Last weekend I decided to give myself a treat and went to visit Foyles on Charing Cross Road. I love bookshops almost as much as I love books. I find them relaxing and exciting in equal measure. This visit gave me double the joy as it caused the realisation that stoic philosophy is having a moment. I am a long time Stoic fan, an enthusiasm ignited by a friend’s gift of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations way back in the mid-nineties. She gave it to me when I was heading off travelling, and although it might seem like a strange thing to make space for in your backpack, it was far more valuable than the travel hairdryer I also crammed in!
“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”
Lessons from Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius taught me that everything we experience happens in our mind – fear, anger, regret, joy, exhilaration, serenity, second-guessing, overthinking, stress, confidence, and everything else besides. Our emotions define our experiences, meaning we have a lot more control over how we feel day-to-day than we realise. As a 24 year old Australian in Europe coming to grips with a bewildering array of languages, currencies, train and bus timetables, not to mention the existence of mixed dorm rooms and showers in youth hostels, I found this immensely comforting and quietly empowering. I might not have been able to control what happened, but I had complete control over how I responded.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the third century BC and famously practised in Rome by Epictetus, a Greek former slave; Seneca, tutor of emperor Nero; and the last of the ‘five good emperors’, Marcus Aurelius. It teaches that unhappiness and negative emotions are the result of judgements we make, not of life events or our external circumstances. According to Stoic wisdom the only secure source of happiness is your inner world. This is because everything outside of us can be taken away, meaning it is foolish to trust your happiness and wellbeing to that which is outside your control. Stoics therefore advocate focusing on the only thing you do have complete control over: your mind.
Stoicism holds that it’s not ‘things’ that upset us, but how we think about things. For example, as teachers we’re required to be observed. We can get caught up in making all sorts of judgements about this policy, we can see it as something very negative and a slight on our professionalism, and as a result get angry, upset, frustrated or might start to fear the experience. These emotions are the consequence of the judgement we’ve made. The thing itself, in this case, lesson observation, is value neutral. One teacher might see lesson observation as terrible, another might be completely indifferent and a third might see it as an opportunity and a privilege. It’s the judgements we make that generate our emotional responses.
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.”
But what about the snow day?
Practicing Stoicism supports you to let go of judgements and to acknowledge that the events and circumstances of our lives are not good or bad, they just are. Seeing a snow day as good and desperately wishing for one in say, March, is a mistake…whatever the weather forecast! If the wished for snow day materialises you might feel elation, but it will soon fade. And if there’s no snow day? You’re despondent because something you hoped for hasn’t happened, and maybe even a bit depressed about going to work, because you built up the expectation of a day at home. This kind of thinking plays havoc with your emotions. Practicing Stoicism on the other hand, can help you to experience more stillness and tranquility.
The Stoic paradox is that while we have almost no control over anything, we have potentially complete control over our happiness, as long as we learn to master our judgements. So much of the time what is standing between happiness and us is, well, us! Stoicism teaches us to put the circumstances of our lives into proper perspective; this doesn’t mean things like lesson observation or even snow days don’t matter, just that in the overall scheme of things, they don’t really matter as much as we think they do.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
How to be more Stoic
It all starts with daily positive changes.
Seneca recommended taking time to reflect on your day, to think about the things that irritated you or times when you reacted angrily or sarcastically towards someone who perhaps didn’t deserve it. By noting his mistakes, he hoped to do better the next day. Marcus Aurelius was an early adopter of gratitude journaling…of sorts! He believed you should notice beauty in the mundane and express gratitude for what you have, because it would allow you to focus on what was present and good in your life. The benefit of journaling is now backed by research.
2. Take control of that which you can control
The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. It’s important to know what you have influence over and what you don’t. Let’s say you get stuck in traffic on the way to school and are going to miss giving the assembly you have been planning for a week – no amount of yelling and cursing will clear the traffic jam. Just as no amount of wishing will make you taller or shorter and no matter how hard you try, you just won’t be able to get some people to like you. Putting time and energy into these things is only going to lead to frustration, instead, invest in things you can change, like how you spend your lunch break, how much exercise you do or who you spend your time with.
3. Negative visualisation
The “premeditation of evils” exercise asks that you think carefully and in detail about the worst possible outcome rather than trying to persuade yourself that everything will be fine. Although it sounds counter intuitive, this is actually hugely reassuring; firstly, because in nearly every instance, nothing is as bad as you imagined it might be, and secondly, if things do go wrong, you’re more prepared and therefore more resilient. Try it next time you’re facing something that fills you with dread.
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.”
If you’re keen on the idea of raising your happiness levels but no sure about positive psychology, I recommend How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living by Massimo Pigliucci. You can get it at Foyles.