material possession that we should strive for, but rather a state of mind that comes from living in accordance with reason and nature.

He teaches us that finding peace within ourselves is the best way to deal with life’s difficulties. It can make us become stronger and better able to handle anything life throws at us, no matter where we are.

He believed that true happiness comes from living a simple and virtuous life, rather than seeking pleasure or material wealth.

What is happiness for the Stoics?

Stoicism holds that living a happy life requires cultivating a mental state of virtue or excellence, which the ancient Stoics identified with wisdom and reason.

For a Stoic, the ideal and excellent life consists of living in harmony with nature or the cosmos, with serene indifference to external events, and in friendship with other beings.

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

Today, we think of 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.

A eudaimonic life is one that is both rewarding and satisfying.

Final Words

Marcus Aurelius encourages us to cultivate a mindset of inner peace and contentment rather than seeking happiness through external sources.

He emphasizes the need to live our days and carry out our duties with virtue, and to remain ready for death, as the path to true happiness.

“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 something Marcus Aurelius 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)

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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy, a medical doctor and psychology writer focusing on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and Stoic philosophy.

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