A Brief Guide to Happiness
Six simple Stoic teachings on how to live well
Many centuries ago, a school of thought was founded that would go on to influence the lives of many people across the globe. It had one simple yet overwhelming goal: to teach people how to remain calm and happy in the face of emotional pain.
That school was later named Stoicism, and the philosophy it rests upon can be summarized by one key quotation from Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius:
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
You may indeed have heard of the word Stoic before, meaning to endure hardship without showing feeling or expressing complaint. One might be told to remain stoic when their boss decides to make them redundant, or when a spider begins to crawl across their dining room floor.
Beneath that tiny five-letter word adjective lies a mine of philosophical wisdom — and whether you’re philosophically-inclined or not, that wisdom may just be the missing key to the happiness puzzle that you’ve been searching for.
The Keys to Happiness: Six Stoic Wellness Principles
In 161 AD, perhaps the most renowned, powerful and revered Roman emperor came to power. His name was Marcus Aurelius.
Aurelius didn’t become a household name because of his ruthlessness and notoriety like other emperors of his time. Historians refer to Aurelius as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ because he ruled his empire not with an iron fist, but with wisdom, justice, and integrity.
Throughout his time ruling Rome, Aurelius had many great thoughts and ideas about what it means to be happy in the face of adversity. During his years of struggle against opposing armies and rebellious citizens, Marcus went on to write a total of twelve books, noting down his musings and reflections.
What began as Marcus’s personal journals have since become some of the most influential texts across the entire school of philosophy.
For the remainder of this article, I’ll be covering some of the most insightful lessons contained within these journals, as well as other Stoic writings.
1. Fight Fire With Water
One of Aurelius’s most widely-quoted pearls of wisdom is the following:
“As an antidote to battle unkindness we were given kindness.”
It’s a simple lesson, and it’s also one that we’ve all heard before. As the old maxim goes, ‘fight fire with fire, and you’ll only get burned.’ In any situation, approaching an act of injustice with equal injustice will not resolve matters, but certainly make them worse.
Both kindness and unkindness will continue to exist only for as long as they are employed. You will encounter difficult people on an almost daily basis, and the actions of these people will be of detriment to your happiness for as long as you continue to react with aggression and revenge.
Only you can decide to respond to rudeness, impatience, betrayal, prejudice, and intimidation with the one action far greater than them all: kindness.
2. Don’t Waste Time Pursuing Desire or Status
In his works, Aurelius repeatedly explains how the pursuit of fame, praise or status is pointless and downright foolish. No matter how great or noble you are thought to be, fame will always fade into insignificance once our life is over.
“Consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events which go before are soon covered by those which come after.”
Furthermore, even if we do acquire fame or popularity in our lives, the beauty of any thing is defined not by the positive things said about it, but by the inherent value of the thing itself.
“When you’ve done well and another has benefited by it, why like a fool do you look for a third thing on top — credit for the good deed or a favor in return?”
Doing good things for both ourselves and others is enough. If we ever perform an action with the intention of reaping some social reward or becoming famous, we will never be happy.
The desire for status is just one of many problematic desires. There are infinite amounts of others which can and will lead to misery. The desire for pleasure may drive us toward overindulgence, extramarital affairs and laziness — which all will lead to unhappiness in the end.
We must remind ourselves not to hopelessly chase our desires like lost sheep, but to focus on how we can bring about more good in the world.
3. Come to Terms With Your Worst-Case Scenario
At any given moment, all manner of terrible things could happen. It’s natural to feel anxiety about such prospects, and equally as reassuring to be reminded by friends that everything will be okay.
The Stoics, however, strongly opposed this approach — of reminding ourselves that things will be just fine. Rather than viewing everything through rose-colored lenses, they teach that we should crush every last vestige of hope and become well-acquainted with our greatest fears.
When we get really good at looking our fears in the eyes and deeply imagining what they might be like if they came true, one thing becomes clear. We would be able to cope.
Around a year ago, my fiancé was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. For many months I clung to every fiber of hope I could muster — every sliver and morsel and crumb that reassured me everything would be okay, that soon we could return to the old days and continue with our normal lives.
While that helped in the short term, every moment which challenged those hopeful daydreams sent me spiraling downwards into anxiety and depression. I was on an emotional rollercoaster.
Stoicism taught me to accept that the worst-case scenario, losing her, could indeed come true. And if it did, against all of my personal doubts, I could cope.
I’m all for remaining hopeful. I’m an optimist and always have been, but that doesn’t mean we should live in denial. To cope with our worst-case scenario, we have to remove one fatal element. Surprise. Without that, nothing can catch us off guard, and the shock of the fall is half of the battle.
4. Forget the Things You Can’t Control
Some things are within our power, others aren’t. There are prospects and variables that we can control whilst some will happen independently of our greatest efforts.
To avoid misery and anxiety, we must focus solely on that which we can control. We must carefully distinguish between what is up to us and what is not.
The only things on this earth that we have complete power over are our own thoughts, judgments, and actions. Nothing else — not even our body, reputation, health, job or any external event is entirely within our control.
Ironically, we typically act in haste and without giving much thought to our actions. Yet we also seem to immerse ourselves fully and trust entirely our mental anxieties and fears. We pay far more attention to the things which we cannot control than those that we can. And therein lies the problem.
“The essence of [Stoic] philosophy is that we should live so that our happiness depends as little as possible on external causes.” — Epictetus
To truly be happy and free from negative emotions, we must accept that some things will happen regardless of what we do, and that those things do not warrant our concern. Instead, we must direct our efforts towards the outcomes that we can influence. We are responsible for our flourishing because all that truly matters in life is up to us.
As Epictetus writes,
“Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.”
5. Turn Obstacles Into Opportunities
You can only control your own actions, as we have established. When presented with obstacles in our lives, many of us have a tendency to ruminate and complain, focusing at length on the problem itself.
Perception is vital. Perception is how we see the things around us and the meanings we attach to the events in our lives. Our perceptions can act either as a weight on our shoulders or wings with which we can fly.
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” — Marcus Aurelius
Each obstacle, big or small, is an opportunity for personal growth. We’re always given the choice either to bury our head in the sand or keep pushing forward — to keep growing.
Perseverance in the face of adversity is growth in itself. It builds character, teaching us new things about ourselves and our emotional resilience. It follows, therefore, that we should see hurdles not as obstacles, but as opportunities to learn and improve.
6. Be Mindful
The key to living in accordance with virtually any philosophy, principle or school of thought, as well as living happily in general, is mindfulness. Other than being present, how else could you intentionally apply any amount of wisdom to your day-to-day life?
Not only is mindfulness essential to practical philosophy, but more, most of our emotional pain arises from not being truly present. Are we focused on this moment when we’re ruminating about the past or fretting over the future? Of course not.
The final piece of the happiness puzzle is mindfulness — to live wholly in the now. Drink your coffee with awareness of the smells, tastes, and comforting warmth. Listen intently to your loved ones. Be at one with each moment.
“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn
Indeed, they are great and significant. Each new moment is an opportunity for us to fully connect with ourselves and the world around us. Everything that you do, everything that you feel, everything that you experience — do it mindfully. You’ll quickly find that mindfulness makes it very difficult to feel unhappy.
With a little help from Stoic philosophy, happiness doesn’t seem like such an impossible goal to attain. Before finishing, let’s summarise the six key points made in this article.
- Tackle unkindness with kindness. Don’t get swept up in the anger of another. Instead, fight fire with water; unkindness with kindness. Make an effort to spread positivity. Those that approach you with malice or contempt will be caught off guard by your warmth and they’ll soon be converted to your way of thinking.
- Forget about fame. No matter who you impress in your life, one day you will be forgotten. Spending your time and efforts searching for social status and approval is pointless. It’ll only make you miserable. Instead, focus on how you can do more good for other people.
- Come to terms with your worst fears. While hope is important, it usually makes bad situations more difficult to deal with in the end. The Stoics teach us to imagine our fears deeply, accepting them as real possibilities and understanding that we will cope, even if our worst fears become a reality.
- Focus on what you can control. Death, unemployment, social rejection — these and many other things are almost entirely out of our control. All that we have complete power over are our thoughts, judgments and actions. We should focus solely on those, not losing ourselves in worries about external factors.
- Obstacles are opportunities. Any difficult situation is an opportunity for growth and character building. Emotional pain lies not in what happens to us, but in how we react. Start seeing obstacles as chances to learn more about yourself and the world around you.
- Stop and smell the roses. Mindfulness is the key to happiness and success in all walks of life. Focusing on the now forces everything else, past or present, to pale into insignificance. Be present, always, and peace of mind will never be far away.