Stoicism is a philosophy of life that promotes a positive attitude and aims to minimise the experience of negative emotions. This week I’ve learned again to appreciate all the great things in my life (health, safety, love). I will take away a renewed practice of voluntary self-denial to optimise my happiness.
Stoicism is my religion of choice when it comes to defining how I want to live my life. It acknowledges the desires that we as human have and at the same time wishes to not be led astray by them. It teaches me to be happy with what I already have without losing my drive for a better life. This week I explored six topics discussed by the Stoics.
Philosophy of Life
“What do you want out of life?” That is the first question posed by William B. Irvine in A Guide To The Good Life, a great practical introductory text on stoicism. And on the inside of the book is my note from the previous time I read the book. It says ‘To teach people how to live effective, purposeful lives’. Stoicism is a very practical school of philosophy and it is meant to be both something you learn and something you do at the same time.
For me, that means that stoicism is the way to a happy life. The techniques below and others mentioned in both ancient texts as well as in newer books (e.g. The Obstacle is the Way) guide me in making this philosophy of life. My goal is to be happy with what I have (to have no discrepancy between the actual and ideal self). I want to be free to spend my time (our most limited resource) wisely. And I want to be motivated to explore new areas of interest.
To you the reader, or to my future self, I ask: What is your philosophy of life? Do you have a purpose and how are you moving towards it?
Fear Setting or Negative Visualisation
It is advised to contemplate bad things for three reasons. First, to think of how to prevent bad things from happening. Second, to lessen the impact it will have when bad things do happen. As Epictetus says “all things everywhere are perishable”. Or as is written on a building in Rotterdam, “Alles van waarde is weerloos”.
A third reason for contemplating bad things is to stop our hedonic adaptation. We are always striving for more (i.e. this whole journey is about a more effective life). And often we forget how happy we should be with what we already have. Through negative visualisation, we can forestall the adaptation process. We can then desire the things we already have.
Negative visualisation is the process of contemplating bad things happening. The goal is to keep planning for tomorrow and appreciate today at the same time. By contemplating bad things, we become more appreciative of what we have right now. Just like a kid can be happier than a king when eating an ice cream, a Stoic can go through life as a full-blown optimist.
We can practice negative visualisation in a few different ways. We can see the bad things that happen to other people and reflect on the fact that these things might have happened to us. Or we could use projective visualisation and imagine the bad things that have happened to us and how you would have reacted if it happened to a friend.
Negative visualisation is a practice in which you contemplate bad things happening. This is very different from actually worrying about it. For instance, a meteorologist will think about tornadoes maybe daily, but he will not feel the anguish and pain of the losses they can inflict on people. In this way, a Stoic can contemplate bad things happening without becoming anxiety-ridden as a result.
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Tim Ferriss
You can apply negative visualisation by just imagining what bad things can happen. But to also benefit the first reasons to contemplate them (to possibly prevent them), I went ahead and did the following exercise.
Define – Prevent – Repair
In the Define column, outline on each line a potential worst case scenario. You can easily have 20 or more here. Be specific.
In the Prevent column, write exactly for each bullet point what you could do to prevent the worst case scenario from happening.
In the Repair column, note how you can get back on your feet if the worst case scenario comes to pass.
Here is one of my answers. Define. I sustain an injury during sports. Prevent. Never do exercises with too much weight. Always watch how my form is when doing exercises. Don’t rush the intensity of sports I do (I still have many years to build the body (and the mind)). Repair. Stay active, don’t sit behind closed doors. Work on the muscles I can work on.
To get a fuller explanation of these steps, see the TED Talk from Tim Ferriss.
Dichotomy of Control
Much of the time we are busy trying to control the world around us. We try and influence our environment to match with our inner desires. But as noted by Stephen Covey, from The Seven Habits, we don’t have control over our environment. We can’t control every aspect of what happens in the world. What we can control, with some practice, is our own desires.
Epictetus, one of the ancient Stoics, said: “If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest”. He argues that we should desire to not be frustrated by forming desires that you won’t be able to fulfil. We have total control over our goals, so these should inform us what to desire. The goals we set for ourselves should, therefore, be internal and not external. An example would be, ‘I will do my utmost best in this race’, versus, ‘I will finish in 4.00 hours’. The first is something you can control, the second is also dependent on external factors.
The dichotomy of control is actually a trichotomy of control. There are things over which we have complete control (e.g. our goals). Thing over which we have no control (e.g. the weather). And things over which we have some but not complete control (e.g. the time you will cross the finish). In practice, it’s good to recognise these three categories and to exert your efforts on where it matters (on the things you can control).
What if you didn’t only think about negative outcomes but you also made them happen. That is the idea behind voluntary discomfort. The Stoics argue that we should periodically expose ourselves to some discomfort that we could have easily avoided. You can, for example, decide to sleep on the couch instead of your bed. Or take a bike when you could also have taken the car. Or try and live of a few euro for a week (and not have that daily Starbucks drink). By this practice, I believe that you can become confident that you can live with discomfort.
It also builds a strength of character that allows you to periodically forgo opportunities to experience pleasure. This in effect will make it possible for you to say no to that extra drink and get out of bed the next morning for your run. Or it will allow you to wait for a reward for a while until it becomes more valuable (e.g. compound interest). For me, it means that I can limit a number of pleasures I want to enjoy, and by that become master over my pleasures.
What if we could accept not only the past but also embrace the current moment in all its beauty? The Stoics want us to live in the moment. This means that we should refuse to think about how it could be better. In other words, we should be happy with what we’ve got and with what we’re experiencing.
As with other techniques, fatalism promotes you to use your mind to shape your experience (instead of the outside world shaping it). It reminds me of the great commencement speech of David Foster Wallace, ‘This Is Water‘. In it, he argues that a large part of our life will be the ‘boring’ part. The waiting in line, the driving to work. And that we (as fish in a pond) shouldn’t forget that we have control over how we experience life (the water).
Meditation is, for me, a way of reflecting on life and examining how you are living it. With regards to Stoicism, it’s a moment where I ask myself if I’m living in line with the guidelines as written above. The question I ask myself is “Am I being governed by reason or by something else?” And as a follow-up, I may ask if I’m living a better life than before, whilst also accepting the past as it is (see above).
If you are in control of your life, you can determine your happiness. Stoicism is a way of taking control over your life. It helps you be less affected by your surroundings, by helping you control your inner thoughts. I find it a wonderful way of living and it’s the backbone to which my habits are built.
Ocsober – Each October I will not drink alcohol and limit other indulgences (caffeine, snacks, etc)
First Wednesday – Every first Wednesday of the month I will have a Stoic day (sober living, meditation)
Cold Showers – I will finish every shower with a 10 second plus cold shower
“The faster you go through a maze, the more entangled you will get” – Seneca