“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength” - Marcus Aurelius
Picture this: Your name is Zeno and you're from a small town named Citium. You worked hard and sacrificed your early years in order to be successful. The fruits of your labor are bountiful, and now you have amassed a considerable sum of wealth for you and your family. However, your life undergoes a drastic turn of events—once being a wealthy merchant, fate has seemingly screwed you over in a moment's notice. Everything you once owned has been lost in a shipwreck and you are now dirt poor. Essentially being back to square one, you no longer have anything: no money, no family, no friends, no happiness.
Most people in your situation would give up and accept their failures, thinking that their fate was destined for them not to be happy nor successful. However this wasn’t the case for Zeno of Citium. Being thrown in this unfortunate situation, Zeno decided to use his misfortunes as an opportunity to educate himself and restart his life. Studying the writings of Socrates, Zeno eventually started to amass students of his own. As his fame grew, his philosophy of Stoicism started to gain popularity. And thus, the story continues on from there.
We can learn a lot from the life and the lessons of Zeno. Applying Zeno’s simple ideologies to our everyday life can passively make us happier, paving the way for ultimate gratification and fulfilment in our lives.
So what is Stoicism?
As Zeno’s school expanded, the Stoic philosophy started to gain traction in Rome. A notable student of the school of thought was the prominent Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who had embraced and further expanded upon the ideologies of the Stoic philosophy in his renowned treatise Meditations.
Marcus Aurelius, among other Stoic practitioners, strongly advocated the philosophy’s ability of enlightening one on how to control their emotions. This article is going to simplify and condense the general themes of Stoic philosophy and explain how a simple application of its ideologies to your everyday life can make you happier.
The General Philosophy of Stoicism
Stoicism was founded upon the the primarily ideology of self-awareness. The Stoic emphasized realizing the difference between circumstances which are under your control and those which are not, arguing that if a situation was/is not under your control, then you should not let it affect your emotions.
“Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.” - Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
The Stoics preach once you accept this fact of nature, that you cannot control surrounding circumstances in your life, then you must embrace the fact that you can control your emotions. The philosophy explains that an emotion is a voluntary reaction to a circumstance which affects you both mentally and physically. However, the Stoics do not preach a complete abolition of emotions, rather a method of converting negative emotions into positive ones.
“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The Stoics highly advocate for acting upon logic, rather than letting emotion override your actions. In addition, the school promotes frequent mediating, suggesting that one should constantly be in dialogue with oneself, reflecting upon one’s reality, blessings and the contemplation of death.
Furthermore, the Stoics preach that a simple method of achieving happiness is found through the relinquishment of material goods. Through practicing Asceticism (voluntary abstinence from material goods and worldly pleasures), one will finally observe the surrounding world clearly, allowing them to become present in the current moment. They explain that once you are able to find happiness without relying on material pleasures, you will be free from suffering, which the Stoics believe to be the ultimate goal of life.
Applying Stoic Philosophy to Everyday Life
Although it might appear daunting to apply your life to the Stoic philosophy, it is actually a lot simpler than it seems. Small changes can be made which will drastically change your life, leading you down the path of a Stoic:
Maintain and Guide Your Time.
You must accept the fact that your time is your greatest asset. Time is more valuable than any material asset, and exchanging the majority of your time for material assets is the most regretful decision you'll ever make. Do not let people take advantage of your time, do not waste your time not building to become a better and happier person tomorrow. Always be working on something. As I said, wasting your time will be the most regretful decision you will ever make
“We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” — Seneca
Develop inner control, develop inner peace
Although you will never be able to control your surrounding circumstances, you must develop inner control of not only your emotions but also what is in your control.
Epictetus, one of the “big three” of Stoic philosophy, was born a slave. However, Epictetus did not have the mind of a slave, he did not let his circumstances affect his emotions. Epictetus understood that while technically his body was not even his property, his mind, emotions, and desires were—
EPICTETUS UNDERSTOOD THAT HE HAD POWER OVER HIS MIND, NOT HIS CIRCUMSTANCES. THUS, DESPITE LIVING A LIFE FULL OF OBJECTIVE SUFFERING, HE DIED A HAPPY AND CONTENT MAN IN POVERTY.
Human interaction and the Ego
While interacting with others, it is important to understand that it costs nothing to be kind to everyone you meet. The Stoics taught that it is important to approach every situation with hospitality. Further, they taught that one should work on having as little opinions as possible. Many people believe that they are much greater than others, and that although they preach learning and reading, they secretly believe that they already know everything. Do not let yourself come to this conclusion.
“All I know is that I know nothing” - Socrates
Meditation and Journaling
Although I’m nowhere near a meditative master, I try to practice meditation at least everyday before bed, and whenever my emotions are stressing me out. Just as Marcus Aurelius said, meditation allows me to “discard” my anxiety.
Additionally, a simple practice I uphold is journaling every night. Journaling every night has allowed me to not only reflect upon my decisions but determine what parts of my day made me happy and which parts of my day had bothered me, allowing me to identify and change myself upon my observations. Without journaling, I would usually just ignore these thoughts and suffer from very slow character development. Although some nights I find it extremely cumbersome, I am very proud of my 50+ day streak of journaling and I truly believe it has helped me significantly develop as a person.
Taking Cold Showers
Although taking cold showers seems like an oddly specific example compared to the others on this list, it is symbolic for abstaining from comfort. Taking a cold shower, especially in the morning, might be the most uncomfortable way to start your day. The Stoics preach that if you abstain from worldly comforts for satisfaction, you will be able to find happiness upon the surface value of life.
There’s a lot we can learn from the great Stoic thinkers of history. Following their ideologies, we can take simple steps to not only becoming happier but also becoming better perceived by others.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius