Just one glance at the internet and you’ll be deluged with posts promising to reveal the secrets of everlasting happiness. But actually, there is no mystery to being happy, and modern stoicism can show you why.
The word stoic suggests a longsuffering, patient, tolerant person that bears their burden without complaint. However, to imply that this is the route to happiness would be completely wrong. The theory behind modern stoicism is simple.
What Is Modern Stoicism?
In life, we cannot control everything so we should focus on the things we can and accept what we cannot change.
Modern stoicism originates from the Stoics who were ancient philosophers living in Greece. These wise men argued that in order to live happier lives we should decide what things we can change and what we cannot.
Once we have distinguished between the two, we can work at changing what is within our power to do so. Then it is easier to accept what we cannot change as part of life. This might sound like airy-fairy nonsense, but it does make a lot of sense when you consider what is actually under our control.
What can’t we control?
- What people think of us.
- Our own bodies.
- The environment
- What people do.
What can we control?
- How we think about all of the above.
- What judgments we make about those thoughts.
There are two basic principles:
We can’t control everything in life. All we can control is how we think about what happens and the judgments we make, based on these thoughts. And this is where it gets interesting. The ancient Greeks believed that it is not actual things that cause us unhappiness but how we think about them.
When something happens, we make a judgment about it. If we think the thing is bad, we feel upset or angry or grief. It all depends on what the thing is, on how we have perceived and judged it. However, this same thing might not upset another person, indeed, it might even be a joyous event for someone else.
For example, take a World Cup final. The winning team’s fans will be rejoicing. The losers will feel real pain and grief. If you’re not interested in football, you won’t be affected at all.
So, the important thing to remember is that whatever judgment we add to our thoughts gives the thing value. Moreover, it is this value that produces our emotion. The good thing is that we have control over these judgments. Whatever happens, whether it is good or bad, we can decide what value we assign to them. That value will then affect our emotions.
Likewise, this emotion can be happiness or sadness or anything we choose to feel. So while we may have no control over what happens to us, we do have complete control over how we feel about what happens to us. Consequently, we are in control of our happiness.
So how does stoicism work in the modern world?
Figure out what’s really important
Many people lust after wealth, fame, power, status, but the reality is that few of us are going to attain these things. As a result, a lot of us are going to end up miserable because we haven’t achieved these goals. So why do we value these things? At the end of the day, most of us just want to be comfortable, healthy, have good friends and no stresses or worries.
Consider why you want these meaningless trappings? Is it to impress other people? Perhaps the media tells you that in order to be happy, you have to have the fastest car, the nicest watch, the latest designer dress. Do what makes you happy, not what others tell you.
It’s not about self-belief or positive thinking
Consider this scenario; you’ve decided to scale Mount Everest. You’re setting off with no strategy, equipment, guides and you’re unfit. Now, no amount of self-belief or positive thinking is going to get you to the top of that mountain. Modern stoicism is about setting realistic goals that are right for you and that are achievable.
You hear a lot of stories of successful business people where determination and positive thinking was the key to their success. They never gave up and it was their dogged self-belief that spurred them on. But when you consider that 9 out of 10 start-ups fail, it’s obviously not about believing in yourself. It’s about getting the right idea in the first place.
Distinguish whether the situation is under your control or not
If something is starting to bother you, try and distinguish whether it is one of those things that’s under your control or not. Think about this as a line that divides the actions of anything that’s out of your control on one side, and your thoughts about those actions on the other side. Then whatever is bothering you, place it either side of the line. Now, you’ve distinguished which one it is, is there anything you can do about it?
For example, a shop assistant is rude to you in the store. You immediately feel angry, but you can’t control the assistant’s actions. Perhaps they are busy and under stress? What you can do is complain about their behaviour to their manager, or you can ask them to explain their rude behaviour.
By dividing what you can control and can’t takes the pressure off you. It removes emotion from situations. It’s actually very freeing. It’s not about letting people off the hook for being rude or aggressive, it’s more about living your life without the pressure of feeling responsible for everything that happens in the world.
My final point is that if you want to start practising modern stoicism, every morning, think about the day ahead, the possible traps you might encounter. Just be ready for them and remember that you can’t control everything, but you can control how you feel about things.
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