Stoicism and Psychological Resilience
Research on Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT)
One of my main areas of research is the relationship between Stoic philosophy and modern psychology. I’m particularly interested in the promise that Stoicism appears to hold as a form of what psychologists today call “resilience training”. As we’ll see, there are some interesting data emerging from initial research on Stoicism as a form of resilience training.
Emotional or psychological resilience basically refers to our ability to endure stressful events, without being overwhelmed by them. Through cognitive and behaviour skills training we can improve resilience and prepare ourselves to cope better with future adversity.
In a sense, Stoicism has long been virtually synonymous with resilience. Indeed, one modern expert, Michael Neenan, refers to the Stoic teacher Epictetus as the “patron saint of the resilient”. In one of my own books on Stoicism and CBT, Build your Resilience, I wrote,
As we’ve seen, when we speak of someone having a “philosophical attitude” in the face of adversity, this figure of speech, which alludes to a kind of emotional resilience, probably stems from the Stoic philosophy in particular. The literature of Stoicism is essentially all about coping with precisely the kind of adversities studied in modern research on resilience: poverty, bereavement, illness, etc. So, at least on the face of it, the connection between ancient Stoicism and modern resilience-building seems obvious. — Robertson, Build your Resilience
Recently I co-authored an article in The Behavior Therapist, reviewing in-depth the relationship between ancient Stoicism and modern cognitive-behavioural therapy. We concluded:
Stoicism offers people a permanent alternative to their existing worldview, which is aligned with CBT in many regards, and might provide a framework for changes that could endure long after initial exposure to them through books and courses. Our hope is that in the future research may be conducted on the potential applications of combined Stoicism and CBT based training courses as a form of long-term emotional resilience-building. —Robertson & Codd, Stoic Philosophy as a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
The basic theoretical premise of cognitive-behavioural therapy was derived, in part, from Stoic philosophy. It’s called the “cognitive theory of emotion” and holds that our emotions are determined, to a large extent, by corresponding beliefs, i.e., cognitions. The founders of cognitive therapy, especially Albert Ellis, used to teach that principle to their students and clients by quoting the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:
“It’s not events that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” — Epictetus
The other main pioneer of CBT, Aaron T. Beck, opened his first book on cognitive therapy by describing how his emerging style of therapy was founded upon the consensus among researchers that cognitions play a central role in determining our emotions. Then, like Ellis, he added:
Nevertheless, the philosophical underpinnings go back thousands of years, certainly to the time of the Stoics, who considered man’s conceptions (or misconceptions) of events rather than the events themselves as the key to his emotional upsets. (Beck A. T., 1976, p. 3)
This shared premise arguably means that the large volumes of scientific evidence now supporting cognitive therapy also lend some degree of indirect support to Stoicism.
CBT is typically remedial — it’s a therapy. With some exceptions, it’s normally short-term and diagnosis-driven. When people receive a diagnosis and therapy, it’s because they’re already suffering from problems. However, the Holy Grail of mental health is prevention — prevention, as everyone knows, is better than cure. Psychologists try to reduce their risk of individuals experiencing future mental health problems through emotional resilience training. However, so far that’s had mixed results because although resilience training is beneficial, it tends to wear off over time, and people need refresher courses every few years.
People who get into Stoicism, though, tend to stick with it for the long term because rather than a set of techniques it actually provides them with a whole philosophy of life. We like to phrase this by saying that “Stoicism is sticky”, in fact it’s often permanent. We need to carry out psychological research to actually test that hypothesis, though.
Research on Stoicism and Resilience Training
There’s not much psychological research focusing directly on Stoicism. However, since around 2012, the Modern Stoicism organization has been gathering data from many thousands of participants around the world, participants in free online courses. Modern Stoicism is a nonprofit organization run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers, including cognitive-behavioural therapists, philosophers, and classicists. It’s responsible for organizing the annual Stoicon conference on Modern Stoicism. I am one of the founding members and as well as being one of the creators of the Stoic Week annual event, I also designed a course called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training or SMRT.
SMRT is a four-week long intensive psychological skills training, delivered in the form of elearning. We first ran it in 2014, when about 500 people took part and since then thousands more have completed the training. Participants complete detailed questionnaires. I created the first version of the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), which has subsequently been refined by psychologists using statistical methods to ensure its validity. We use that scale to measure how strongly participants exhibit typical Stoic beliefs and behaviours. However, we also used established psychological questionnaires, of the kind employed in CBT studies and other psychological research, to evaluate the impact of SMRT on positive and negative mood, as well as measures of psychological well-being and life satisfaction.
This is the first time I’ve written about the data from SMRT because these are simply initial pilot studies. They were mainly intended to test the feasibility of using this sort of course in other well-controlled research studies. It’s now clear that we have a protocol suitable for testing. However, we can also say that the initial data are highly promising, although our findings require confirmation using more rigorous research methods.
Initial Research Findings from SMRT
SMRT first ran in 2014, when just over 500 people took part. The outcome measures used before and after training showed mean improvements as follows:
- Satisfaction with life increased by 27%
- Positive emotions increased by 16%
- Negative emotions reduced by 23%
- Flourishing increased by 17%
We noticed that overall results were similar to those reported by participants in Stoic Week, our other online course. However, perhaps because SMRT is four times longer, and more focused on core skills, improvements tended to be approximately twice as large as those following Stoic Week.
The results become even more interesting when we look at individual questionnaire items. Across studies, we’ve consistently found Stoicism has as a improving effect on measures of both positive and negative mood, although the effect on negative mood is always more pronounced. The emotions which increased most in the initial SMRT study were feelings of being “Positive” and “Contented”. The emotions which decreased most were those labelled as feeling “Negative” and “Sad”.
Follow-up Research on SMRT
In 2017, in order to provisionally check the feasibility of the SMRT training as a means of acquiring longer-term resilience, Tim LeBon analyzed the data from a new group of over 900 participants at 3-month follow-up. The report concluded:
Participants were found to have significant improvements in all measures at the end of the course. Particularly of note is the 20% reduction in negative emotions (SPANE-). The key question we were looking to answer was “how much would these improvements melt away in the 3 months after SMRT finished?” It was found that there was very little reduction in benefit even after 3 months. For SABS (measuring degree of Stoicism) and Flourish (measuring flourishing) there was barely any change. In terms of emotions and satisfaction with life there was a small reduction compared to the end of the course. This result suggests that practising Stoicism for as little as a month has a lasting impact.
This was just another pilot study, and its findings need to be confirmed by more carefully controlled outcome studies in the future, using control groups, etc. However, the results certainly appeared to show that it was worth exploring the hypothesis further that training in Stoicism could be effective as a means of developing lasting emotional resilience.
If you’re interested in finding out more, see the main webpage for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training. The course is enrolling now and will be running again in a few weeks’ time.