On the Resurgence of Stoicism

We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.
— Randy Pausch, the Last Lecture

Over the past year I have read a number of inspiring articles and books on the classical school of Stoicism. What I learned was surprising — Stoicism may be an ancient philosophical school, but it is extraordinarily well suited to modern life. It offers an eminently practical path to a life of happiness and fulfillment, and while growing material wealth is not the primary focus, it is a near inevitable side effect. Let’s take a brief look at the central tenets of Stoicism, and their benefits.

What is Stoicism?

For people who are unfamiliar with the Stoics, the term may invoke images of curmudgeonly, joyless old men who greet triumph and misfortune with equal levels of grumpiness. After all, that’s pretty much what the dictionary definition says:

sto·ic [stoh-ik]
noun
1. One who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain.

Of course this bears little to no resemblance to what the ancient Stoics were all about. The Stoics were not out to rid themselves of all emotion, nor were they ascetics. Stoic thinking is focused on conquering the negative emotions in your life, such as fear, anger, envy, and greed. The goal is a state of serenity which cannot be shaken by the inevitable ups and downs life will bring you. Many find that that this fundamental tranquility is interspersed with moments of pure joy from all the good things life has to offer.

So how does it Work?

How can an ancient philosophical school help to bring about this extraordinary change in mindset? After all, as anyone who has taken any philosophy in college will attest, much philosophical writing is arcane and inaccessible, dealing with abstractions like the debate over the existence of absolute truth.

By contrast, the writings of the stoics are quite accessible and practical. Rather than delving into arcane abstractions, the stoics present a collection of principles and techniques for living well. Many of these techniques revolve around grappling with what modern psychologists call hedonic adaptation. This is the tendency of humans to adapt to their circumstances, whether positive or negative.

This adaptability is one of humanity’s greatest strengths, but it can also be a terrible liability. It can lead to what the Stoics call insatiability — the utter inability to be satisfied with what you have, no matter much much that may be. As soon as one desire is satisfied, it is replaced with another desire.

In a modern context, you may get a brief rush from buying a 50″ plasma TV, but it soon wears off, and when 60″ plasma TVs go on sale a few months later, you find yourself wanting one of those, and of course you need nice new speakers to go with it, the latest XBox, a nice new stand to match, and so on. It’s never enough.

Conquering Hedonic Adaptation

If you look, you can see insatiability all around you in our ultra-consumerist culture. It’s one of the greatest sources of human misery, and the Stoics set out to conquer it. They developed a number of mental techniques to help cure insatiability, and in so doing, train yourself to be happy with what you have. The most prominent of these are called Negative Visualization and Practicing Adversity.

Negative Visualization

Negative Visualization is one of the most powerful techniques in the Stoic’s arsenal. It’s also one of the easiest to practice. It boils down to this — pick a blessing in your life, preferably one you normally take for granted. Good candidates that might not come immediately to mind are having people in your life who love you, or a roof over your head, or simply the ability to walk, or see. Now imagine what your life would be without it.

Let’s focus on hearing, for example. Imagine what it would be like to be deaf. You’d have to deal with endless daily inconveniences with communication. You’d never hear music again. You’d never hear the voices of the people you love. Your life would be more dangerous as well, as you wouldn’t be able to hear honking horns or shouted warnings.

In the end, though, you’d be able to adapt. You would learn sign language, learn to read lips, and keep in touch with friends over email or text rather than the phone. Chances are you’d get along just fine in the end.

But wait — you have that perfectly fine life now, except you also have the extraordinary gift of being able to hear. And what an amazing gift it is. You are truly blessed. Now put on your favorite music, and see if you don’t relish it just a little more.

Negative Visualization can help you turn hedonic adaptation on its head so it works for you instead of against you. “Get used” to going without one of your many blessings in your mind, and all of a sudden you will see it for the blessing it truly is.

Practicing Adversity

You can take negative visualization a step further by actually choosing to experience adversity in real life. The ideas behind it are much the same. You can actually make a fun game out of it. Challenge yourself, and see how long you can go without turning on the air conditioner in the summer, or the heater in the winter. You’ll find you quickly get used to conditions you’d have found intolerable before.

The benefits to this are manifold. At the very least, you’ll learn to appreciate the modern comforts you used to take for granted. Even better, you might decide you don’t need to keep your house at 75 degrees in the the winter time. You can be perfectly comfortable at 68 degrees. So you can turn down the thermostat and save a bunch of cash (not to mention the planet).

Stoicism and Financial Independence

Cutting down the thermostat is not the only way stoicism can help you grow your wealth. The central goal of the philosophy is learning to appreciate what you already have. When you can continue to get joy from your many blessings, you’ll find that your endless desires for more of everything subside. Cutting back on non-essentials becomes easier. Resisting the relentless temptation to spend money on things you don’t need becomes easier.

In fact, you may find the temptation melts away entirely. You may find yourself wondering how you could ever have wanted all that stuff in the first place. The most natural use for all the money you save as a result is paying down debt and growing your wealth.

The Rebirth of Stoicism

Stoicism enjoyed a wide following in ancient Rome, but eventually fell out of favor, and was long considered a minor intellectual side alley, even among philosophy majors. It has recently resurfaced, however, driven in no small part by William B. Irvine’s extraordinary book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. If you are interested in Stoicism, and want to learn more, this book is an excellent place to start.

I have personally experimented with Stoic techniques over the past few months, and seen remarkable results almost immediately. That’s why my New Year’s resolution is to become a full-fledged practicing Stoic. I will be assigning myself a course of study including Seneca and Zeno, and daily practice of negative visualization and other Stoic methods. I am looking forward to the challenge.

With so many people struggling in vain to find fulfillment working in miserable jobs to fuel endless consumption, Stoicism is a philosophy of life whose time has come again.

10 Comments

  1. Very close to Zen philosophy in some ways… do you think Zen might have some roots in stoicism?

    • Sean Owen

      There are a number of similarities, to be sure. Stoicism doesn’t embrace quite the same level of asceticism as Zen, though, nor does it have much of a tradition of meditation. The Stoics also focused on using reason to conquer irrational emotional responses. My knowledge of Zen is extremely limited, but according to my best understanding, Zen practitioners believe all reality is an illusion and reason is largely irrelevant.

      The big common theme between the two that I see is working to let go of attachments.

    • I’m not sure if you meant roots in a literal sense, but Ancient Greece had no contact with China, so it’s highly doubtful that such a thing would be historically possible.

  2. Hayley

    Appreciating what you have is an especially great concept for kids. We did this one day by cleaning out ALL of the toys we thought our son “needed” when we bought them, and left him with just a few, simple things to play with. You know what? He had a blast! He used his imagination! A puzzle piece became a phone, his blocks became a fort and suddenly he was singing, dancing and having a blast. I think this is a great concept that we can all use.

  3. Wonderful post here, Sean. Clear and well written.

    It is an all too human tendency to focus on what we don’t have rather than to give thanks for that with which we have been blessed. My experience is also that the more keenly I focus on appreciation for the blessings I have, the more they seem to flow.

    Kinda like, oh I don’t know, say….
    …Index investing. ;)

    • Sean Owen

      Thanks for the kind words, JL. And you’re right, index funds are a great blessing, especially for those of us who can’t trade individual stocks in our 401(k)’s ;)

  4. Sreenath PG

    I’m not sure if I can call myself a stoic. However, from whatever things I read from your blog, I can tell you that much of its basic philosophy are ideas that I have concluded on my own. I believe Stoicism has definitely a big role to play in the upcoming future of a regrowth in Spiritual development all over the world. I’m extremely glad that you have come up with a wonderful blog-post on Stoicism and I really appreciate it.

  5. FreeUrChains

    An on topic interesting aspect comes with the Burden of Having. If you put on 80 lb Steel Armor, could you walk, turn your head, get on a horse? Consider owning Material items as a Burden with a specific weight, and your net worth being your stamina and carry weight limit. The less Burdens you carry with you as you quest in life, the more stamina you will have. Each person personally carries their own burdens while questing. They should constantly and considerably think about every burden they want or need, and how much of a toll it impacts on their life’s Quest and overall Happiness. Family and Friends impact your happiness levels, not the burdens you carry unless they are directly putting burdens on your shoulders. Then you need to have a Talk about self-sustainablilty of their own burdens and how harm and disrespect can come from them having to many burdens.

  6. I really like the phrase “Practicing Adversity”. When times get tough, I feel like a lot of people whine. I always try to turn inwards and “practice adversity”. Because once you get good at dealing with it, you can let it stop bothering you and enjoy life.

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