Stoicism simplified – a guide to the good life

Stoicism

Do you want to handle your next frustrating situation like a cool little cucumber?

Perhaps you wish you could smile serenely when someone next cuts you up in a queue, instead of becoming a raving lunatic…

Well fear not, help is at hand.

I introduce to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, which can calm your inner beast and help you live the good life.

Let’s take a look at this psychological sorcery, but first, have you encountered the Emperor’s diaries?

The Emperor

Many years ago, in a galaxy close to home, there was a man who sought to improve his navigation of life’s daily obstacles.

So he set about writing a personal diary, snippets that would recount his experiences and act as important reminders of how to live a virtuous life.

“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.” 

These personal thoughts were never intended to be published and yet today comprise one of the most widely read Stoic texts, practitioners incorporating their teachings around the world.

While many of us may dream of omnipotence, power and success, this man seemingly had everything a mere mortal could desire.

And yet, he patiently trod the daily path towards spiritual growth and development.

This man was Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome and the most powerful man in the world.

A brief history of stoicism

Stoicism was started by Zeno of Citium who, after studying other philosophies of the time, decided to combine their individual elements in a unique gestalt.

He conducted public debates in the marketplace, on a porch or ‘stoa’, from which the philosophy ultimately derives its name.

Although Stoicism originated in ancient Greece, it’s from the great Roman thinkers like Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius that we possess many of its teachings.

So, what is stoicism?

Stoicism, according to our friends at Wikipedia is “found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly”.

Stoicism asserts that Logos (Universal Reason) is the greatest good in life and, in contrast to base animal instincts like impulse and passion, living according to principles of reasoning serve as the foundation of a worthwhile existence.

Practical application of Stoicism

Very often we equate philosophy with old men in tweed suits discussing intellectual jargon. 

Ancient philosophy, however, in addition to teaching logic, centred around practical benefits, focussing on how to live a good life.

This approach has been revitalised in recent times, with overflowing bookshop self-help sections hinting at both our shared existential angst and desire for practical solutions leading to real-world results.

The renaissance is, in no small part due to the fact that the strategy can make us more effective and successful in life.

Adopted by the Silicon Valley tech crowd and YouTube gurus alike, it’s spread like wildfire in recent years.

The more cynical will say that, like meditation, it’s a tool propagated by the powers that be to make workers more compliant and productive.

However, that’s to take a short-sighted approach to a philosophy that’s helped countless lives over thousands of years.

Aim of Stoicism

At its core, the aim of stoicism is tranquillity.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In Stoicism, as well as for Epicurean and Cynics, this mindset was labelled ‘ataraxia’.

Ataraxia does not mean immune to emotion, and it’s worth highlighting that Stoics are not stoical.

Contrary to opinion in some quarters, tranquillity doesn’t mean becoming a zombie and dispensing with emotion.

The Stoics weren’t opposed to emotions per se, but rather sought to diminish negative disturbances.

By avoiding obstacles of ataraxia, they contended, we remove our biggest impediments to happiness.

Now, there might be a Freudian assertion that there are consequences to suppressing negative emotions.

However, rather than suppression, the following Stoic practices allow us to quell negative emotions before they’ve taken hold and run amok.

How?

Through some clever psychological trickery that we’ll cover shortly.

But first, let’s look at some of the benefits of incorporating Stoicism into our lives.

Benefits of stoicism

While perpetual happiness admittedly isn’t possible, Stoicism can provide a deep sense of wellbeing.

This wellbeing isn’t a retreat from experience, in that it’s not an aloof, disengaged response.

Rather, problems we encounter become opportunities to deepen our engagement each day.

Stoicism allows us to redefine our relationship with existence and its contents.

By taking previously assumed negative situations and applying some good old Stoic reasoning, we can expose their inherent goodness.

Insofar as Buddhists declare that “Life is suffering”, possessing such skills is akin to wielding mental superpowers.

Who is Stoicism for?

Stoicism can benefit anyone and everyone.

Indeed, it forms the basis of most Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is currently prescribed by medical institutions around the world.

Having said that, as with any approach, some practitioners respond more readily than others.

To such people, Stoicism simply makes sense.

Often these individuals, upon reading a Stoic text, imply that they’ve applied the techniques their entire lives without knowing it.

And therein lies the benefit of a philosophy which naturally matches some people’s disposition.

Those who extract the positive from every situation, no matter how subjectively good or bad and look on the bright side of life, are a perfect fit for the approach.

Regardless of personality, however, Stoicism can be effective for everyone.

With a low barrier to entry and cost of trying, there’s no reason not to take the philosophy for a test drive.

How does it work?

There are two ways to respond to life.

One, being a very popular approach, is to play the role of the victim, at the mercy of a cruel world and besieged by the actions of others.

This psychological tendency not only diminishes personal power and decision making but creates a blaming culture, completely counterproductive to progress.

The other is to stand up and be counted, doing everything within our power to forge our way in life, no matter our starting point.

Arguably this is a far more empowering philosophy to adopt, leading both to greater external success and internal contentment.

Let’s see how.

Control

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will – Epictetus

The Stoic approach teaches us to recognise what’s within our control and what’s not, and not worry about the latter.

For example, are you constantly complaining about your past, something about the way you look or a health condition?

Now ask yourself…can you do anything about these complaints?

If not, the Stoicism teaches us to release them as objects of concern.

After all, it’s completely irrational to expend needless energy considering things we cannot change.

This might be easier said than done for some, however, who get a kick from complaining about their circumstances.

For others, realising what’s within their control and letting go of the rest is an empowering feeling, and can kick start a new phase of change…

One which allows for the re-allocation of mental resources in making fundamental life changes.

Reframing

The Stoic approach aims to quietly reframe and overcome setbacks by employing particular psychological strategies.

After all, life is full of obstacles, from our careers, relationships and health, culminating in the biggest roadblock of all – death.

And while some obstacles are avoidable, many occur no matter what we do, so learning to navigate them effectively is essential.

This isn’t a mindset we’re born with – like any other skill, we must focus on it to improve.

We have a choice how we can respond to such setbacks, either by assuming a passive position relative to life or adopting a more positive outlook.

This technique, often referred to as ‘reframing’, is one of the central tenets of Stoicism.

In essence, reframing is taking the same situation and looking at it from different angles to gain a new perspective, as one might do with a piece of art.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

What happens when you change your viewpoint? 

As is often the case, we re-interpret our initial reaction to a situation.

Something that was subjectively bad, inciting a negative response, can be regarded in a more positive light when we step back, change our viewpoint and re-interpret the situation.

In other words, what does us most harm in life is not the setback, but our response to the setback.

Traffic jams provide a good example.

While you may think you have every right to be angry with the road Gods, where can you find the positive in the situation?

Can you use the extra time to call a friend, listen to a podcast or simply be present?

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Three techniques of Stoicism to make us awesome

Negative visualisation

Close your eyes for a second.

Now, imagine that you’re blind. Think fully about this experience and how it would feel to navigate the world in complete darkness.

Now…open your eyes.

Do you feel grateful to experience shapes and colours, able to indulge in the beauty around you?

If so, congratulations. You’ve just applied negative visualisation.

When we think about something bad that could happen and then briefly adopt the counterfactual viewpoint, we engage this timeless Stoic practice.

This technique can be used in every facet of life, from relationships, careers and health issues.

For example, when you’re next having a difficult encounter with a fellow human, imagine briefly that they didn’t exist in your life.

How does that change your interaction?

When we allow ourselves a momentary vision about negative consequences, it serves as a basis for psychological comparison, allowing is to flip our perspective in an instant.

Contrary to first thought, this exercise shouldn’t be considered morbid in that we aren’t dwelling on macabre thoughts, the framing device taking only a second to enact.

Some people think this exercise may be anxiety-inducing, but actually the Stoics thought that it had the opposite effect.

If you regularly engage in negative visualisation, it bypasses anxiety, allowing us to fully appreciate the life we’re living.

After all, anything you do could be the last time you do it.

By approaching even mundane situations with this outlook, it’s like engaging with them for the very first time, allowing us to extract the maximum value from each activity and interaction.

Everything ends, but living this way, we become more attuned to the moment and live with far fewer regrets.

So, the next time you’re cleaning the toilet, imbue the activity with patience and reflection.

Think to yourself – one day, I won’t physically be able to do this.

The storytelling frame

Once I did a motorbike trip through South America and after a gruelling few months on the road, I was making the final border crossing into Argentina.

It was all I could do to imagine a rich red wine and juicy steak for dinner that night.

Unfortunately, the police officer at the remote outpost in the Atacama desert had other ideas, citing discrepancies with my paperwork and contending that my motorbike was stolen.

Having spent the night in a local hotel, I returned to the bike to make the long trip through Chile to try my luck at another border crossing.

Flicking the switch on my normally trusty steed, I was dismayed to discover she didn’t start. After adjusting the fuel mixture to accommodate for the altitude and bump starting on a hill, I was resigned to the fact I was going nowhere.

Accepting the offer of a kind lorry driver, I loaded the bike precariously onto the back of his tanker for the long, slow drive back to the nearest Chilean town.

By this time, I was beginning to have a tantrum, but luckily managed to avert this psychological meltdown with one thought…

That this would be a great story for the grandkids.

Such is the foundation of the Stoic storytelling frame.

When something bad happens, can you think about the story you’ll be able to tell about that event?

After all, setbacks make for the best stories, taking the sting out of the situation and actually allowing us to revel slightly in misfortune.

Can you apply the superhero story? Basically, any story that you find empowering can be applied as a filter to your experience.

Every obstacle becomes an opportunity to demonstrate your strength and live your new role.

In this way, the rational part of our brain can trick the animal brain using psychological tactics to shortcircuit negative emotions.

For it to work as a true psychological technique, however, we have to tell stories as they actually happen.

Stoic test strategy

When something negative happens, you can implement the tactic of the Stoics and imagine it’s a test set by the Gods, or if you’d prefer to utilise different imagery, an imaginary coach or teacher.

In this way, whenever there’s a setback, rather than perceiving it as a punishment, we can conceive the struggle as a fun challenge or test…

One that requires our ingenuity, workarounds and solutions to solve.

Think of it as a kind of Rocky Balboa training to build up our resilience and develop our growth muscles.

Unsure what on Earth I’m babbling about?

Imagine a video game, where you have the power to play in God mode – i.e. you can’t lose whatever you do.

While it might be fun to play this way for a while, ultimately it becomes boring. Without the struggle and challenge, there’s an absence of satisfaction and meaning.

Well, life is like a video game, with predictable obstacles – the way we gain points in this Stoic approach is by maintaining a calm, even state of mind.

Whenever faced with a challenge, we can inwardly smile at the opportunity to face discomfort, becoming somewhat of a setback connoisseur. 

It’s a self-created test, which can be an interesting, self-congratulatory high. 

To progress to a higher level in the video game of life, we can even go out of our way to induce difficulties – like using discomfort during exercise to make our muscles sore and build strength.

With such a philosophy, rather than losing, we gain from each setback we encounter.

Stoic adventures

One such way of creating our own Stoic tests is via Stoic adventures.

This is a method of pursuing an activity or experience which is likely to increase the number of setbacks you encounter.

As my motorbike disaster shows, travelling is a great way of doing this, especially in developing countries.

In addition to the language difficulties, there are countless cultural obstacles requiring navigation through ingenuity and problem-solving.

When I lived abroad, I treated popping out for milk as a Stoic adventure, such is the difficulty of completing relatively simple tasks that would barely provide pause for thought otherwise.

The truth is, staying at home won’t produce many test-worthy setbacks. Instead, we need to get out there and stuck into the experience of life.

A good way of judging whether it’s a good test is whether you feel any discomfort or apprehension before taking action.

That could be the social anxiety of speaking to someone in a bar or applying for a new job.

Rather than retreating into a safe place, instead tell yourself that, “With this adventure, I plan to create a wonderful setback story”.

Truly successful people court failure frequently, pushing themselves through difficult activities for the very impediments they create.

Part of the experience of life is embracing the tests we’re set, and only then are we finally rewarded.

How to judge our progress?

Well, we have opportunities to judge our progress in every minute of the day to determine our response to life’s daily challenges.

To gauge how you’re progressing with your Stoic practices, you can grade yourself on the following:

1. Did you keep your cool?

A critical skill to work on is that, when, when faced with a setback, we avoid the urge to meet it with anger. 

Perhaps you can utilise a 5-second rule, where you slowly count to 5 before you engage in one of the Stoic techniques.

This is where meditation is a superpower.

If we lose our composure momentarily, by focusing on the physiology of the emotion we can reboot our brain and as if by magic…

Anger vanishes as mysteriously as it arose.

And this is essential as anger kills creativity, which is the foundation of step 2.

2. How good was your workaround?

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are – definition of success – Theodore Roosevelt.

To gauge our Stoic progress, we can rate ourselves for our ability to produce innovative solutions to the obstacles we encounter.

After all, there’s no perfect solution, just good enough.

So often we seek the perfect option and become frustrated when either we can’t decide or it doesn’t exist.

However, beating ourselves up for what we can’t do is not only unproductive but completely irrational.

Doing our best to create a solution fit for purpose is the aim and the only obstacle to that is making a decision and taking a step in the right direction.

In order to assess our progress in the above, we can implement Seneca’s use of bedtime meditations, by taking a few moments to think about our day and how we responded to events.

Journaling provides the perfect medium for such reflection.

Stoicism vs Buddhism

Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet – Seneca

Stoicism has similarities with Buddism, in that they both aim for ‘tranquillity’.

However, the Buddhists and Stoics pursued this end by very different means.

While Buddhists focused on specific forms of meditation which may or may not lead to enlightenment, the Stoics approach was far more practical, rooted in psychological techniques that could yield quick results.

In contrast to meditation, applying Stoic principles can be relatively quick and easy and is actually very complementary in its approach.

While mindfulness alerts us to feelings of anger, causing such impulses to dissipate quickly, Stoicism might change our thought process on a fundamental level so that the object of irritation is viewed in a completely different and perhaps even positive light.

Personally, I think Stoicism and meditation provide the perfect one-two punch in response to life’s obstacles.

Whenever we encounter a challenging situation, by first reframing the experience, we etch it in a more positive light, before using mindfulness to fully engage in the moment from the open space of consciousness.

In this way, we can and should be performing meditation and Stoic practices simultaneously, giving us a greater shot at the good, less reactive life.

The ultimate life philosophy

Here’s the thing – nobody is 100% good at avoiding negative emotions, but every situation, however benign, is an opportunity for Stoic practice.

Negative emotions do have a role to play in life, and indeed can be extremely valuable, with research outlining their merits.

However, by using Stoic practices, we can mitigate their impact and duration.

We ultimately have two options – either play the victim or respond as best as we can to life, whatever our circumstances.

It’s time to make your choice.

How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy, but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.

From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event ― Epictetus (From Manual 51)