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This is an enormous book, but it's one of my favourites of all time. It's my most highlighted book on Kindle (by a very long way) and while I was reading it, I found myself nodding my head like a lunatic on almost every page.
I’ve got an absolute tonne of Kindle highlights from this book that I occasionally flick through in case I need to send someone a Marcus Aurelius quote over Facebook messenger in response to a problem they might tell me about. It probably wouldn’t be fair to copy/paste all of the quotes and highlights from the book, but here are some of the messages from the book that particularly resonated with me and that I’ll be trying to remember as I live my life.
What is happiness?
Happiness is a chimera: it is imaginary and deceiving in many of its forms.
For it to be solid, our happiness would not rely on fortuity or what we happen to have. It would be fundamentally about who we are.
- It’s not events out there that cause our problems, but rather, our reactions to those events, the stories we tell ourselves. Therefore, if we find ourselves feeling negative emotions (anger, jealousy, dismay, annoyance, etc), we can realise that our emotions stem from within, and just decide to let them go.
- There are only two things we can control - our thoughts and our actions. Everything else falls on the other side of the line: the things we can’t control. We tend to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about things we can’t control. Instead, we might simply decide that everything outside our control is absolutely fine as it is, and leave it at that.
“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now” (Marcus Aurelius, private journals).
If we are feeling angry, upset or hurt, it’s understandable, but we have forgotten ourselves. It may be unavoidable that we will feel some of these negative emotions, perhaps every day, but there is all the difference in the world between allowing them to take root (which comes from believing they are caused by external events and leads to us holding others accountable for our feelings) and accepting responsibility for them, and seeing if we might correct them internally.
2 questions that we should ask ourselves when we’re feeling bad, mad or sad:
- I am responsible for how I feel about external events. What am I doing to give myself this feeling?
- Is this thing that’s upsetting me something which lies under my control? If not, what if I were to decide it’s fine and let it go?
We should ask ourselves these questions and pay attention to the honest answers. At first, we might feel a fight: we still want to blame other things and other people for our problems. Until we have practised this, we may feel like there are things we don’t wish to forget about and decide are ‘fine’. But consider even the worst cases of, say, the effects of childhood abuse: if a survivor spent years in highly effective therapy and found herself finally rid of the debilitating legacy of such trauma, the key thought that will have allowed the healing to occur will be something along the lines of ‘it’s fine, now, to let it go’. At some level, this thought will release us. The only difference is how easy or difficult it is to let such a powerful thought take root. If the seed needs planting deeply in those unconscious strata of of which we are unaware, the chances are we will need help from a professional to find the right spot.
In America I saw the freest and more enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords. It seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures… It is strange to see with what feverish ardour the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it. (Alexis de Tocqueville)
Two thousand years ago, a Roman slave called Epictetus, a prominent figure in the ancient school of Stoic philosophy, which remained the most prevalent school of thought for five hundred years before Christianity exploded into the world, gave voice to the notion: ‘What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgements about these things.’1 In other words, it is not events out there that cause our problems but rather our reactions to them: the stories we tell ourselves.
Shakespeare gives us the same thought through Hamlet: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
Out There and In Here are two very different kingdoms, and other people are not accountable for how we feel. No one, however ludicrously they behave, has the right or the direct means to affect your self-control or dignity. No one need annoy us so much that we in turn become a source of annoyance to others.
It seems that there can be some financial element at play, in that we report feeling less happy when we earn under a certain ‘comfortable’ amount. However, when we earn over that figure, more money does not make us incrementally happier. That magic number seems to vary greatly according to what study you read, depends on the cost of living wherever the study was carried out, and is rendered even less meaningful when you take on board that the type of job you do makes a huge difference to your happiness. According to a recent Cabinet Office report, for example, clergy reported substantially greater levels of happiness on an income of about twenty thousand pounds at the time, in contrast to lawyers who tend to be notably unhappy and earn much more.4 So while it remains clear that having less than you need is a source of unhappiness, having more than you need does not make you happier.
If there is a secret to happiness, it isn’t that the universe is a catalogue from which we can order a new car or coffee shop. The real secret might be to accept the indifference of the universe and delight just as much in the coffee shop not appearing. This odd but undeniably true thought, as well as the balance of pessimism that it entails, is the thrust of this book.
We are so embroiled in the rhetoric of self-belief that to apply any qualifications to the mantra of ‘Go on! You can do anything!’ seems to be actively denying people their chance of happiness. Yet when we warn, ‘This may not work out’, we are being, at heart, very supportive. We are asking the person to set aside, for a moment, their single-minded, emotive image of happiness (opening a coffee shop). We are reminding them that their overarching happiness is in fact independent of a successful café venture. We are not naysaying. We are pointing to a potentially deeper level of happiness and saying, ‘If this doesn’t work out, as it may not, irrespective of your enthusiasm, there is more in life that can make you happy. Don’t attach too much to this one goal.’
So we establish a goal, which may well be misguided, because we tend to make incorrect judgements about what makes us happy. What then? We now strive towards that specific, planned-out success, and here we encounter our second problem with the fetishising of goals. We invest too much and too specifically. If we stay true to our plan, we will need to sacrifice other aspects of our life to reach our intended destination. We forget that nothing happens in life independently of other things. You may find yourself a partner and get married as intended but then suffer the loss of other dreams that you now regret abandoning. You may become a millionaire by thirty-five but at the expense of your personal relationships. The goal has proven too specific, too isolated; upon reaching your destination you realise with companionless regret that this solitary and lonely place was too remote and too much has been left behind.
After we achieve our goals, we are forced to disidentify with them. Sometimes this can be painful, and perhaps more commonly so for men, who tend to equate success with achievements and standards external to themselves.
When work ends – through retirement or downsizing – many people become depressed, because their sense of self was too closely tied to such ends. A line misattributed to Plutarch and more accurately credited to Die Hard’s Hans Gruber runs as follows: ‘When Alexander the Great saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer’.
We equate persistent commitment and the ability to laugh at one’s detractors with a recipe for success. But this is a lie. We believe it because we are told it through many channels, but its source springs from a powerful select few who boast about their life stories as they perceive them. These life stories are of course a formalising of the fabricated narratives we discussed in the first chapter. These are overwhelmingly the self-serving rationalisations of people who, upon becoming successful, now wish to feel that they have rightfully earned their status and the respect of others. So they look back over their journey and filter through it for evidence of their deservedness. The perpetual and overwhelming play of random chance is glossed over, and in its place a hero’s journey is invented. And very often that story is one of adhering to a vision, no matter what, and having no time for those who would get in the way or did not share the hero’s Herculean self-belief.
The nineteenth-century philosopher is saying: you do not have the control over your life that you might like to believe. You will of course have certain aims, pulling you in one direction. However, life is constantly pulling back in the other. Irrespective of how much ‘you believe in yourself’, the forces of life (or the universe, or fate) will continue to do their own thing. They operate independently of your wishes. You may put everything into opening a successful coffee shop and making your fortune, but a sudden recession will scupper that plan with no respect for how S.M.A.R.T. your goal was, how positive you felt about it, or how beautiful your vision board was. You may dream of having a certain life, but financial crashes, illness or any number of similar inconveniences have no respect for your fantasies. Nor do the actions or successes of other people that may scupper your plans. Most of what happens in life is entirely out of your control, and while blind self-belief might disguise that fact for a while, it will eventually prove an anaemic opponent to brute reality.
Schopenhauer also uses the game of chess to give us another image of how our goal-setting might be unrealistic. When playing chess, we start out with a plan, but our plan is affected by the inclinations of the other player. Our plan must modify itself constantly, to the point that, as we carry it out, several of its fundamental features are unrecognisable. To stick blindly to the same goals would be to deny that a second, independent player was at the board.
‘Get what you want’ remains a mantra of modern living, as if we each had the birthright to accumulate whatever we think will make us happy.
So now we’ll look more deeply at the ‘Want’, as there is much about our capacity to desire that promises happiness but delivers disappointment. Once we understand some important aspects of how and why we want things, we can rebuild a new relationship to desire that can greatly increase our happiness.
Welcome to the hedonic treadmill. Ancient philosophers such as the Stoics and Epicureans – and we will look more closely at them later – were very aware of it, though the term was first coined in the 1970s1 and later developed by a psychologist called Michael Eysenck in the nineties. It refers to the cycle of desire-fulfilment (‘hedonism’ means ‘the pursuit of pleasure’): we want something, we perhaps get it, we feel good for a while and then return to whatever default level of happiness or sadness we enjoyed before. Nothing really changes.
Suppose you woke up one morning to discover that you were the last person on earth: during the night, aliens had spirited away everyone but you. Suppose that despite the absence of other people, the world’s buildings, houses, stores, and roads remained as they had been the night before. Cars were where their now-vanished owners had parked them, and gas for these cars was plentiful at now-unattended gas stations. The electricity still worked. It would be a world like this world, except that everyone but you was gone. You would, of course, be very lonely, but let us ignore the emotional aspects of being the last person, and instead focus our attention on the material aspects. In the situation described, you could satisfy many material desires that you can’t satisfy in our actual world. You could have the car of your dreams. You could even have a showroom full of expensive cars. You could have the house of your dreams – or live in a palace. You could wear very expensive clothes. You could acquire not just a big diamond ring but the Hope Diamond itself. The interesting question is this: without people around, would you still want these things? Would the material desires you harbored when the world was full of people still be present in you if other people vanished? Probably not. Without anyone else to impress, why own an expensive car, a palace, fancy clothes, or jewelry?
The thought experiment shows that we choose our lifestyles – our houses, our clothes, our watches – with other people in mind. One way or another, we project a style designed to make others admire or envy us.
In the accumulation of material things, no deep satisfaction is to be found, other than fleeting pleasure and the temporary delight of impressing others. Both of these are short-lived (before we return to our default level of happiness), and ultimately controlled by other people or things.
the things we desire really do little other than fuel further desires and teach us what greed is.
David Hume, a great eighteenth-century philosopher, wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature: It is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity … a great disproportion cuts off the relation, and either keeps us from comparing ourselves with what is remote from us or diminishes the effects of the comparison.
Thus most people would not begrudge Madonna her placement at the top of the Forbes celebrity rich list for 2013 (though her peers well might), but they may seethe quietly at a colleague’s pay-rise or a friend’s new house.
When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye: when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.
Though Schopenhauer was by all accounts a gruff and pessimistic character, he nonetheless wrote about desire and happiness in the Parerga and Paralipomena of his later years, picking up on the same point as Hume, that ‘the great possessions of the rich do not worry the poor’, adding, ‘on the other hand, if the wealthy man’s possessions fail, he is not consoled by the many things he already possesses. Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.’
We commonly spend our lives focused on the future: usually this carrot dangles before us in the form of a career ladder. It is easy to follow the carrot and harder to think about what might truly make us happy. We follow the former, not realising that we will never reach it to savour it, or that even if we do, we might find that particular carrot isn’t even edible.
We look for happiness in places that are supposed to offer it, but parties have a habit of being disappointing, and the promotion or new car does not quite yield the joy we expected.
We might think that we’ll be finally happy when we get a job with a certain company, or begin a relationship with a certain person, but when we get there it’s still us looking out, with all the frustrations and distortions that might bring.
When we reflect, we notice: That the image we had before us of a bright and happy future either excluded us altogether, like the over-saturated images on the resort website, or contained a strange smiling version of ourselves that was not really us at all.
Happiness is a chimera: it is imaginary and deceiving in many of its forms.
In the centred life, work, health, family and friends may still make their demands, but we can acknowledge and entertain those forces without feeling them impose directly upon our core selves. We are missing out if we feel that happiness is a result of lucky circumstance rather than something rooted immovably in us.
For it to be solid, our happiness would not rely on fortuity or what we happen to have. It would be fundamentally about who we are.
Ideally, it would reside quietly in the epicentre of our emotional lives, an area before which we can raise the drawbridge and from time to time close off from outside threat. We are well advised, then, to do what we can to make that a place of peace and self-sufficiency, and not to extend our general tendencies towards fear and panic into that hallowed space.
Schopenhauer gives us an image of what is left if our centre of gravity is not located securely within us. He points to pain and boredom as ‘the two foes of human happiness’3. When our stability relies principally on external factors, we shuttle back and forth between the two. We avoid pain, seek comfort, and become bored. To counter that boredom, we may choose to engage in distracting or competitive activities that bring new forms of stress into our lives. Some enjoy the diversion of sport but injure themselves or suffer the pains of competitiveness. Others visit the casino and lose more than they can afford or develop gambling addictions. If we start to feel empty, we might crave extravagance and try hard to impress others, which (for the reasons we have seen) tends to produce misery. Without a solid sense of self, we can’t help but swing between these unpleasant extremes.
To escape the cycle of pain and boredom, then, we need to take control of our stories. ‘Ordinary men,’ Schopenhauer wrote (and we can include the ladies too), ‘are intent merely on how to spend their time; a man with any talent is interested in how to use his time.’4
Thus we might be terrific listeners with a disarming honesty that makes most people feel very comfortable in our company, while we ourselves are convinced we are merely awkward misfits, unable to play the kinds of social games everyone else seems to enjoy.
Milan Kundera made the enduring point in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that there is no dress rehearsal for life. This is life; this is it, right now. It is a powerful and motivating thought.
Each moment you live passes and is gone, never to return. Life is too brief to not consider how to experience it at its best. This is not about bungee jumping or forming an extravagant bucket list. It can happen in the ordinary moments of your everyday life.
If you believe you are entitled to be happy, that this is a given for any human being, then read on. This notion of a right to happiness is a very modern idea and, as I have already said, the cause of much anxiety.
Aristotle was interested in how we might be good, rather than know goodness. Thus when he taught ethics, his aim was to improve the lives of his pupils at a practical, everyday level.
There is something powerful in the idea that we recognise reason as something unique in ourselves, something that separates us from the animals, and that our aim should be to bring that to its most virtuous completion. According to Aristotle, we can enjoy trivial pleasures, but these should only be in preparation for activities in accordance with virtue. He believed that human beings are meant for greater things, and that a certain joy comes from fulfilling what is best and most noble in our nature.
If we hope for something deeper in life than distraction, we might note that our remembering, story-forming self needs a narrative of happiness in the same way our experiencing self requires its pleasures. And here we might find that we sleep more peacefully if we see our lives as part of Aristotle’s telos, as a work in progress, one in which we could view daily irritations as a kind of test; one which teaches us virtue and where we can, step by step, and by considering the variables of each situation as it happens, move towards being a better (happier, kinder, more fulfilled) version of ourselves.
We are in the realm here of the ‘considered life’ and the possibility of serenity that such a life can offer. People take longer-lasting pleasure from being kind to others than having others be kind to them; likewise, there is a deeper happiness to be had in knowing that your life is part of a story of flourishing than there is in merely pursuing entertainment.
Epicureans lived a simple, ascetic life, believing that by limiting themselves to a few natural desires (such as friendship, bread and water), they would be far happier than those who finally bring pain upon themselves through entertaining greater needs.
The Epicureans of the Garden chose to pursue pleasures and avoid pain. Yet pleasures were rationally chosen, so that they would not ultimately lead to misery. The point was to achieve happiness, which was identical to a life of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
Stoics taught, along with the Epicureans, that we should limit our desires, and that perceived problems in life are due to errors in judgement about those problems. If we change our attitude, the pain of those external factors can disappear.
This may sound familiar to modern minds acquainted with the notion of ‘reframing’ a problem as an opportunity, and it is one of the Stoics’ most powerful and prevailing ideas.
Secondly, and closely connected with this first paradigm shift, we were told we should suffer now to obtain this happiness later. In fact, rather than avoid suffering as the Stoics and Epicureans taught, we were now instructed to embrace it as a sign of holiness.
it is the very nature of religion that it furnishes us with comfortable answers, and without it the business of finding meaning in life becomes more complex and personal.
It is then not so much that we have a ‘God-shaped hole’ within us, as I was fond in my religious youth of insisting, but that there lurks within us something of Locke’s ‘uneasiness’, a perennial desire for satisfaction that takes place at the metaphysical level as well as the everyday and material. We have a ‘meaning-shaped hole’ because we are story-forming creatures, and stories should not meander without a point.
is strange to see with what feverish ardour the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.
Mill’s vision for us is helpful when we feel that we are unable to fit in, when we view our separateness with embarrassment. It is a common part of human experience to feel that we don’t belong. In fact, it is often cited as the greatest human concern. We may feel when around particular people that we have nothing to contribute, or have that miserable sensation that everyone else shares some fundamental part of normal human experience that we lack. We try to fit in, and we neither convince ourselves that we do, nor, we suspect, those around us. At those times, what makes us different seems only to be the crushingly disappointing absence of what bonds everyone else together. Mill says that this difference is something to be celebrated. We may not have what they have, and this is a very good thing. We should look to developing and strengthening those parts of us that feel unique, not as an aggressive stance against society but with the warm glow of knowing that we can contribute more to it as a distinct, idiosyncratic individual. And therefore, ultimately, be of more use to the world.
I also find Mill’s words to be of use when considering relationships. Often we want our friends, partners and people we love to be like us, because that allows us to feel validated and accepted. It is a powerful thing to find people in this world who share our values and instincts. But it is also important to celebrate the differences between our partners and us. Would we really want to be in a relationship where the other person reminds us every day of ourselves? Wouldn’t it just be like having rich chocolate cake every day? Do we even especially like people who are very much like us? Don’t we find ourselves cynical of their motives, believing we can see right through them?
Love seems to come without a template. We may think we know what we want in a partner and then one day find ourselves in love for very different reasons. In the same way that differing, developed individuals contribute to Mill’s view of society and make it worth belonging to, so too the differences between people in a relationship can be precisely the substance of what makes it valuable. And then, rather than falling for that old fallacy of entering into a relationship thinking you will ‘change’ the other person to…
According to Mill, happiness should not be our goal per se, and to chase it directly is a mistake. Instead, we should see it as a by-product, something achieved indirectly through the process of individual liberation from the levelling demands of society. Rather than directly seeking tranquillity or finding happiness through Christ, one might discover it as a by-product of a more personal emancipation. There is something of Aristotle in all of this: identifying our highest aim (liberty rather than virtue) through what makes us unique, and then working towards…
Rousseau is concerned with that hedonic treadmill, or Locke’s ‘uneasiness’: civilisation cultivates new desires, which in turn breed anxiety and further wants. A more primitive life, on the other hand, leads to fewer desires, which means less frustration and therefore more happiness.
The next major means of achieving happiness, and redemption from the encumbrances of society, was offered by the Marxists: work will set you free.
Marx, an atheist, still adhered to this religious template, promising salvation while describing it in the language of science. Here was a philosophy that provided substance and meaning for the common man in a way that most of the philosophies emerging from the Enlightenment could not. Perhaps you recognise once again the Christian principle of delayed gratification: suffer (or work hard) now and your reward hovers before you in the form of a distant golden utopia. Seen
Our ruinous, dehumanising society began for Rousseau with the fact that we must work. This leads to us reflecting on our social position, and creates feelings of envy and vanity.
One important new idea that emerged from Marx for our purposes is as follows: we saw work as an activity that was supposed to endow us with happiness and a sense of humanity. This was a strange new concept, and although it sprang up as a reaction against capitalism, there is no doubt that it is now part of the capitalist creed. How many of us talk proudly of working non-stop as if it were something to be admired? Or identify with our jobs more than anything else in life? To be unhappy in one’s work today is often seen as having taken a serious wrong turning in life. Employment is no longer merely a means to an end, as it was in pre-Enlightenment days; it is now supposed to be a source of happiness in and of itself.
It seems so self-evidently preferable to enjoy your work, and to draw a sense of meaning from it, that it sounds bizarre to question the idea. Alan Watts, who gave us the image of trying to wrap up water with string, made the point that it is absurd to work at something you don’t enjoy, purely to make more money to be able to live longer and continue doing something you don’t…
But the moment we expect that we should do for a living what we enjoy, we unfairly cast those who do not have that advantage as failures. Perhaps because our first question upon meeting people tends to be ‘What do you do?’, and because this is taken to mean ‘What do you do for a living?’, we are used to being judged on the basis of our jobs. When we ask this question, we rarely think to enquire what the person’s relationship to their job might be. Might they, for example, be indifferently employed, in order to create for themselves enough leisure time and a comfortable income to pursue their real interests? Perhaps you already dislike being asked what you do for a living because you feel the answer you have to give does you no justice…
We might prefer to ask a person the less career-specific ‘What do you get up to?’ or simply not enquire about work. Meanwhile, we can take comfort in the knowledge that for the vast sweep of human history it did not occur to people that they were supposed to enjoy their work. Our daily employment does not need to be our identity. It’s a wonderful bonus to do what one enjoys, but it’s not necessary. Far more important is knowing how to navigate the difficulties and disappointments in life and work, without setting up a romantic ideal of a ‘perfect’ job; it’s no more helpful or realistic than that of a perfect partner. Otherwise we are…
What counts is not the work but our relationship to it. Schopenhauer, refreshingly, ascribed far more importance to what one does with one’s leisure. The ideal he describes (and he goes into some detail about how to sensibly store capital and live off the interest) is to be wealthy enough to have expansive free time and the intellectual capabilities to fill it with contemplation and activity in the service of mankind. It may not be our work but rather what we do with the rest of our time that gives us our true sense of worth. We might choose to identify far more with our hobby of paragliding, or the daily demands and rewards of trying to be a good-enough…
The Romantic legacy, reinforced by any number of novels and films, encourages us to believe that we should seek out magical solutions to our feelings of isolation; that some magical ‘other’ is available to us in the form of a perfect partner, or perhaps a perfect job, to complete us and leave us perennially fulfilled.
From his walled garden cut off from the city, Epicurus introduced us to the revelatory notion that to become happier, we need to reassess our attachments to things in the world. We need to feel differently about things that cause (or have the potential to cause) anxiety. We wish to live with as little pain and worry as possible. Epicurus has, in his way, discovered our unconscious mind and knows that we must change our emotional experiences; a purely intellectual, Aristotelian approach won’t affect us deeply enough to make the changes we need.
This emotional reappraisal is central to improving our happiness. If we are to live more felicitous lives, we should not bother greatly with the common approach, namely gathering for ourselves the popular trappings of success.
Such an aim is difficult to put into practice and impossible to entirely fulfil. Instead, we should train ourselves – as and when we remember – to feel satisfied with what comes more easily. That way, we are far more likely to reach a point of relatively undisturbed happy contentment. If happiness lies in the relationship between what we desire and what we have, we are being encouraged to consider the first part of that equation rather than obsess over the second.
Of course we baulk at what sounds like merely ‘settling for less’: it goes against everything we understand about what it is to be successful, dynamic and in charge of our lives. At first glance, it suggests complacency and lack of vision. But we are not arriving at this philosophy out of laziness; as a considered choice, demanding less has the potential to be enormously enriching.
We remember Epicurus’s thought: ‘Everything we need is easy to procure, while the things we desire but don’t need are more difficult to obtain.’
We see the illusion of individual predilection being maintained, for example, in the array of different styles of iPhone cases available to us. We wonder which of the provided range of colourful or sophisticated sheaths best communicates to the world our unique character. Thus we lean towards the wood effect, or the Batman one (ironically sported, of course), or the vintage Union Jack. Meanwhile, it is much harder to honestly ask ourselves whether our lives would be improved were we not to be attached to our devices quite as umbilically, and how much misery they bring us alongside the various conveniences and amusements. Whether we might be more authentically ourselves if, with a pioneering and curious spirit, we occasionally left them at home.
we were the last person on Earth, we wouldn’t bother with buffetless ventilators or ironic iPhone cases. When the desire to impress others is removed, we live a more authentically Epicurean existence. And again, we should not make the mistake of thinking that Epicurus would deny us such things as a fancy fan. Instead, he would have us not cultivate the need for such things in the first place, so that the pain of losing them when they are broken, lost or stolen would not compromise any enjoyment we might obtain from them in the meantime.
We are all attached to far too many unnecessary objects, and they affect our happiness as they each bring with them this risk of pain. While it might be too much to ask – and even undesirable – to adopt a strict Epicurean strategy and not aim beyond the simplest things in life, we might find it helpful to remember the benefits that this approach can offer. We could, if we find ourselves wanting to buy something we don’t really need and can’t comfortably afford, decide to reject it on Epicurean grounds. Buying it might feel good for a short while, but it could easily bring with it the potential for a pain that outlasts the brief pleasure it affords: that of getting it home and wishing we hadn’t spent the money; of our anxiety that it might get damaged or stolen; even the guilt surrounding the admission that we look to such an object to give us a burst of happiness. To choose not to buy it even though we can afford it, on the other hand, might allow for some space for clarity: what do we actually like? What really suits us?
There is more to Epicurus’s advice. He reminds us to desire what we already have, rather than to desire more and more unnecessary things: ‘Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not;
remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.’ So
Neediness sets up another futile aim: we can never get enough from people towards whom we feel needy. They may provide on one occasion, but when they fall short of our inflated expectations the next time, we worry and quickly revert to our previous insecure state. This kind of unnecessary attachment, ‘unnatural’ according to Epicurus’s distinction, is therefore difficult to satisfy and endless in its desire. Instead, if we were sure that we could – after a period of adjustment – get by happily enough without the relationship in question, we might find it easier to be less demanding and enjoy what the other person chooses to give. If we feel we could live sufficiently without our partners, this can greatly improve our relationship with them. When we are sure we could not survive without them, we are likely to bring a theme of intense jealousy or anxiety into the relationship. Once again, reviewing the nature of our attachments can reduce anxiety and increase contentment. Of course, merely knowing that we should be more self-sufficient seems very different from achieving such a state, particularly if we happen to be by nature quite neurotic. But in the meantime, an appreciation of the importance of these ideas is often enough to start the cogs whirring and encourage us to think and feel a little differently.
While they shared with their Epicurean rivals the goal of achieving ataraxia, or tranquillity, the Stoics’ vision of how to get there was not based on the pursuit of pleasure but rather that of arete, or virtue. However, this Stoic word does not quite mean moral virtue (as the legacy of medieval Christianity leaves us interpreting the word today) but rather refers to a kind of psychological robustness. Stoic ‘virtue’ has a subtlety of meaning rather lost on us, who might recoil from its righteous implications.
- If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.
Our self-pity and resentment would quickly turn to sympathy and probably an embarrassed acknowledgement of how oversensitive we can be. In these cases and countless more, we are correcting our beliefs about the target of our emotions (our partner, our friends, their behaviour) by allowing for new information to join the mix; a shift at the intellectual level has a near automatic effect at that of the emotions.
The Greeks, however, were not of this opinion, and their preferred model – that emotions stem from how we interpret events – now once again has the upper ground in modern clinical understanding.
Epicurus might have introduced it, but it was the Stoics who really embraced and developed this notion that emotions spring from rationally based judgements.
They, the Epicureans and the Aristotelians, all shared this common ground of understanding, but the Stoics concerned themselves more than any other school with radically reappraising the role of feelings in order to create a life of increased tranquillity.
Their starting point, as with the Epicureans, was the leverage gained by understanding that our emotional life was susceptible to reason.
Most of us may not regularly face physical attack, but we might still meet any number of very painful situations in our lives and find our fear or anger expanding to fill the same space. Stoicism remains a potent remedy for our modern lives and the myriad stresses and tragedies they may bring.
‘Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the “I am hurt,” you are rid of the hurt itself,’10 Marcus notes.
Is it so simple? At first glance it seems a dangerous recipe for repressing painful feelings. Just tell yourself you’re fine and the pain will disappear? This does not tally with our modern preoccupation with expressing our negative emotions. If we are angry, we should talk about it or ‘take it out’ in some harmless way such as pillow-beating; certainly we shouldn’t seek to pretend we feel fine.
‘Venting’ does not solve emotional problems as the metaphor of pipes, valves and steam suggests. In the mid-twentieth century, the human-potential movement encouraged us to cry, scream and beat ‘boffers’ (cushioned pads) to release our pain. The therapy rooms and encounter groups of the 1970s reverberated with the thwump of fist meeting cushion. More recently, Brad Bushman and team at Iowa State University effectively demolished the myth that this kind of activity helps us to feel better. In fact, their research shows it actually tends to make us more aggressive. Beating a pillow might legitimise our feelings of anger, encouraging us to relive them later, and we may become too attached to a venting activity that we feel should bring us catharsis and find ourselves searching for an assuagement that never comes.
The last thing the Stoics – or for that matter the Epicureans – would wish to do is legitimise negative emotions. Instead, we should acknowledge that it is our judgements, not the external event, which is creating the anguish. In taking responsibility for it, we can look for a way out of the pain.
It is, as Marcus tells us, always in our power to represent events to ourselves in such a way they give us an advantage. Two thousand years later, we think of this as ‘reframing’: the reinterpretation of a negative event as something positive. Seeing the silver lining. Once again, the insipidness of the cliché robs the principle of its power. We tend to associate ‘always looking for the positive’ with a kind of smiling, Pollyanna vapidity (which might point to a neurotic refusal to acknowledge the disappointments of life). For that reason, perhaps, it tends not to strike us as something worthwhile we might employ to benefit ourselves but more as a kind of social lubricant, a way of avoiding difficult topics in discussion and appearing helpful and friendly. If we touch on a problem in conversation and are met with something that begins ‘Oh well, never mind, at least …’, we are likely to feel that the other person has little interest in what we’re going through.
Likewise, if we see Marcus’s instruction as an encouragement to merely ‘look on the bright side’, we also miss its potency. Marcus is reminding himself – and therefore us – that we are to take responsibility for those judgements we make and to reconsider our judgements in a way that helps us. That involves a profound shift in our relationship with all events in the world, and with our emotions. It is very far from being a rosy nudge to ‘perk up’. The reason why this shallow pronouncement fails to hit the mark most of the time is that it clashes with our deeper convictions. We cannot effectively choose to feel more positive about an event that is bothering us unless we have first understood that it is our judgements, which are responsible for how we feel. An encouragement to see the positive in a situation will not be effective if it clashes with a deeper story we are telling ourselves.
‘Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he…
‘If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by…
We might baulk at this when we are only too aware of people surviving childhood abuse or being horrendously persecuted for their beliefs, sexuality or their race. Should we really tell them to blame themselves…
Stoicism, however, was born at a time when such violence was an everyday fact for many people and for similar reasons. If Epictetus appears glib, we do him a disservice. We can imagine how harshly he would have been treated as a slave: we are told that his leg was deliberately broken by his master, leaving him lame for the rest of his life. His words are offered as a source of strength to those who are cruelly persecuted, not in ignorance of them. The Stoics even said that a Stoic sage (a semi-fictional role model for the seeker of virtue) would still, while being tortured on the rack, be able to smile and think ‘This is happening to my body, but it isn’t happening to me.’ We may find this too far-fetched, as did many of the Stoics’ contemporaries, but the reality is that for the person being tortured or abused, the kind of detachment that the Stoic message encourages might be the only comfort remaining. The message is not ‘blame yourself’ but to realise that whatever happens to you, it does not need to affect you, your core self, unless you choose to let it. Understood correctly, that is a powerful message of hope and a core survival skill for victims of oppression.…
Stepping back from the immediacy of our emotions and realising that we are responsible for them is a very good…
In one passage, Marcus tells himself to see those things that infuriate him as no more than the equivalent of sawdust and wood clippings on the floor of a carpenter’s workshop. These things that obstruct us are the inevitable by-product of nature, and it would be mad to become enraged about them.
This is typical of the Stoics’ aligning of themselves with fate (that is, whatever the world throws at them), but it also should inform our first impressions and stop us from interpreting events in such a way that makes us feel worse.
We now have our first building block. We can pay attention to our responses to events and the stories we tell ourselves about them. We can check to see if we are increasing the pain caused by a negative event by exacerbating things and searching for negative patterns, rather than simply accepting first impressions and events as they are. We can take responsibility for how we feel by realising that ultimately it is our after-the-event, ongoing reactions to what happens around us that are the cause of our problems. The point of this is not to blame ourselves. It is to begin to dissolve unwanted frustrations and anxieties in our lives. Once we stop blaming the world for our problems, we can achieve some control. Whether we see our judgement as a cause or a constituent part of our emotional pain, the same conclusion remains for us as for Marcus Aurelius. ‘Cast out the judgement, you are saved. What hinders you?’18
SO WE ARE to take responsibility for the ways in which we respond to external events. It is those judgements that cause us problems, at least beyond the first flush of anxiety that a sudden danger may trigger, rather than the events themselves. If we avoid these ‘disturbances’ by not allowing events to upset our emotional life, then we might achieve the Stoic ideal, which is to live in the glow of a psychological fortitude that they called virtue.
We are unlikely to reach his almost holy standard ourselves, but it is our attempt to do so that gives us the best sort of life and therefore the happiest. We may not spend our lives ceaselessly jumping for joy, but we will vastly reduce feelings of pain, anguish and disturbance as we continue along that x=y diagonal: something that could constitute a remarkable transformation in our lives.
- Don’t try to change things you cannot control.
If something is not under our control, we can recognise it as such and decide that it’s fine as it is.
Epictetus is saying that we should only concern ourselves with things that we can control. All else should be of no interest. Putting aside for the moment instances of social injustice that may greatly bother us even though we are not involved in them, this division into what is and what is not under our control is known as the ‘Stoic fork’. For me, I prefer to place an imaginary line down the centre of my vision, and when an issue is causing trouble, I check to see on which side of the line it falls.
Under Our Control Not Under Our Control Our thoughts What people think Our actions What people think of us How people behave How well people do their jobs How rude people are Other people’s habits Other people’s success How well other people listen to us How much our partner behaves as we…
We have already looked at the things that lie within our control, namely our thoughts and actions, and how we take charge of these by distinguishing between ‘appearances’ and ‘impressions’: between external events and our interpretations of those events. But now we have a huge coda to that thought: nothing else matters. How other people behave towards us, for example, is of no real interest, as their behaviour is ‘external’ and not within the realm of our thoughts or actions. If our partner is stressed and acts…
Can it be that easy? What if others behave in such a way towards us that they impede our progress or make life intolerable? There are clearly points of subtlety and complexity that must be addressed if Epictetus’s argument is to convince us. Remember, though, that only the (probably fictional) sage encapsulates this thinking perfectly. It is enough for the rest of us to do our…
The idea is strong enough to have stuck around for two thousand years as a perennial piece of wisdom. We know of it today as the Serenity Prayer, attributed to the American…
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference. It has lost some of its power through its quaintness. The pious language masks a mighty statement of self-affirmation,…
When we try to control something over which we have no authority, we will of course fail, and we set ourselves up for frustration and anxiety along the way. No amount of effort on our part will ever secure the kind of power we would like to wield, if the target of our endeavours does not fall under…
Although we profess to be in love, and to have lost ourselves in this other person, we are barely (at this early point) doing them the justice of considering them an actual human being. They begin as a projection of our needs; we hope that he or she will be the perfect match, the magical ‘other’ who will satisfy us.
Like the projections we make upon our misplaced goals that we think will guarantee us happiness, it is an enterprise doomed to failure. Our partners will never entirely fit in with our plans for them, and neither should they.
It is only when we stop projecting our needs – which first means becoming conscious of them as needs – that we can release the other person from the tyranny of our expectations.
These forms of control will of course come from both sides. They are part of the natural dynamic when two partners grow from the fantasy position of seeing each other in magical terms to a real-life appreciation of the wholeness of the other.
And rather than control our partner to pander to our needs, we might begin to celebrate him or her as an entire, separate human being, one with some disappointing peculiarities it is up to us to navigate, accommodate, forgive.
So let’s look a little closer at what those things are that do not fall under our control. The feeling of letting them go is enormously liberating, so we want to make sure we can confidently reap the benefits without doing ourselves (or others) a disservice by ignoring anything that’s important.
A clear and common example of this is how we deal with the sting of jealousy we might feel when a colleague talks excitedly about his promotion while we ourselves are frustrated with not moving ahead in our own career. As we’ve already seen, we only feel envy towards people who are roughly equal to us in terms of status, so we needn’t feel surprised to find we can harbour such a negative emotion towards a co-worker. But we can, in the same breath, acknowledge that his success is fine. We have no control over our colleague’s professional life or the happiness he gleans from it. If we dwell negatively upon his promotion, we may even find ourselves trying to ‘fix’ the feelings it provokes through put-downs or other similar behaviour, and in the meantime we are going to make ourselves miserable.
The key to why this works is that when we let things go that we can’t control, nothing bad happens. The situation can’t get any worse, and generally we get to feel an awful lot better. For me, the relief I feel when I remind myself that a source of annoyance is fine, is none of my business, is akin to the surge of joy that would fill my lungs as a child when I realised it was a Saturday and I didn’t have to go to school. Thus the thought itself, if allowed to deeply settle, provides its own clear reward.
Any number of situations arise where the power of it’s fine can make itself felt.
Someone you know exhibits some behaviour that deeply irritates you. Now we have a way of dealing with it: we can identify that it isn’t within our control and tell ourselves it’s fine and none of our business. Even if that instruction it’s fine takes a while to truly make itself felt in our bones, we have a clear target that we are aiming for. We should not exacerbate things by ruminating on their behaviour or, for that matter, tell others how much they annoy us because they are always like that. We need to let that feeling of it’s fine sink in. Depending on the depth of our annoyance, we may not feel the calming flood of its cool waters immediately, but we can make sure their path is kept as free from obstruction as possible.
Epictetus has already given us the guideline for sorting through this: only the parts that concern what we think and do are worthy of our attention. The rest of it we can ignore. So in the case of hoping for a promotion, we are in control of how well we work, the time and effort we put into our jobs and, to an extent, making sure that our endeavours are visible to the people who might choose to reward us. Moreover, if we set about exercising this control with the thought ‘I will work as well as I can and furthermore make sure that my good work is visible’, we can make sure we achieve exactly that.
When we play a game of tennis, we are only partially in control of the outcome. If we fixate on the thought ‘I must win this game’, then we are trying to control something that we cannot. Our opponent might be better than us. He or she might start to beat us, and then we would feel like we were failing. We’d feel disappointment and anxiety. Failure is a disturbing feeling.
Instead, we can enter the game with the aim of ‘I will play this game as well as I can.’ Now we can make sure that we do that: how well we play is under our control. We may not win, but we can successfully play to the very best of our abilities as we intended. If our opponent starts to beat us, we are not failing. And again, it’s no coincidence that we will almost always play better when we approach a game with this attitude. We will feel less anxiety and pressure, and are far more likely to remain focused and comfortable. Our game improves.
It’s interesting that this Stoic ideal greatly reduces the likelihood of a feeling of failure. We should never aim to achieve anything that is out of our control, therefore we can always feel in control of the outcome. We may not play the game of tennis to the best of our ability, but at least all the variables involved in that task are under our power. If we don’t play as well as we hoped, we’ll know why and can correct it next time; this is not the same as pinning all our hopes on winning and then having them dashed by fortune when our opponent thrashes us. There is no anguish in the Stoic approach and plenty in the other.
Another area where our misplaced efforts to wield control tend to backfire is that very human concern, known to many but not to all, of wanting people to like us. Normally, when I meet new people, I want them to think well of me. If someone within that group is quiet and does not clearly signal that they approve – a response I arbitrarily equate with how much they laugh at my jokes – then I sometimes find myself persevering in an attempt to win over that person. At this point, I am stepping outside of what is in my control. I step up the gags, pay them too much attention and most likely overwhelm them. I make a dick of myself by trying too hard. If, instead, I were to pay attention to the Stoic fork and did not try to control what was beyond my domain, I might think ‘I will be the nicest and friendliest person I can be around people.’ Beyond that, how they choose to respond to me is their business, not mine. And I wouldn’t then find myself mentally reviewing my behaviour late at night, regretting a stupid comment I made and scolding myself for being an idiot.
The Stoics referred to these external things as ‘indifferents’. If we ultimately attach no importance to them, we can be sure that if they disappear from our lives, we won’t suffer too great a pain of missing them. ‘Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own,’ Epictetus says, ‘nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away.’
learn to desire what you already have, and you will have all you need.
Stoic route to valuing things is to accept that whether they come or go from our lives is not under our control. This understanding allows us to enjoy them even more, because we know that we will not have them in our lives forever.
We can look at the things and people we value each day with the knowledge that we will most likely lose them at some point, and love them all the more for that. One day your best friend may move away, and you may never see each other again. Loved ones may die or become estranged. Your partner, despite your promises to love each other forever, may one day leave you. In fact, it is inevitable: through death or choice, your closest relationships will end.
Remembering this invites us to express our feelings to those we love now while we can, to never take them for granted, and to not regret, when it’s too late, that they never knew how important they were to us.
Remind yourself that what you love is mortal, that what you love is not your own. It is granted to you for the present while, and not irrevocably, nor for ever, but like a fig or bunch of grapes in the appointed season; and if you long for it in the winter, you are a fool … Henceforth, whenever you take delight in anything, bring to mind the contrary impression. What harm is there while you are kissing your child to say softly, ‘Tomorrow you will die’; and likewise to your friend, ‘Tomorrow either you or I will go away, and we shall see each other no more’?
Presumably we are to speak such words quietly to ourselves rather than directly to our children and friends. Either way, it might strike us as a little morbid and unnecessary. But perhaps this is a matter of degree: to fixate upon the mortality of our children or the transience of most friendships would bring its own form of anxiety and defeat the Stoic purpose. But an occasional reminder of how lucky we are to have the gift of these relationships in our lives can only do us good. This must come from considering the sobering thought that they will one day come to an end.
If we knew these treasured relationships would last truly forever, to trip and dance through the Garden Immortal and never die, what effort would we make and for how long? Why buy flowers when they will never leave? Why value time spent together when you have infinite repetitions ahead of you? Would you still fall asleep with interlocked forms and whisper ‘I love you’ every night for the rest of time? Would you continue to surprise each other with breakfast on any of eternity’s mornings you chose, knowing that the rapture of either activity would be quickly lost in the tiniest flickering instant of infinity’s interminable drudge?
To treasure something is to hold on to it carefully, realising that it is precious and risks being lost or taken from us. It is only the finite nature of our relationships that gives them their meaning.
Unlike the Epicurean school, the Stoics did not call for a life of horticultural quarantine and simple carbohydrates. We remember they were active in the community, politically engaged and often very successful, to the extent that their detractors often accused them of hypocrisy. How might one balance apathy towards ‘externals’ or ‘indifferents’ with the accumulation of wealth or exerted efforts to bring about social change? The answer lies in their sub-category of ‘preferred indifferents’.
Thus it became permissible to prefer certain external things such as wealth, family and social position, as long as one didn’t become attached to them. Stoics do not have to eschew these comforts in the way the Cynics did, as their aim is merely to gain psychological robustness (virtue) through not needing or attempting to control anything in life beyond their thoughts and actions. Marcus Aurelius wrote admiringly of his adopted father, that he was able to enjoy great wealth ‘without arrogance and without apology. If [riches] were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn’t miss them.’
If, then, we can afford nice things or find them bestowed upon us, we should not feel bad about enjoying their presence in our lives. However, all the previous instructions still apply in full force: we are to keep a check on our relationship to external goods.
Regarding the desire to accumulate more luxuries, we should keep a check on our ‘impressions’ of such ‘appearances’ (how those external things affect us) and make sure that we remain, as much as possible, in charge of our emotions. The dangerous alternative as the great Stoic Chrysippus expressed it, is that we let our emotions direct us as if we were running downhill and unable to stop. We can prefer to have a comfortable home, a healthy income and a loving family. We may also prefer to push for change in the world where we see injustice. But a Stoic will be prepared for such projects to fail or be terminated by fate, through mentally rehearsing worst-case scenarios and, above all, taking care not to believe he is in control of such things in the first place. Fortune will always continue on her own path, providing one day and denying the next; the Stoic does not fight fate but quietly separates his business from hers.
The well-being of ourselves and others may be to us a ‘preferred indifferent’, and thus something to be enjoyed or secured where convenient, but it is ultimately an indifferent because it does not occupy that realm of actions and thoughts that is uniquely our concern. Things will not necessarily work out for the best. External events will proceed as planned without our involvement, and that knowledge can encourage us to treat them as they occur with a Stoic, qualified indifference.
when things irritate us, or when we feel as if the universe is conspiring against us, we would do well to remember that we are better off seeing those irritants as the strewn shavings on the carpenter’s floor and accepting that they are a natural by-product of a greater thing at work. There will always be people and events that get in the way of our plans. Thus we should not get too attached to our ambitions and realise that our tiny aims are an insignificant part of the myriad of plans, thwarted and realised, that make up the grand scheme of fortune as it continues to unravel itself.
Neither philosopher would discourage improving our lot – ‘Become who you are’ was Nietzsche’s rallying cry – or trying to ensure social change where it mattered. But these efforts notwithstanding, a key to living more happily is to simply decide that you are very happy with reality per se. We might as well be, because if we try to change things we cannot control, we are going to become angry and frustrated. Understanding we are only in control of our thoughts and actions, we can choose how to respond to events whenever they prove less than ideal, without making ourselves unhappy. It’s fine that people are rude or ignorant. It’s fine. If we were in their shoes, with their history and their current pressures, we would act the same way. We certainly shouldn’t let them make us act rudely or ignorantly out of frustration.
Anything on the other side of the line – anything other than our thoughts and actions – we can safely decide is fine.
Each of us is born into a world where we know no better than to internalise every message we receive as being one about us.
When others inspire us, they tend to do so through the clear expression of these sketchy, adumbrated thoughts we ourselves have known but never had the perspicacity to formulate with certainty.
Over a thousand years after Stoicism reached its popular height, Descartes described that his ambition was: To try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible.
Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.2
We are looking to tie our well-being to our own actions, not those of others. The idea is simple, but its execution can feel difficult.
But the Stoic path need not lead to a life that is self-centred, despite the reputation the school has amongst its critics. The fortitude that comes with only bothering ourselves with those things within our control allows us to then reach out more widely into the world and experience it in a generous and selfless way. Despite this talk of paying attention only to what lies within our power, when we combine that thought with an attitude of openness, it will allow us to connect in the best possible way with the human race at large.
We need to be able to step back and recognise when we are making choices as to how to behave or think, or acknowledge when an unhelpful choice has been made and supply counter-arguments to remedy the situation. If we are feeling angry, upset or hurt, it’s understandable, but we have forgotten ourselves. It may be unavoidable that we will feel some of these negative emotions, perhaps every day, but there is all the difference in the world between allowing them to take root (which comes from believing they are caused by external events and leads to us holding others accountable for our feelings) and accepting responsibility for them and seeing if we might correct them internally.
We know already the two big questions we might ask ourselves when we are feeling mad, bad or sad: I am responsible for how I feel about external events. What am I doing to give myself this feeling? Is this thing that’s upsetting me something which lies under my control? If not, what if I were to decide it’s fine and let it go?
once we have opened ourselves to the flood of relief that comes from relinquishing our annoyance at some external thing or person, it becomes a lot easier to secure the next time.
neurotic or anxious person prides herself on being ‘perceptive’ when it comes to people, as if the legacy of a perennially unsettling childhood would be powers of observation as cool and perspicacious as Sherlock Holmes himself. We all operate from the vantage point of our own deep fears, and we stand guard against any threat to them. This wariness we mistake for insight; we thus decide from a place of insecurity what truth is and find evidence for it everywhere.
The Stoic advice is offered to reduce our anxiety, and therefore the answer to such objections is usually simple: apply the advice where it’s useful.
We can benefit from remembering the words of the novelist David Foster Wallace: ‘You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do.’7
Guilt is attached to the past in the same way that fear is attached to the future. If we have let ourselves down, it is difficult, but highly therapeutic, to admit as much to ourselves and realise we could have done better; we make a mental note for next time, apologise if need be to the people concerned, and move on. We are fallible human beings and will make mistakes for the rest of our lives.
His aim, then, is not to avoid those he doesn’t like but to find a way around the clashing of personalities and achieve a harmonious relationship with all people. We must remember this if Stoicism ever seems detached and cold to us. Its ultimate aim is not an emotionless detachment from others but is rather about living in harmony with what the ancients called ‘Nature’ and being a productive part of humankind.
But now we can consider these people and events from a distance and while our centre of gravity is within us. What is in our control and what is not? Where, today, are we in danger of letting ourselves down and acting in a way that we would later regret? What are the alternatives, which we can mentally rehearse now and more easily employ when the time is right? Are we setting ourselves up for a fall? Demanding too much of others? Working with unrealistic expectations? How might it be absolutely fine if things don’t go as planned? How much would it truly matter if the contract isn’t secured, the meeting turns out to be unsuccessful, or the annoying loudmouth continues to act as he always does? Does having less demanding assumptions about how perfect our partner’s behaviour should be, and acknowledging responsibility for our own emotional responses, help clear the murky waters of last night? How about imagining how we would really feel if we lost them altogether? Might that remind us what we value about them? Can we imagine a more admirable way of handling reliably tricky situations?
Both Buddhists and Stoics also encourage us to rehearse ‘non-attachment’. They share a goal of tranquillity, to be reached through detaching oneself from the passions that tie us to worldly cares.
It might, however, start with a thirty-second reminder to be the best person we can be, to not attach our emotional well-being to things outside of us, to watch out for known trouble spots; likewise, we can round up the day with as brief a look back at how we behaved, whether we let ourselves down, if there’s anything we should change tomorrow. It should be neither prescriptive nor arduous.
We can step back from a situation and decide not to add to our first impressions by concocting a story that makes us feel bad. We can bring to mind helpful and familiar thoughts or questions when we need them, such as ‘Is this something in my control?’ or ‘Do I have a problem right now?’ When we remember, we might even get ahead of the game by contemplating the day before it happens and/or holding ourselves to account by reviewing our behaviour at night before we sleep.
Perhaps, then, to feel anger is unavoidable but not in itself helpful; the key is turning it into something constructive. We are angry because we would like to change something in the world (or maybe in ourselves), something that seems to be unjust.
‘When anger is present, neither marriage nor friendship is endurable; but when anger is absent, even drunkenness is no burden.’
Often a comment we have made in anger will bother us more after the event than at the time it will have upset the person to whom it was directed. He or she may have paid it little heed, but we might find ourselves guiltily obsessing over the remark as we chastise ourselves for being so short-tempered and worry at the damage we might have caused. This is better than being oblivious to the fact we have upset people but nonetheless creates a secondary source of misery.
Seneca describes the person in the grip of anger as ‘the executioner of those persons he holds most dear and destroyer of the things whose loss will soon make him weep’.
If we believe that people are essentially selfish and out for themselves, then our judgements that follow a trigger event will be very different from those of someone who believes people to be essentially decent and good-natured.
But we have, by absorbing the crux of Epictetus’s teaching (that it is not events that cause our problems but our appraisal of them), already made the biggest and most important leap. By fully accepting the fact that we are responsible for our angry responses (and not those who anger us), we are crossing the wide river to more tranquil pastures, from which it is very difficult to return.
We want to hang on to our anger because we feel we need it to effectively communicate something important. But this is wrong: it only gets in the way and makes people less likely to understand us. Perhaps it would help us to call anger by another name: panic.
Then, still obsessing over the event a day later, we are aware that to bring it up would seem ridiculous: an admission of our exhausting neurotic tendencies and one that would probably start the argument we wish to avoid.
‘You make me angry’ or ‘You are so weird’ is neither respectful nor truthful, because the anger and sense of weirdness do not come from the other person, they come from the story we have made up.
Instead, there is much power in simply stating how one feels as if it were one’s own problem: ‘I feel this way when you do that thing.’ By respectfully avoiding the other person’s fear triggers, and making no accusations, the thorny subject can usually be broached some time after the event without an argument ensuing.
Expressing our unhappiness in a sensitive way is one of the most productive things we can do in a relationship.
Psychologists, as we have noted, have now reversed their 1970s’ opinions and support this idea that venting our anger is not good for us. In fact, they have now empirically fortified the suggestion offered by Seneca (and observed in Socrates before him30) that we can affect our inner state by changing such outward features as our facial expression and our postures.
Seneca writes: Do you want to avoid losing your temper? Resist the impulse to be curious. The man who tries to find out what has been said against him, who seeks to unearth spiteful gossip, even when engaged in privately, is destroying his own peace of mind.
Plutarch offers: I also try to cut back a bit on my nosiness. I mean, knowing every single detail about everything, investigating and eliciting a slave’s every occupation, a friend’s every action, a son’s every pastime, a wife’s every whisper – this leads to many outbursts of anger, one after another every day, and these in turn add up to habitual discontent and surliness.
It is rare that we find ourselves in the position of overhearing people voicing their raw, unabashed opinions about us, unaware that we are listening. The act of eavesdropping brings with it a set of appropriate physiological responses that remind us we are doing something we shouldn’t. Our heart rate may increase, our breathing is likely to shift to our chest, our palms might sweat. Our bodies are telling us to flee: we should be anywhere but here, doing this. We know that our continuing curiosity is dangerous: either we force ourselves to listen, or we move away from the door.
Very many men manufacture complaints, either by suspecting what is untrue or by exaggerating the unimportant. Anger often comes to us, but more often we come to it. Never should we summon it; even when it falls on us, it should be cast off.
Mind-reading. If we momentarily package and stow my multi-award-winning, consistently envelope-pushing and hilariously lucrative performances neatly to one side, we must accept the conspicuous truth: we are terrible at reading each other’s thoughts. Yet we consistently behave as if we have been endowed with this entirely handsome ability. That person blanked us at the party because he was thinking, ‘I’ll ignore that idiot’. Our child repeatedly ignores our pleas to tidy her room because her thoughts are running as follows: ‘Ha, I’ll ignore Mum’s instructions and it will really wind her up. I don’t have to do anything she says’. Those who annoy us are doing it deliberately. Our boss is unsupportive because he can’t be bothered. We just know what is going on in their heads. If selective perception gives us the pre-chosen data from which to form our stories, mind-reading is a common means of building the narrative itself. In order to make this mistake, we must replay an event (the blanking at the party) or run through an imagined scenario (our child alone in her room) and dub over a commentary. It may happen briefly, but we must construct something along these lines in order to create an angry feeling. The point is: we could form a different commentary if we wished. We are choosing a hurtful or irritating one. We are doing exactly what we would recommend if we were setting out a step-by-step guide of how to feel rotten. A person we admire and have met a few times walks past us at a party, making eye contact but not acknowledging us. That is an event entirely without moral content: Remove your judgement about the supposed hurt and make up your mind to dismiss it, and your anger is gone. How then will you remove it? By reflecting that what hurts you is not morally bad.35 To make it bad, we must ‘add to first impressions’ and supply a thought-track. And a specific one at that. From the variety of possible trains of thought we might wish to attribute to this person at the moment they passed us, including a vast number which tell tales of a mind simply distracted (perhaps they were absorbed in the lyrics of the song playing in the background), we are sure to find the most hurtful possible: that of a conscious, deliberate snub.
Lacking the aerialist’s confidence in his significant, quantifiable skills, magicians commonly lack the hallmark of the truly successful: quiet charm.
While the evolutionary advantages of status are self-evident, it’s fascinating to me that despite our extraordinarily well-honed social radars, and the importance and appeal of getting on with people and being liked, we make such gross errors as thinking that being ‘impressive’ (in this least interesting sense) will make people like us.
We make two common mistakes when we try to be liked: we either try to impress or we try to be like the other person.
Yet we know, from every day of our own experience of liking and disliking other people, that status and similarity are not especially attractive traits. The vast majority of us are drawn to basic qualities such as warmth and openness. The person eager to impress, on the other hand, might find it very difficult to freely compliment people, believing somewhere in his complicated, overwrought thinking process that to commend another would be to denigrate himself. Ironically, he misses that self-abnegation is a powerful key to social appeal. To whom are we drawn – the person who lets us know how fascinating he is, or the person who lets us know how fascinating we are? To the person who listens to what we say and converses about things that are important to us, or the person who lets us talk only to prepare what he is going to say next about himself? People who prioritise impressing people rather than letting themselves be impressed by others make it hard for those others to like them.
Consider your friends: you have formed an affection for them despite their obvious points of deficiency, which you happily discuss when they are absent. These minor regrets, far from undermining your fondness, are in fact an important part of it; people’s vulnerabilities are near impossible to untangle from their strengths.
When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you’ll have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?
Seneca writes: Some men, it is true, have not only just but honourable reasons for standing against us: one is protecting a father, another a brother, another his country, another a friend; however, we do not pardon these for doing the very thing which we would blame them for not doing.42 No one says to himself, ‘I myself have done or could have done the thing that is making me angry now’.
We can’t blame others for doing what we would most likely have done if we found ourselves in the same circumstances. If we had been that annoyed, or that protective, or felt cornered or scared to the same degree, we would have done the same thing. It doesn’t matter if we think the other person has reacted over and above how we would; the point is that we, under the same psychological conditions, would have very likely done the same. It might have taken more to provoke us, but we know that we have the capacity, given the right circumstances, to be just as unpleasant or untoward.
There is at the heart of this anger a pang of existential melancholy: we play only peripheral parts in the lives of our friends. They are the chief protagonists of their own dramas; to them, we are merely supporting cast.
The psychiatrist-author Viktor E. Frankl, writing of his experiences in the concentration camp, finds this same truth in the most unthinkable circumstances, when he writes about the way in which prisoners placed in positions of authority granted meagre favours to their friends while others were denied: It is not for me to pass judgement on those prisoners who put their own above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favours his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
We are mitigating any future disappointment. It might sound pessimistic to qualify everything with such a reserve clause, and in a sense it is. It is a very valuable and life-enhancing form of pessimism.
Of course it is harder to get excited about a future event if we keep reminding ourselves it might not happen. We’re so indoctrinated against the idea of pessimism that it might seem as if we are actively denying ourselves a source of happiness through this exceptio. But consider the alternative. When we become very excited about a future event, we forget the present and place ourselves in the future. We are at the mercy of something outside of our control: whether or not the event happens as we would wish. It may turn out to be better than expected, or roughly the same, or worse. The more excited we are, the more likely it is to fail to meet our expectations, in the same way that something we dread is likely to not be half as bad as we feared.
The Stoics would not deny us feelings of excitement, but they would encourage us to retain this little reminder that we’re not ultimately in control. And this is done with a view to increasing our happiness. If the event turns out to be a success, then that’s a wonderful bonus. If it’s less than we might have otherwise hoped, we’ll be pleased we kept our expectations in check. And of course this reminder reflects the reality of that recurring diagonal: we may aim high but fate will do its own thing.
Do not seek to have events happen to you as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.51
And to repeat myself, the Stoics are not promoting apathy, indifference and resignation. Their variety of non-attachment comes from a very engaged place. We are not being told to shrug like a recalcitrant teenager. The Stoics were movers and shakers. The key is to remember that game of tennis. You still try to the best of your abilities. You play as well as you can. That realm of your thoughts and actions is under your control, and you are in charge. Whatever your role is – parent, sibling, citizen, worker, role model, president – you can do that thing in an exemplary fashion. Be the best you can be at what you are. Engage; inspire. Where there is injustice, and where it is under your control to make a difference, use your abilities to create change. But don’t ultimately emotionally commit yourself to the outcome. That’s out of your hands. You are not playing to necessarily win; you’re just playing as well as you possibly can.
We can only guarantee success in trying our best. The desired outcome in the world may prove impossible, but having succeeded in our private aims, we won’t be ruined by a feeling of crushing failure.
We can aim high, seek to change the world, yet always be satisfied with the outcome. The Stoics have taken the reclusive Epicurean instruction to desire only what you already have, and allowed it to be active, engaged and vital.
aside from rare cases of true injustice (when we must move from anger to ensuring progress), we can be assured that most of our fuming and moaning is just that: noise.
It is neither pleasant to listen to nor convincing. It is a symptom of gross self-orientation, of egocentricity. It may not come naturally in the moment, but our aim should be to abnegate this bloated, boorish self and move towards our apparent aggressor.
Lowering our expectations of the people around us is not to live at their whim and let them ‘get away with anything’; it is to stop obtruding our stories and priorities upon those of others and then whining when they don’t match up.
Anger is just proof of how unrealistic your expectations were.
What can we expect from making these changes? Philosophy exists to enhance every aspect of our lives, not just fix some parts that are broken. Above all, we can look forward to a greater feeling of connectedness with others when we make these shifts. No longer mistaking our judgements about events for the events themselves; being open to the complex narratives that lead to the imperfect behaviours of others; deflating our exalted sense of self to a more modest measure; letting our experience of others decide what’s realistic to expect.
‘Composure, calmness and charity is nowhere near as kind and considerate and inoffensive to those who come across it as to those who possess it.’53 We are ultimately made happier by being less angry, in fact happier than we’ll make other people. Our aim is to improve our happiness; we needn’t feel ashamed about this point. Psychologists have demonstrated that people gain more pleasure from acting altruistically than being on the receiving ends of such acts.54 Far from undermining the point of kindness, this serves as a reminder that it’s good for us.
We can forgive ourselves every time we act or think in old ways, while a happier and more tolerant connection to people is quietly and firmly attained. Likewise, we substitute the optimism of modern positive thinking with the disarming but prudent pessimism of lowering our expectations in order to feel ultimately happier. A rationally adjusted relationship with the world creates less room for distress. What acts as a barrier to accepting this? Once again, our inflated egos. You may protest, ‘I’m not going to blame myself for other people’s idiocy! I’m not going to just settle for whatever comes my way! I deserve more than that!’ Well, then, you still miss the point. To talk in terms of what you ‘deserve’ is meaningless and usually leads to personal indignation, as what you feel you deserve will most likely outstrip whatever you currently have or can easily obtain.
At the same time, now that religion has lost its grasp on most of us, we have free-floating needs for intense attachment, powerful role models and immortal figures. Our favourite stars (the celestial implication of the word is not coincidental) focus that need rather well. In a secular and capitalist culture, our new gods are rock stars and actors. Fan sites operate as churches where the devoted come together and pore over every utterance of their idols; individuals boast of or invent a personal relationship with the celebrity in question; ‘rival churches’ form, as a large fan base splinters into separate and faintly hostile factions, each of which likes to believe that it is most favoured by its particular god and knows the correct way to carry out its secular form of worship. Stars are suitably distant to not disappoint us with their human traits and foibles, and reach us only through the priesthood of PR and media machinery. Young, impressionable followers might fall into ecstatic states when they find themselves in the presence of those they worship, particularly at orchestrated, quasi-religious events such as rock concerts. Meanwhile, the best examples of celebrity, like Elvis, can posthumously transfigure into something close to divine.
In a sense, much of this book concerns the value of understanding that distinction: we’re switching our focus to removing needless frustrations, not chasing happiness.
The belief that we would be extremely happy if we were extremely rich is so widespread that it’s worth repeating: after the point of being financially comfortable, more money does not make you happier. Money constitutes a relationship, and like any relationship, we need a certain amount of mindfulness in place to get it right.
My happiness seems to me no more attached to what I earn (once past that watershed point of not having money troubles) than it does to my wallpaper. And I know more than my fair share of wealthy people and they’ll tell you the same.
Money, fame and success exist on the other side of that line in the realm of external indifferents: nice to have, but outside of our jurisdiction. They may be rewarding by-products, but they will never prove gratifying if they are chased directly.
Armstrong, meanwhile, makes a refreshing point. He says we should pay attention to what we need. He emphatically does not mean by this that we should simply be frugal. Instead, as part of a considered life, he suggests we become more aware of what our priorities are: what we need to flourish. Some commodities will help us do that, and they may indeed be expensive or appear luxurious to others. Advertisers will tell us what we require to feel good about ourselves, but those things don’t correlate with what we actually need to do ourselves justice.
Tidy narratives are things we choose to apply; meanwhile, experience is messy and active and not reducible to these clean nouns and designations.
Marcus’s long view may not deter many of today’s seekers after fame, but it might help the already celebrated put their careers and goals into perspective. Meanwhile, we continue to seek renown because, perhaps, the accumulation of riches and popularity effectively distracts us from the fact that at some point we must give it all up and leave this Earth.
Palaces are most beautiful when viewed from afar, and stars shine most brightly from a distance.
Fame and riches should only ever be seen as fortuitous side effects. But they are more likely to come if you focus on developing what is under your control: your talent and energy.
To align ourselves along that x=y axis through life, shifting our expectations to work with reality, reminding ourselves that things may not work out as we expect, that we may lose the things we value, that things come and go: all this we know is to aim for a kind of tranquillity.
As priorities change, regrets may surface. Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse working in palliative care, recorded what she perceived to be the top five regrets of the dying. They were: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
So although the instruction to pay more attention to the present moment is helpful in a culture that teaches us to prioritise distant horizons of career success, we should also be wary of fetishising the here and now. It is not ‘correct’ to live in the moment, for the very reason that we are storytellers and right now is always part of a continuing narrative. We know from Kahneman’s work on the remembering and experiencing selves that how you look back on this moment will be more conducive to deciding if it’s a happy one than how you feel about it right now.
Yet that fifth regret – ‘I wish that I had let myself be happier’ – does rather linger in the air, does it not? Here we are, convinced that our priority in life, in one form or another, is our happiness. We work hard to secure money to sustain a family and a home because we know they will make us happy. We endlessly buy things – often more than we can afford – because we are convinced they will make us happy too, at least for a while. We please others to avoid confrontation and ‘keep everyone happy’, including ourselves. One survey tells us we watch television for four times longer than we spend talking to people, and twenty times longer than we engage in religious activities, although we report that communication, worship and meditation make us far happier than TV.4 Yet at the end, we are likely to feel a pang that we could have allowed ourselves to be happier. As if the idea had never occurred to us.
You’ll never regret falling in love. Do so over and over again. Lower your standards if necessary. It might lead to heartbreak now and then, but it’ll always be worth it in the end.
If you work in a creative field, and you are faced with a choice of doing a job for the money or doing a job for the fun of it, take the fun one whenever you can. You’ll rarely enjoy the work you do for money.
Look at what takes up your time and see what is worth doing and what is not. Think about what provides enjoyment, connectivity, a sense of fulfilment, and what, when you look back, will have been a waste of time or stifled you. Look for ways of removing those latter activities from your life. Not only does this offer the benefit of removing negative behaviours, it also engages you with the considered life. Suddenly you have a vantage point from which to view your behaviour, and from there you can give your life shape and meaning.
I have extended the ‘good-enough’ theory to most of my life and now my death. We are, at times, so often obsessed or feel pressurised into ‘being the best at …, the fastest at …, the cleverest at …’ I genuinely worry about all of this positive thinking/life coaching!
It is undoubtedly excellent to strive to achieve one’s maximum potential, but that should be to please ourselves, not be judged by others, and for me having led a ‘good-enough’ life with its share of wonders and disasters, I am content and so, ready for a ‘good-enough’ death.
We should live in the present while we plan for the future. Remembering the Stoic reserve clause of ‘if things work out’ (or ‘God willing’) we can make plans without investing ourselves with undue emotion in their outcomes. Achieving a balance will be good enough. This means we align ourselves with that x=y diagonal as much as we can. We can wish, as much as we remember to do so, not for things to be exactly as they are per se, but for things to be however they happen to be. Thus the future can lie in our sights, but without the brute clarity and single-mindedness with which any number of self-help gurus tell us to picture it. We can save much of the clear-sighted engagement for the present.
THE STOICS HAVE given us a means of increasing our happiness by avoiding disturbance and embracing what they called ‘virtue’. Through taking to heart their pithily expressed maxims, echoed in future generations by subsequent philosophers, we might move in greater accordance with fate and align ourselves more realistically with the x=y diagonal of real life, where our aims and fortune wrestle with each other constantly. We have seen the wisdom of not trying to control what we cannot, and of taking responsibility for our judgements. Otherwise, we harm ourselves and others by becoming anxious, hurtful or intolerable. We have learnt to approach happiness indirectly, concentrating instead upon removing hindrances and disturbances and achieving a certain psychological robustness.
Stoicism offers us great lessons and helpful threads to weave through our lives. As I hope I’ve shown, it is at its best neither cool nor detached but rather open, porous and connected easily to life.
It may seem an odd question to ask at this point in the book, but is happiness truly what we should seek? And if so, is it in its richest form synonymous with an avoidance of disturbance? Having perhaps convinced you of those things, I’d like to leave you by undoing those convictions.
In matters of love, a mature relationship involves celebrating the mystery and wholeness of one’s partner. It is standing in appreciation of their otherness, not neurotically attempting to obliterate it because at some level their separation from us might trigger responses we once had to a fallible, unavailable parent. It is realising that we are each of us alone, that no one is ever entirely right for us because we are all broken, and that we can only open our broken aloneness to that of another.
A good relationship, like a good parent or a good death, need only be ‘good enough’, consisting of two people navigating each other’s inadequacies with kindness and sympathy.
At its best, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke tells us, it ‘consists in two solitudes protecting, defining, and welcoming one another’.
The Stoic approach is effective for ensuring greater levels of tranquillity, and for most of the time that’s likely to be enough. But not all of the time. For if we live a diminished life driven by a fear that tells us we are in some sense unworthy, our concept of happiness may remain similarly limited.
The Stoics tell us to ‘remove disturbances’, but for some this might come to mean ‘hiding away safely’ where nothing can harm them. This is a meagre substitute for flourishing. Our ultimate aim is maybe not so much to be happy as to live fully and make sure we are moving forward.
Why? Because the Stoics can’t always be right. We cannot demand from them a formula for our happiness, because no such formula exists; happiness is messy and fuzzy and active. Can disturbance be a good thing? Why would we not wish to pay attention to these disturbances if they have something to teach us? Anxiety is a signal that we are not in harmony with ourselves. Who is? It is good to detach from worthless sources of worry but also vital for our flourishing to listen to those rumblings and see from whence they arise. What does this disturbing feeling remind us of from our past? What fear lies half-hidden behind this dread? What part of myself am I closing off? Why is this obviously important?
Very few people find a better partner without the pain of breaking up with a previous one. We don’t change our career without first letting our current job get us down. We don’t start anything new without the pain of ending the old or the frustration of enduring it. Disturbance, then, can be a signal that we are moving in the right direction: namely, out of our comfort zone. To remain tranquil and comfortable would deny us our growth. To remain happy would stop us from flourishing.
We might sometimes pay patient heed to our sorrow, allow it to penetrate into us, knowing that it is an important articulation of what was already there. It is showing us that something demands our attention. We do not need to fear the world, or treat it with suspicion. Any monsters that dwell there are our own.
The final call, then, is not to merely seek tranquillity but, from its strong shores, to welcome its opposite. It is a strong society that encourages dialogue with its enemies, and a fearful one that promulgates reductive nouns and categories (such as ‘Terror’) to demonise and avoid the unsettling complexities of active, untidy reality.
By saying this, I’m making a psychological point: that we can still view spirituality (in regard to having a sense of meaning, and a conscious dialogue with what lies beneath) as an important internal experience, perhaps more important than ever in this age of addiction and distraction. It is an experience that has come to be overlooked since the Enlightenment project began, and which seems entirely disconnected from most of today’s religious practices and the honeyed sentiments peddled in New Age bookshops.
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