A quick look at any dictionary will tell you the word “stoic” describes someone with the following character:
- A person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.
- One apparently or professedly indifferent to pleasure or pain.
- Not affected by or showing passion or feeling.
Does living stoically sound appealing to you? It sure doesn’t to me. In fact, it sounds terrible. Why would I want to live my life indifferent to what is happening to me or the world around me?
Although the word stoic is derived from the philosophy of life known as Stoicism, that seems to be where the similarities end. Stoicism does not preach a life of indifference, but rather a reconceptualization of the events in our lives. It asks us to think differently, in a manner that will help us deal with strong emotions, especially negative ones, healthily and effectively.
The goal of Stoicism is tranquility, not indifference. And although these things may seem similar at first, there is a world of difference between them.
Stoicism in a nutshell
Stoicism was founded in Athens some 2300 years ago by Zeno of Citium. Zeno believed that much of our dissatisfaction in life ultimately arises from an error in thinking, which leads to strong negative emotions that are difficult to effectively manage. Stoicism was developed to address these issues.
As I mentioned earlier, the goal of Stoicism is tranquility. But, what does that mean?
Tranquility is a difficult thing to understand because our minds are typically wrapped up in a particular way of thinking — so I’m going to gloss over it here. In essence, tranquility is the state of mind that results from operationalizing the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
As an example, consider how you feel in rush-hour traffic. Imagine, you’re stuck, bumper-to-bumper, in an endless line of cars that have not moved an inch in 25 minutes. How do you feel in moments like these? Do you feel angry? Frustrated? Do you want to yell at the top of your lungs?
This is an example of a situation that you can’t control or, at best, have very little control over. The Stoics believed that our strong and sustained emotional responses to events like these are unhelpful and cause us unnecessary dissatisfaction. In other words, our reactions to these situations tend to disrupt our tranquility.
Stoicism’s recommendation, however, is not to avoid, ignore, or push away our emotions. Instead, it recommends we use our rational minds to train ourselves so that our emotional responses work for us and not against us.
Emotions aren’t the problem
Most of us take our emotional reactions for granted.
If we’re stuck in traffic, we’re furious. If we notice our friends have more and better than we do, we’re envious. If we break up with a partner, we’re heartbroken. If we don’t receive the promotion we’re expecting, we feel not good enough.
These are normal emotional responses to common situations. The Stoics wouldn’t say these emotions, per se, are the problem. They would say, I think, our reactions to them are the problem.
Imagine a small child is walking down the street happily enjoying an ice cream cone. When a cute dog walks by, he is momentarily distracted from his ice cream. His hand tilts sideways. The ice cream slips off the cone and splats on the ground.
In moments like these, you would expect tears and maybe some wailing. This is a “normal” child’s response to the loss of something of this kind. However, you wouldn’t expect an adult to behave this way. For most of us adults, we might feel a brief moment of sadness and loss but it would quickly pass.
Just as we have developed the tools to effectively deal with the loss of delicious ice cream, the Stoics believed we can continue this kind of emotional development throughout our lives to encompass increasingly more impactful events.
Reframing our experiences
When we lose our ice cream as an adult, several mental processes immediately jump into action. First of all, we know how prevalent ice cream is — it’s not exactly a rare delicacy. Second, we know we’ll have another opportunity to enjoy it in the future. Third, we might feel a sense of relief since we’re supposed to be watching what we eat, anyway. Lastly, if we wanted to, we could probably buy another one.
A child, though, can’t tell himself these things. For him, ice cream is a rare delicacy, he doesn’t know he’ll enjoy it again, he can’t imagine why eating sugar would be bad for him, and he can’t buy more. For the child, the situation seems much, much worse. So, the tears and the wailing kind of make sense, don’t they?
As we age and gain experience, many of us develop mental strategies for dealing with these kinds of situations. You may never have put this strategy into words, but in modern psychology, this is called cognitive reframing or restructuring, which is used in cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.
We don’t have the power to change what has happened, but we do have the ability to change our thoughts toward it. And, the Stoics discovered, this can have a huge impact on the quality of our lives.
Why? Because much of what happens in our lives is outside of our control or, at best, only partially within our control. So, when something unfortunate happens, which is inevitable, the only recourse we have is to try to reframe the event in our minds.
But, critically, this isn’t about lying to ourselves. Nor is this about denying reality or emotions. This is about understanding that a reaction to an event first requires an interpretation of that event.
The child’s reaction and your reaction are different responses to the same event. The only difference is how that event is interpreted in your mind and the child’s mind.
Thankfully, we have the power to re-interpret the events in our lives, we just need to learn how.
Stoic practices that help us reframe our experiences
The Stoics suggested several techniques for helping us to better deal with the ups and downs of life. I’m going to briefly discuss two of them.
The Stoics believed that everyone should practice negative visualization, which is the practice of .imagining your life in a state worse than it is.
You can start simply. For example, if you love to drink coffee in the morning, imagine that you couldn’t have one today. Imagine that your coffeemaker broke and you had no backup. Imagine what your reaction would be. Imagine how you’d drag yourself out the door, annoyed not only that you’re without coffee but that you’ll have to figure out some alternative plan to get one. This might make you late for work and leave you in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
Or, you can think about something a little more profound. For example, imagine your life without your partner. Imagine coming home from work to an empty house, or going to sleep in an empty bed. Imagine needing to make all the meals, do all the dishes and laundry, as well as mow the lawn. Imagine wanting to tell your spouse something important and not being able to.
The point of negative visualization is twofold. First, it’s to remind ourselves how lucky we actually are. All of us take for granted what we experience on a daily basis. We have built our routines around what we expect to happen. But at some point all those things become so normal, so expected, so routine, that was stop appreciating them. Imagining ourselves without those things helps us to see how grateful we are for them.
Second, negative visualization helps us prepare for inevitable setbacks. No matter who you are, you’ve experienced some kind of setback. Maybe your car got a flat on the highway. Maybe your coffeemaker really did stop working. Maybe your partner left you. Maybe you broke your leg. These things suck, and we expect them to hurt. However, negative visualization can help to make them hurt less. Since you’ve already imagined something going wrong in your life, you’re better prepared, mentally, for when something does happen.
Purposeful exposure to discomfort
As humans, we are constantly avoiding discomfort and seeking comfort.
We build our lives around eating because we hate being hangry. We dress so that we’re not too cold or too hot. We avoid activities that are strenuous or that cause us to sweat. We make sure we get enough sleep because we know how awful it feels to be sleepy.
What the Stoics recognized is that our constant avoidance of discomfort makes us particularly susceptible to it. So, when we do miss a meal or overdress we are flustered and, in some cases, overwhelmed.
This is why the Stoics believed that we should occasionally put ourselves into uncomfortable situations. Since these situations inevitably happen anyway, they thought, we might as well prepare ourselves for them.
This practice can be very simple to carry out. For example, do you hit the snooze button every morning? Instead of hitting snooze tomorrow, get up. Do you have a cup of coffee first thing every morning? Tomorrow, don’t make yourself one. Do you avoid sweating at all costs? Tomorrow, do something that makes you sweat.
The outcome of this practice is that when you inevitably find yourself in discomfort, you will have previous experience to help guide you. You will know that the discomfort won’t last and that you will survive it. This will decrease the discomfort you actually feel.
Will you become a Stoic?
We all struggle to deal with life. Shitty things happen, that’s just a fact. No one makes it through life unscathed.
But, the ride doesn’t have to be so bumpy.
Humans have known strategies that help us to more effectively manage our emotions for thousands of years. It’s just a matter of acting.
What’s more, when you do manage to build your emotional resilience, you’ll feel more at peace with the world. You’ll see it differently, with more love and appreciation. It won’t be so brutal and overwhelming.
This is the secret that the Stoics discovered — that life, if lived well, can be beautiful.
Will you follow the Stoic path?
Thanks for reading!
Many of the ideas in this article come from William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life.