How Stoicism Makes You Happier

Marcus Aurelius (CC) License from Elliot Brown on FlickR Today, at what may be the height of Yoga’s popularity, it might be hard to remember that western thought also has ancient philosophical roots, and some of it can be just as useful as eastern meditation.

At our annual gathering in Sun Valley (request an invite here), we explore both the personal and the organizational sides of “denting the universe,” as Steve Jobs once said — and Stoicism, though not Jobs’ choice of philosophies, offers some really interesting systems for managing the self today’s world.

I am personally looking forward to Ellen Leanse’s session with Daniel Kottke (Steve Jobs’ Reading List), where we’ll explore the books that Daniel and Steve read together in the 70s and while traveling through India, and how it affected their worldview and their paths through Apple and beyond.

In Aeon magazine, Larry Wallace writes a spirited combination of a defense and an introduction to Stoicism, where he distills the major concepts of Stoicism down to this nugget:

What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who […] is the invincible human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’

Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity…

Stoicism does get more specific than that, of course.

In the New York Times, Massimo Pigliucci recently penned a piece called simply “How To Be A Stoic,” where he details a little of the specifics of his personal practice of Stoicism (complete with quotes stored on Dropbox):

Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value.

As both authors take care to point out, Stoicism actually lines up quite well with modern psychological theory and behavioral therapy; in other words: science says this stuff is not too hokey. In fact, the Navy Admiral James Stockdale credits Stoic principles with carrying him through a rather brutal seven years as a prisoner of war during Vietnam.

In more modern notes, some limited research cited in the Times article above suggests that practicing stoicism, despite its grim demeanor, actually tends to make you happier. Study respondents, on average, showed a 20 percent growth in the gap between their positive and negative emotions.

For Denters, I think the most compelling point is not that Stoicism is “it,” but rather than having a system or personal philosophy is a great way to boost your own personal ability to affect the world. Whatever version of philosophy it ends up being, simply having a baseline from which to operate can have a huge difference.

(If you’re interested in joining us for this invite-only retreat in late March, you can request an invitation here).

Image: Marcus Aurelius (CC) License from Elliot Brown on FlickR