A Guide To Happiness —Seneca’s Five Essential Lessons That Will Help You Live A Happier Life
“A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.” ~Seneca
You want to be happy. Everyone wants to be. It’s one of the greatest goals of life. The pursuit of happiness.
But the reality is that most people are not happy. Not because they are incapable of happiness. Not because they don’t deserve it. Not because it’s impossible. But because they have not studied what happiness really is.
Happiness is an art, and like all arts, it must be practiced, refined, and made from a raw idea into something polished and beautiful.
To call happiness a pursuit is disingenuous. Most people chase after it. They buy things, they eat things, they pursue wealth and fame and fortune, but none of these things guarantee happiness. The only guarantee can be found within. It is a state of mind, and like all mindsets, it must first be nurtured — and then protected.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 B.C. — A.D. 65), Roman statesman and stoic philosopher, recognized that happiness is an internal affair. Taken from a widely popular collection of his writings, Letters from a Stoic, these are five of his timeless life lessons on what happiness is — and how to keep it.
#1 — Attitude Is Everything
“A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness. Even if some obstacle to this comes on the scene, its appearance is only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front of the sun without ever defeating its light.”
Attitude is everything — eliminating the bad ones, and nurturing the good ones. Because it is your character, your attitude, that determines how you react to things — and what you do about life’s obstacles is of monumental importance.
You can see a setback as a failure. Or you can see it as a lesson and use it as fuel towards greater effort.
You can see a long line as an inconvenience. Or you can see it as an opportunity to practice patience.
You can see a rejection as a permanent mark of your inability. Or you can see it is a stepping stone in your journey to greatness.
When you have the right attitude, nothing can stop you. When you have the wrong attitude, almost anything can.
And unlike surroundings, you can’t run away from your attitude — you cannot escape yourself. It’s not where you are that contributes to your peace of mind, as Seneca says, but the spirit.
In a letter to his friend, Seneca illustrates the paramount importance of fixing your attitude and inner turmoil before you can truly enjoy the good life — and how running away is futile.
“How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away . . . How can novelty of surroundings abroad and becoming acquainted with foreign scenes or cities be of any help? All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile. And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you . . . Once you have rid yourself of the affliction there, though, every change of scene will become a pleasure. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there . . . The good life, is available everywhere.”
With the right attitude, you can be happy anywhere, any time. Nothing can stop that.
#2 —Don’t Compare Yourself To Others As Much As Your Own Self
“Continually remind yourself, Lucilius, of the many things you have achieved. When you look at all the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you. If you want to feel appreciative where the gods and your life are concerned, just think how many people you’ve outdone. Why be concerned about others, come to that, when you’ve outdone your own self?”
It is so easy to look at other successful people and feel miserable in comparison. Every moment of the day we are bombarded with information, and all the time we hear of those famous people, what they’re doing, and how great they are. Society is fashioned around this sort of idolization.
That is no formula for happiness.
When you compare yourself to others you are looking for all the things you don’t have, at all the things you haven’t accomplished. You are selling yourself short — instead of focusing on making groundbreaking progress in your own life, you are wasting your precious time bemoaning how you don’t match up to someone else.
“‘Any man,’ says Epicurus, ‘who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.’”
Don’t compare yourself to others. It will sap the joy from all your worthy accomplishments. Instead, as Seneca suggests, the only person you should seek to outdo is who you were yesterday. Improve on that every day and you will outgrow all those people you were so envious of.
You are on this planet to do something wonderful, something that only you can do. Focus on that — on your journey, not the journeys of others.
#3 — Love And Be Loved
“There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”
You can have all the possessions under sun, but if you are alone, if you do not have people in your life to love and share your success with, you will not be happy. That is a simple condition of what it means to be human.
We were not meant to be alone. We were meant for each other.
Never let your pursuit of success be at the expense of your family and friends. In the end, most of your happiness comes from these relationships — and without them, most of your happiness is sunken into the depths of loneliness.
Do not make the mistake most people do: asking for love from others without first giving it. That is the selfish approach to love, and that makes it no love at all. Instead, do as Seneca echoes in the words of Hecato . . .
“If you wish to be loved, love.”
If you wish to be happy, love others without condition — for in life, you only get what you first give. Your world is a reflection of you.
Be a giver. Love and be loved.
#4 — Do Not Harm Others
“Never to wrong others takes one a long way towards peace of mind. People who know no self-restraint lead stormy and disordered lives, passing their time in a state of fear commensurate with the injuries they do to others, never able to relax.”
Happiness is compounded or depleted by your actions. And there are few actions more destructive than harming others. If you live in such a way, being a terror to those around you, a bully, you will poison all chances of true peace of mind and contentment.
Why is this so? Seneca notes that harming others harms you —that to be feared is to fear. And in no better way is the suffering of a wrongdoer described than in his brilliant passage:
“After every act they tremble, paralyzed, their consciousness continually demanding an answer, not allowing them to get on with other things. To expect punishment is to suffer it; and to earn it is to expect it. Where there is a bad conscience, some circumstance or other may provide one with impunity, but never with freedom from anxiety — for a person takes the attitude that even if he isn’t found out, there’s always the possibility of it. His sleep is troubled. Whenever he talks about someone else’s misdeed he thinks of his own, all too inadequately hidden, all too inadequately blotted out of people’s memories. A guilty person sometimes has the luck to escape detection, but never to feel sure of it . . .”
To wrong others is to imprison yourself to fear and anxiety. Even in the small things, the little harms, there is pain, for your conscience is a judicious observer. Instead, love and help others— and if you do harm, do not let pride keep you from making things right.
Here is one thing that will lift many burdens from your soul:
#5 — Cherish The Present
“Life’s finest days, for us poor human beings, fly first . . . Every day as it comes should be welcomed and reduced forthwith into our own possession as if it were the finest day imaginable. What flies past has to be seized at.”
We all must think ahead to an extent. We must plan and set goals to craft a wonderful life. But there is a limit to that. You can think all day about tomorrow, you can plan and scheme, but in the end you will be missing your only opportunity for happiness: this very moment.
Life is short. We all die eventually. What sets apart the happy from the miserable is that the happy truly lived their lives, while the rest let it fly past. Cherish every morning you wake up. Look at every day you are blessed with as a gift, as the most wonderful day of your life — don’t miss it.
And don’t let the future steal from the present.
“For the only safe harbor in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”
Do not become a victim of the things that have not even happened yet. Most of the time these terrible possibilities never come to pass anyway. And if they do? As Seneca notes, that is part of life — and it is our duty to face it.
“One has to accept life . . . Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’re started on . . . Let the personality be made ready to face everything . . . These are conditions of our existence which we cannot change. What we can do is adopt a noble spirit, such a spirit as befits a good man, so that we may bear up bravely under all that fortune sends us . . .”
Be strong. Be brave. Face life’s challenges with courage. Happiness does not mean living without difficulty. Happiness means living well despite it.
So if you want to be happy, cherish the only time you truly have: the present.
Call To Action:
Everyone wants to be happy, and happiness need not be an elusive, difficult pursuit. Happiness is with you at this very moment, waiting for you to seize it. And you will. For you understand the art of happy living.
You cultivate the attitudes that will make you unstoppable.
You focus on your path, improving on yourself day by day.
You treat others with kindness, and always mend your wrongs.
You give love freely, without condition.
You cherish the present and live your life day by day.
And because you do these things, happiness will be no stranger to you. For happiness is there. Always there.