The first question about Stoicism and happiness is this: Are Stoics happy? It has to do with the dictionary meaning of stoic (small s): unemotional, long-suffering, expressionless and resigned.
However, the Stoics (capital S) are not emotionless people, as many might think them to be. They feel the full range of emotions, without any need to hide behind faces emptied of expressions.
So, yes, they can be angry, sad, or happy.
Are Stoics Happy
Yes, the Stoics are happy, because they can be happy. Stoicism doesn’t epitomize being humorless and passionless as the basic principles. In fact, a Stoic person is happier than most of us because their philosophy shows them how to be happy.
The 4 anchoring factors to a Stoic person’s happiness are:
- living in harmony with Nature
- practicing virtue at whatever the cost
- being rational to the best of their ability
- remaining calm and indifferent towards outside events
Before we explore how, let’s know this: Happiness doesn’t come from a pursuit of happiness, because it does not come from outside — it comes from inside. Authentic happiness is a state of being rather than a state of perpetual hunt.
And anyone can achieve a happy state of being if they take a leaf or two out of a Stoic person’s book. We have just done that here: put together a set of doable instructions for you in one page. You just need to take on the attitudes and carry out the actions suggested by the the Stoic philosophers.
The Stoic Triangle of Happiness
A simple three-boundary figure to show Stoic happiness or eudaimonia is The Stoic Triangle of Happiness:
- Eudaimonia: It is a Greek word for flourishing or life-satisfaction, and epitomizes the best kind of happiness. It is the happiness one feels when they are on their deathbed, look back over their life, and remark, “I have lived a good life!”
To the Stoics, eudaimonia is the ultimate happiness one could achieve.
- Control: The Stoic divides the world into two halves by a principle called the dichotomy of control. It says there are things in this world that we can control, like our judgment, impulse, desires, intentions. Everything else lies beyond our control, like others’ opinions of you, your body, reputation, material possessions.
The Stoics advise us to focus on and get better at the things we control and let go of things we do not. The dichotomy of control helps us complain less and maintain our equanimity more.
- Responsibility: The Stoics ask us to take responsibility for all happening to us, without blaming others. What good is blaming another? Because either they did it out of ignorance, or they were under compulsion, or it was the best judgment they took at that time.
When we take responsibility for things involving us and decide how to respond to them with wisdom and judgment, it makes us more prudent and independent — both freeing us from mental enslavement to others.
- Virtue: Virtue is the cornerstone of Stoic happiness. The Stoics hold humans were living meaningless lives if they did not live it with virtue.
For achieving eudaimonia, they strictly advise us to practice the four cardinal virtues to the best of our ability.
Stoicism’s Keystone of Happiness: Virtue
The Stoics strongly believed virtue or arete is the key source of happiness.
To the Stoics, moral virtues lay the foundation of a happy life. They assert one should always strive to practice virtue and do the right thing for a happier life, even if they failed sometimes.
A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness. Even if some obstacle to this comes on the scene, its appearance is only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front of the sun without ever defeating its light.— Seneca, Letter to Lucilius XXVII
The Stoics also taught nothing is inherently good or bad, but it is our judgment that makes it so. We often tend to make snap judgments about people and circumstances that rob us of our peace.
Epictetus said of this:
Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them. We should always be asking ourselves: Is this something that is, or is not, in my control? The essence of philosophy is that we should live so that our happiness depends as little as possible on external causes.— Epictetus
A peaceful mind, the Stoic hold, comes up from an ability to stay open-minded and non-judgmental about ourselves and others around us.
Of course, it takes vast amounts of practice and self-discipline to hold back one’s judgment and prejudice against a tug of emotions. But it can be learned through the practice of Stoic exercises.
The four cardinal virtues of a Stoic person are Wisdom, Justice, Temperance, and Courage.For a Stoic, happiness is a by-product of always practicing virtue. Click To Tweet
The Stoic Guide To Be Happier In Life: 7 Insights On Stoicism And Happiness
Here are seven insights from a Stoic person to be happier in life:
1. Focusing On The Action
A goal is actually a pie in the sky. It is a point in the future that is outside our control. Once we set a goal, much of it is then controlled by the external conditions.
What then remains in our hands is the act that we carry out towards it.
So, instead of focusing on the goal we already set, we should focus on the process. By doing that well, we can master the whole process of the act.
Even when we get caught in circumstances beyond our control, the Stoics remind us, we still have the freedom to choose how to see it and how to respond. And our only response should be an action based on rationality and virtue.
The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.— Seneca. On The Shortness of Life
And even though that will not assure us we always reach the set goalposts, it will increase the likelihood of finding our way there more often.
Most importantly, the immediate goal of focusing on the process as best we can is within our full control. Once we convince ourselves that we have control over our actions and nothing more, it’s then that we gain a decisive vantage over our happiness.
The Stoic idea is to focus on doing to the best of our ability, whatever we are into, purely for the satisfaction of doing it well, without any thought for future rewards.
And while focusing on a specific action, a Stoic person eliminates all unnecessary tasks that steal their attention. This method of intense focus while removing all distractions results in what is known today as Deep Work, made famous by Cal Newport.
If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential. Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more tranquility. But to eliminate the necessary actions, we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
And that ambition of completely, exclusively, and sharply focusing on the work we choose to do, from start to finish, will remarkably change your happiness for the better.
2. Controlling The Thought Process
Epictetus tells us much of the things within this world are outside our control. And much of our unhappiness is a result of thinking we have control over things in life that, in fact, we don’t.
The Stoics said we should focus on what we can control: our thoughts, judgments, and actions. With these in rein, we can try to create good values for others as well as ourselves.
Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing. Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own.— Epictetus, Enchiridion
Epictetus argues we don’t have control over what happens to us. We don’t have control over what people around us say or do. We also don’t have control of our own bodies, which get sick and old, and which eventually die without any thought about how much we love them.
In the final analysis, the only thing we really can have control over is what we think and what judgments we make about others and situations.
So, letting go of our vain attempts to control the outside world would release a lot of our unhappiness.
And onward from this, Epictetus says:
It’s not things that upset us, but how we think about things.
A slightly different translation of the words of Epictetus, that he wrote in the everyday language of Koine Greek, would be this:
Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.— Epictetus
So, when things happen, we rush to make immediate judgments about those happenings. When we judge something that has happened to us is terrible and bad, then we tend to get upset, contemptuous, sad, or angry.
Similarly, if we guess or pre-judge something bad is likely to happen to us, we tend to get fearful, stressed, or anxious.
At the base level, then, these negative emotions have sprung from the judgments we made about them.
So, the things in themselves are empty of positive or negative values. It is what we make of them that creates positive or negative valence in us.
What would seem terrible to us at the time might actually be of little consequence at a later time. With time, we might even find these incidents happened for our good.
The judgments we make attach values to them, and then those value judgments create our emotional responses.
These value judgments, therefore, are the only things we have control over. Things that happen are not inherently good or bad, but it is within our power to decide how we see them.
And when we see them in a negative light, we get anxious and stressed.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
We have control over almost nothing, and yet at the same time, we have complete control over our opinions judgments about everything. It is one of the six Paradoxes of Stoicism.
As you go about your day today, bear in mind that we do not control anything that is not of our own making; they are external events controlled by external factors. But, all the same, we can control what we think about them.
And this marks the difference between unhappiness and happiness. Our serenity and stability are results of our choices and judgment, not our environment.
3. Heeding Only What They Control
We have only the power to stay in control of our attitude and actions, and nothing more.
Accepting and exercising this, instead of frittering away our time worrying about things outside ourselves, will make us more productive and satisfied.
Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night-there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.—Epictetus, Discourses
Further on this, Marcus Aurelius says,
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.— Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics believe we are in complete control over only two things in this life: our thoughts and our actions. The rest is out of our hands.
So, what’s the point of wasting time and effort complaining about things that other people have done, and the stuff that happened in the world? We do not have any influence over them.
For one, emotions such as anger and envy are not always without any purpose.
However, looking close, we would find there are way too many times when these emotions serve to only increase our stress.
The next time you feel enraged at any frustrating situation or anyone’s dorky action, you could ask yourself, “Is this anger rational or nonsensical? Would it serve a useful or futile purpose?”
And you might get answers from yourself that may dilute away your anger.
The crux is, we can’t actually command other people into doing things we want.
We can neither control what thoughts they think even after our clear directions, nor what actions they take as a result of their thoughts.
And so, as the Stoic person will advise you, stop heeding much what others say and do, and instead focus only on your thoughts and actions. Every day, call back what you really control and what you truly don’t. And then remind yourself to focus on the former and ignore the latter.
There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our control.— Epictetus
Withdraw from those things that you don’t control, and focus only on what is in your control, that is, what is inside you, and you will find yourself free, happy, undisturbed.
4. Accepting Whatever Happens
While the Stoics argued events in the natural world were beyond one’s control, like floods, diseases, and death, they advised one can only do good in accepting them. There could only be misery if one tried to control things beyond human control.
For a Stoic person, everything that happens, had to happen.
All events are programmed to occur due to pre-existing causes, and these causes are enough to make them happen and prevent all alternatives from happening. And our joy lies in willingly conforming to this preordained plan of the universe.
A Stoic person would advise, “Accept everything which happens, even if it seems disagreeable, because it leads to this, the health of the universe.”
As Epictetus put it,
Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you.— Epictetus
To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control. But we can accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately.
On this, Seneca said,
We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.— Seneca
And Marcus Aurelius said,
Accept things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.— Marcus Aurelius
Another Stoic strategy is to remind ourselves that whatever happens doesn’t have to happen to suit our desires. The universe works on its own, and it does not need to function to benefit us.
What are we, if not just specks of moments in the whole stretch from antiquity to infinity?
Marcus Aurelius said,
Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.— Marcus Aurelius
Given this, how can we expect the universe to deliver whatever we might happen to want?
We may think the universe is working against us, but in fact, it has too much to do than just arrange all the logjams in the way of our success and happiness. The cosmos keeps moving as it wants, without caring much about us, as we are too minuscule in its grand design of things.
So, wouldn’t it be far better to accept what comes our way?
We can’t change what is preset to happen, but we can choose to accept the result that comes in.
5. Not Letting Their Minds Become Slaves
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus spent his boyhood and adolescence in Rome as a slave. For anyone in his place, they would have let their minds slip into a non-functional state.
Days in and days out of doing just what they get told to do, and getting punished severely for the smallest of mistakes, can shut down the rational, thinking part of the brain.
But not Epictetus. He kept his mind vibrant with deep thoughts of philosophy.
Once, his master Epaphroditus began twisting his leg as an amusement. Epictetus told him, “If you go on, you will break my leg.”
But Epaphroditus kept twisting. Finally, when the leg broke, Epictetus uttered through his pain, with unruffled serenity, “Did I not tell you that you would break my leg?”
That was the hallmark of a Stoic man: staying unperturbed in mind by the things they can’t control.
If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?— Epictetus
And this is what he meant: We would react with anger and desperation if anyone were to capture us and make us serve a slave. Then how come we let our minds serve as slaves to other people’s whims and orders several times a day?
When people around us do or say things to us that makes us react, it means they have invaded and enslaved our minds. We argue with them in trying to prove they are wrong. We spend days and hours finding ways to put them down.
What they have done is actually chain our mind to a pole — and now the mind restlessly scoots around the same constricted area of thoughts, over and over, without freedom.
We forget we have a choice to set our mind free so that it finds peace and solace.
A Stoic person always holds that for a thing to be good, it must be of benefit to us. And the only thing that always benefits us is a calm and rational mind.
No matter what annoyance anyone brings to our doorstep, we have a choice to save our minds from being chained to it.
• However, history is thankful to Epaphroditus, because even though he was a cruel master, he allowed Epictetus to attend the lectures of Musonius Rufus, a distinguished teacher of Stoicism. And, in time, he let Epictetus go free.
6. Existing In The Present Moment
A Stoic person carries this knowledge everywhere they go: all happiness lies in the present.
The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.— Seneca
Seneca further advises,
Every day as it comes should be welcomed and reduced forthwith into our own possession as if it were the finest day imaginable.— Seneca
Because thoughts about the future are loaded with worries and anxieties. And thoughts about the past tow along stresses and regrets.
To be happy and free, a Stoic person chooses to spend most of their time in the present moment.
When in the present, we do not try to rewrite our history. With our feet firmly planted in the moment, we do not go over in endless loops over the things in the past we could have done differently. We do not get trapped into a mire of regret, resentment, and bitterness.
Standing in and acting from the present, we understand a worrying mind never changes the future for anyone. We also realize no one ever gets the promise of a perfect future. When in the present moment, we do not try to worry about whether the plans and dreams of tomorrow will come to fruition or not.
Once we are away from the disturbing thoughts about the future and past, we find calmness and peace. It is then that we can focus fully on the work at hand.
And when we immerse ourselves into our work, we attain a state when we forget the surroundings and time, and even our hunger and thirst. And this is a state the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls flow. He describes this as the state of “optimal experience” – one that makes us reach a level of high satisfaction.
The conscious practice of mooring ourselves in present is often referred to as mindfulness.
We are living in a time of great upheaval. In these times of a pandemic, most of us are anxious about an uncertain future. As we project ourselves into the future, we don’t see things in much clarity or surety. We fear that our goals and dreams might lay ripped apart.
In times as these, a Stoic person would be more headstrong about living in the reality of here and now. They would be happy to wake up to a new morning, to find enough to eat and share with their close ones, and end the day in a night of healthy sleep.
They would have asked, “What would you achieve by fixating on a future that will always remain unknown and unpredictable?”
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.― Seneca
So, cherish each day as a wonderful present, and savor it fully with a sense of gratitude and awe.
7. Feeling Grateful And Appreciative
When we always hanker after the things we do not possess, we tire and burn ourselves out. It’s an endless run on an invisible treadmill. It satisfies us for just so long as it takes to get used to a new toy. And then, we start our run for the next goalpost.
That is not a rational way to reach happiness.
Seneca warned us,
No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is within their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.— Seneca
Even science says running on the hedonic treadmill is an ineffective strategy to make ourselves happier.
A far more meaningful way is to feel grateful for the things we already have right now. It’s much wiser to be full of praise for the many blessings we have in our life.
Nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart.— Seneca
The following is an effective Stoic exercise to have a heartfelt sense of deep gratitude for every good thing in our life.
• The simple exercise would be to imagine our lives without some of the things around us — a house, a spouse, food on the table, a table to work upon, eyes to see, hands to work, legs to walk.
Our daily grind makes us forget the value of simple pleasures in life, as being alive to see another day, family, pets, and friends, the ability to love and laugh. We lose focus of them by getting fixated on what we do not own yet.
Asking ourselves “What would my life be without these?” would make us more conscious of those things we take for granted.
Then it gets easy to feel thankful for and appreciative of all that we have in our life. Avoiding setting our targets on the things we lack, and instead, being happy with our blessings, is a sign of wisdom to a Stoic person.
Marcus Aurelius said about this that we place ourselves in the position of not treating lightly all the great people and situations we have in our life. If we did not have them in our lives, how would our life be different, and how much would we crave to have them in our life?
Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.— Marcus Aurelius
Again, Marcus Aurelius says,
Take full account of what excellencies you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.— Marcus Aurelius
The science of positive psychology also supports this: Counting our blessings and appreciating what we have increases our happiness levels.
The Stoic Era of Philosophy
By the time Alexander The Great died in 323 BCE, he had an empire stretching from Greece to India. After his death, his generals divided the Alexandrian empire among themselves.
From then started the Hellenistic period, when Greek ideas and cultures spread across his conquered lands from Eastern Mediterranean to Asia. The end of this era came in 31 BCE when the Romans marched into the last of Alexander’s territories.
During the Hellenistic period, no less than six different schools of philosophy sprang out of Athens:
- The Cynics
- The Sceptics
- The Platonists
- The Aristotleans
- The Stoics
- The Epicureans
For almost all those variant philosophies of that era, the key investigation was about finding the correct path to happiness.
Stoicism was founded in the early third century BCE by Zeno of Citium. Zeno landed in Athens after his ship sank, and went on to study under some of the most famous philosophers for two decades before starting his school.
The story of the founder of Stoicism is a fascinating one: read here.
Some of the other prominent Stoics of the Hellenistic era were: Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
- Chrysippus was the person who took Stoicism to soaring heights.
- Seneca was a rich man and advised Nero, the irascible emperor, who got him killed.
- Musonius Rufus taught during the 1st century CE and is mainly known today as the teacher of Epictetus.
- Epictetus was born a slave but earned his freedom to rise to be a teacher.
- Marcus Aurelius was the mightiest Stoic to have ever walked this earth; he was a Roman Emperor.
Marcus Aurelius On Happiness
And now, a few quotes on happiness by the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
- Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. — Marcus Aurelius
- The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. — Marcus Aurelius
- Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. Man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for. — Marcus Aurelius
- The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. — Marcus Aurelius
- God did not intend my happiness to rest with someone else. — Marcus Aurelius
- Enjoyment means doing as much of what your nature requires as you can. And you can do that anywhere. Keep in mind the ease with which logos is carried through all things. That’s all you need. — Marcus Aurelius
- The happiness of those who want to be popular depends on others; the happiness of those who seek pleasure fluctuates with moods outside their control; but the happiness of the wise grows out of their own free acts. — Marcus Aurelius
- If someone despises me—that’s their problem. Mine—not to do or say anything despicable. If someone hates me—that’s their problem. Mine—to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way. That’s the way we should be like inside, and never let the gods catch us feeling anger or resentment. — Marcus Aurelius
Read one of the greatest books on Stoicism, written by Marcus Aurelius: Meditations.
The Stoics thought a lot about death. This made them become sharply aware of the shortness of life, and led them to not waste their time on trivial things.
The truth is life is barely long enough to do all the great things you want to do. You may realize this if you have a 50-item bucket list that still has a bunch sitting there remaining undone year after year. We are never sure how much time we are left with on this planet, so where’s the time to waste?
Seneca warned us:
Whatever time has passed is owned by death.
So, start living your greatest moments today onward and make your future self the best possible version of yourself.
• • •
Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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