We often assume that we know how best to make ourselves happy. That may be by entering relationships, studying to gain top grades, or working to earn more money. But these pursuits involve anxiety and exhaustion, which takes us away from the peace that could bring us happiness.
We often assume that we know how best to make ourselves happy
The Stoics called this type of happiness ‘ataraxia’, meaning ‘without trouble’, or ‘tranquility’. The philosophy began in Greece, 3 BC, and taught that a good life was lived by moderating emotions and keeping desires in line with nature. It is our thinking itself that we must change to be happy, and we must give up trying to control events in the external world that we have no power over. This is applied to anything that is beyond our will, such as pain, death and wealth.
This concept also includes the opinions of others. Epictetus, in his Handbook, argued that we ought to simply accept those that have poor opinions of us. To explain why, imagine that I decide to wear a neon-pink jacket from my wardrobe. When I wear the pink jacket, I may hope that my peers approve of it. But whether I receive disapproving glances because of its distracting nature, or perhaps some compliments about the bold style, I do not have the power to control others’ opinions. My influence ends with the decision about whether or not to wear the neon-pink jacket. Epictetus claimed that trying to control what we cannot is pointless, and we therefore ought to stop.
Epictetus claimed that trying to control what we cannot is pointless
But Stoicism doesn’t just free ourselves from others’ opinions – it lets us escape the trappings of our own minds. Epictetus famously said:
‘Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.’
Modern proponents such as Alain de Botton and Derren Brown apply the philosophy to modern scenarios. In Happy, Brown explains that our mental narratives are responsible for the way we see the world. We tell ourselves stories and ‘edit’ reality. For instance, a person might distort the memory of a delicious family dinner once it is spoiled by an argument – the whole evening may be remembered bitterly. In addition, Brown claims that our inner monologue tells us stories about the simplest things. We may think things like, ‘If I finish this now, I can fully relax this evening.’
We tell ourselves stories and “edit” reality
The things that we tell ourselves make up how we see the world. The Stoics claimed that we have the power within our own minds to tell ourselves different things, and therefore alter our emotional experiences. For example, I may be given a poor mark for an essay that I worked hard on. The result may provoke upset and perhaps even some anger directed at the marker. However, I don’t need to be committed to these feelings. I can instead frame the mark positively – it may be low, but I now have useful suggestions on how to write well, and in the scheme of my life, the essay mark is largely irrelevant. This will limit the negative emotions that I feel, which will help towards a more even mood, taking me closer to ‘ataraxia’.
we can remind ourselves that we aren’t married to negative emotions
So, if we’re under the pressure of summatives, if a flatmate steals our food, or if we live through a public embarrassment, we can remind ourselves that we aren’t married to negative emotions. Stoicism takes practise, but it has the power to free us from anxiety, disappointment and anger.
Photograph by mshelmet on Pixabay