As someone concerned with self-improvement and personal development, my path has led me to various philosophical disciplines. Nowadays there is a huge interest in thousand-year-old teachings. People want to change their lives, they want to become healthier, wealthier and wiser. It seems like philosophy could help us in our way.
Why we need a philosophy of life
The rising interest in philosophy is also because of popular culture. Many TV Shows implement philosophical questions in their stories. Netflix’s original series “BoJack Horseman” is all about Nihilism and the endless search for meaning in life. Due to these shows, we challenge our thoughts and seek new models to form our own beliefs. Here philosophy comes in handy.
It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a student of Stoicism, Zen or any other philosophical school. Undoubtedly, we need wisdom in our lives. As we grow older, we should become wiser and be leading a happier life. In time, we learn to adapt to life itself. But the path alone to wisdom helps us endure all the sufferings bound to day-to-day life. This is the true meaning of philosophy. Answering the suffering, answering all the questions of our lives.
This seems abstract. If we want philosophy to be a part of our lives, the abstraction is also the biggest challenge we must overcome: how do we implement such a strange concept into day-to-day life?
The importance of making the right choices
We fill our lives with questions, which often appear as choices we have to make. Every day we make decisions that impact our future. A strong human being would be consistent in making these decisions. He would have a model of thought, a code of conduct, by wish he always makes the right decision. At least to his standard. But this is everything he can do.
I had this dream of making consistent right choices in every decision in my life, after watching the crime series “Dexter.” If you aren’t familiar with the show: Dexter Morgan is a forensic scientist that works for the Miami police department. Yet, he has a huge secret: He is a serial killer by his very nature, he can’t live without murdering people. His adoptive father realized there was no way to get rid of his addiction. So instead he taught young Dexter how to use his lust for murder for the greater good. Dexter Morgan kills only after a strong code of conduct. He only kills people with a heavy criminal record and only to protect his family. By having this code, he instantly knows to make the right choices according to his beliefs.
Many religions offer a similar way of conduct. The old testament offers the Ten commandments to dictate the life of every Christian. Judaism has even a stricter code of conduct. Rules are imposing what you wear, what you eat, how you marry and so on.
At first, you might ask yourself: if this is really what philosophy is about, I am not interested. And you may be right: why should anyone impose rules on oneself, if we can be free to do what we want?
A. J. Jacobs documents in his book “The year of living biblically” his quest to live by every rule in the bible for an entire year. He recounts in an interview with Tim Ferriss the results of this rather radical self-experiment. Contrarily to what we may have thought, he described the rules as being liberating. By taking care of unimportant choices he had to make during everyday life, he had more time to focus on things that mattered. He could “increase his output.”
Barry Schwartz’s classic “The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less” focuses on the same principle. He argues that the more choices we have to make, the more we will feel overwhelmed and stressed. Therefore, finding a philosophy for your life is to find a model by which you can decide in a blink of an eye and know instantly if you are right or wrong.
The importance of habits
The most common approach to this kind of life is daily affirmations of your missions. We must be grounded in our beliefs. The power of habits is not to be underestimated. We grow and become the things we do every day. Therefore, we have to focus on our old habits more than we do on finding new ones to incorporate in our life.
This is a trap that I often fall into. I am on a streak of exercising daily and switch things up by trying out a new workout routine on YouTube. I often get discouraged by this and stop exercising all together. Some things are undoubtedly good for your life. I am talking about exercising, meditating, eating healthy, being kind and so on. Benjamin Franklin had a strict habit routine he modeled his life after. Every day he knew what had to be done. He could leave parts of his life to autopilot, by which he had more force and will to focus on things that mattered. I remember him to this day as one of the prime models of productivity.
Defining the purpose of our life
Defining our purpose in life results from a daily study of wisdom. The person we want to be, the person we admire and are on the way to become.
To work on this ideal is a daily struggle. A life philosophy should not change unless proven wrong.
As Seneca puts it: “Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but facts.” Your philosophy should not be something you show off in public. It’s nothing to embellish your ego. It’s simply the backbone of all your activities, and consequently your entire life. Your philosophy is the art of making the right choices in life, a guide through every moment, to remain on your right path.
Every person needs advice. This advice could and should be found in philosophy.
How to find your life philosophy
Seneca gives us precious advice on how to connect the dots of every action we make:
“Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary”
Every action has to have a defined goal in mind. Seneca speaks of desires; he means the initial motivation behind every move we make. If we want to eat a piece of cake, we want to satisfy our cravings. Yet these cravings don’t lead us anywhere. They don’t have a finite goal in mind. They don’t make the greater picture any clearer. We need a greater goal. One that is finite, one where no other goals are behind. One that may never be accomplished but serves as a director.
Such goals can be peace or love. They are abstract by nature because they are not meant to be achieved. They are a guide. Defining these goals lies in our hands. We may keep a list of goals we have for our lives. These goals are values we live and die for. It’s hard to keep such a list. I tried making one year ago, and over the years it has changed a lot. I no longer value happiness as much as I used to. I no longer put friends over family.
As Seneca puts it, this search for values can take a while. Studying stoicism and other philosophies is a means of understanding yourself better and pick up values for your own life. You should never consider yourself a stoic but a student of stoicism. Don’t give up on your individuality. Make the right choice of things you want to die for.
Finding your life philosophy can’t be found in any other way. Decide which virtues you pursue. I challenge you to write goals and qualities down that you admire in your role models. Seek for virtues you want to implement in your own life.
For instance, I took two personal role models of mine, Jesus and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They both represent two aspects of choice-making: Jesus represents the philanthropic side I want to have in every decision, Arnold represents goal orientation and success. I underlined virtues that represent these aspects the most in both role models, respectively. Kindness and Compassion are virtues I want in every action and situation in my life, as well as Commitment and Tenacity. These are qualities I want to work on every day and which bring me further to the person I want to be.
Knowing my virtues, I know how to act. I can even establish a personal code of conduct with certain rules. Yet you can’t keep every rule in mind when you face a decision. It’s easier to ask yourself, “Will I be kind?” instead of searching for contractions with your rules. Therefore, your virtues should be limited to a minimum. If they are to be handy, they ought to be few.
Finding your life philosophy is simple: your actions have to be consistent and lead you to the person you want to be. Achieving this is a long tenacious process of self-discovery and questioning, but ultimately it will lead you to a better life.