STOICISM:
THE ANCIENT PATH TO HAPPINESS

Are you looking for inner peace? You would like to cruise through life with a smile on your face? But sitting cross-legged for hours and twisting your body in strange positions is not really your thing? Your analytical mind finds little benefits in watching your respiration or chanting mantras for hours on end? 

Stoicism teaches equanimity in a very different way. And unlike boring high-school philosophy classes, the sages of old have some highly practical advice.

Isn't Stoicism Synonym Of Indifference?

Mention stoicism and most people start to think of austere old grey bearded men. It has even become synonym with enduring pain and misery without showing feelings. Or at best indifference. Doesn’t sound that inspiring, does it? But the modern definition is misleading.

The way philosophy is taught at school doesn’t help. Not many enjoyed writing endless dissertations about purely theoretical subjects. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, philosophy was a practical matter, a real art of living. And stoics were far from being the boring and pessimistic characters they are often portrayed as.

The Meditations by the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius are a classic of stoic literature, and enjoy considerable success up to this day. But the more than 2000 year old teachings were in need of a serious reinterpretation. Fortunately, they have experienced a comeback in recent years, with a growing number of books and blogs dedicated to the topic. 

As it turns out, stoics weren’t opposed to enjoyable experiences and fun, but were instead actively seeking tranquility of the mind. That’s why we prefer equanimity as a synonym for stoicism.

What Are The Core Teachings?

Stoics believed, not unlike Buddhists, that the path to happiness lies within. Focusing on mastering your mind rather than your environment is key.

We humans all seem to suffer from what is often referred to as hedonistic adaptation. The excitement felt when taking an airplane for the first time quickly fades. That perfect beach gets boring after a few days or even hours. Your amazing travel partner’s flaws become unbearable after a week sharing the same tent. 

And so we keep on searching in vain for that ultimate destination, experience or relationship. The stoics understood this well, and their remedy to this chaotic race to the grave was to train the mind to desire what we already possess here, in the present.

stoicism stoic
Not just boring old stuff

Likewise, the stoics always kept in mind the impermanent nature of things. Relationships fail, possessions break, our own body is constantly decaying. Attachment therefore inevitably leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Another core teaching is the importance of devoting our energy to the problems we stand a chance to solve, not to what lies beyond our reach. Getting upset because the weather sucks doesn’t achieve anything. Neither does being angry because your visa got rejected. Instead, the stoics advocated to focus on what can be influenced, yourself. Like the quote (probably falsely) attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. Try your best. Learn to accept whatever the outcome may be, let go of the rest.

Finally, stoics attached a lot of importance to the present moment. Your mind should focus on the task at hand. In other words, practice mindfulness.

Stoic Mind Hacks : Negative Visualization

What makes the stoics really stand out is that they didn’t only rely on fancy logic, but also developed a series of highly efficient mental exercises. Stoicism is based on action. A few of these exercises are particularly relevant to the traveler.

trees forest
A little visualization exercise

An extremely valuable tool is what the great stoic philosopher Seneca referred to as praemeditio malorum, or negative visualization, where you imagine what would happen if things go wrong. Are you stressing out because of your upcoming trip? Close your eyes. Imagine for a second that your bag gets stolen in the bus. You loose your passport in the subway. Your partner crashes the rental scooter. When you open your eyes, they are all still here.

What sounds like pessimistic thinking actually has several positive effects. First, you’ll most probably only experience relatively minor hardships. Hey, it wasn’t that bad after all, right? Second, if you do get unlucky, you’ll already have been there mentally, which makes it a lot easier. And last but not least, it makes you acutely aware that the present is where you should be. Now is the time to be with your loved ones. Now is the time to be thankful for even having a bag and a passport and a scooter allowing you to roam freely.

Stoic Mind Hacks:
Occasional Hardship

Another excellent stoic mind hack is exposing oneself to occasional hardships. These sages understood well what we call our comfort zone, and that real happiness lies beyond it. Being happy with what we already have is key. And when things do get tough it’s only half as bad if we have already been there before.

Forego the comforts of your bed for a thin camping mattress and you will appreciate your home significantly more. Take the unreserved class carriage on a train in India for a few hours and you will be ready to face a crowded charter flight with a smile. Fast out of choice and you won’t be bothered the day you are forced to skip a meal. Occasional hardship is an incredibly powerful technique to live your life fully.

Resources

Interested in learning more about this ancient art of living? Good modern introductions to stoicism are William Irvine’s “Guide to the Good Life”, Ryan Holiday’s “Daily Stoic” and Mark Manson’s “Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”. Ryan Holiday also writes the popular Daily Stoic blog, an excellent online resource on all things stoic.