We’ve all had times when things are going great. However, it often happens that even if the good times keep going, our mind tries to nudge us towards feelings of anxiety. One way to avoid this is to learn about the teachings of the Stoics. In this article, we will take a closer look at several Stoic strategies that can help improve your mood, outlook in life, and overall happiness. According to them, we create stress within ourselves. We are responsible for our current state of misery and letting it pass – because it will pass. Remind yourself of what the great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations: “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it because it was within me, in my perceptions — not outside.”
The Stoic Mantra: Focus Only On What You Can Control
The Stoics argue that only two things are under our control: our thoughts and our actions. Everything else is out of our hands and therefore not worthy of anxiety.
When I was feeling anxious, I gently reminded myself that I had created the stress within me. That I am responsible for my current state of misery, and I am responsible for letting it pass. Because it will, and it did. Just the simple fact of reminding myself that I am in control of my state of being brought a feeling of calmness inside me.
I then reminded myself of what Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations: “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it because it was within me, in my perceptions — not outside.” It’s incredible how a simple shift in your outlook can instantly change your mindset and mood.
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing.”
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Do you control the weather? Do you control the traffic? Do you control the stock market? Remind yourself that you don’t every time something goes wrong with these things. You’ll take away the power they threaten to hold over you in certain times of the day.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I control.”
It’s a beautiful lesson to remember. To be at ease with everything that happens, good or bad. It’s a trope repeated time and again, but the present moment is all there is. Feeling this, truly understanding it, is the doorway to happiness.
Imagine being the most powerful person on the planet and still being mindful enough to keep a journal. It’s what Marcus Aurelius did when he was the Emperor of Rome. He never intended his writings to be published, yet here we are, drawing inspiration from them thousands of years later.
The man had many things on his mind, matters of life and death. Yet, he took the time to gather his thoughts on what bothered him, pleased him, and what he could do better as a human, a ruler, and a Stoic.
If he didn’t jot down his thoughts in a diary, we wouldn’t be able to read his Meditations. We wouldn’t be able to see that even Emperors were struggling with the same thoughts of anxiety that we struggle with today.
Is there a best way to journal? No. Just get a notebook, or open up your laptop and start writing. Is there a perfect time to start journaling? Yes, today. After a while, you’ll start to see patterns in your thinking and mood swings. You’ll be able to discern the things over which you have control versus those you don’t.
Curb Your Desires / Welcome Discomfort
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Epictetus, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus
Most people equate having many possessions with happiness. Stoics, on the other hand, believed the opposite. They thought that the fewer things you have, the happier you’ll be. Moreover, they believed that not only should you refrain from possessing many things, but you should also curb your desire to have them in the first place.
Indeed, some of the most famous Stoic philosophers have practiced scarcity and discomfort. They believed that this would make them appreciate things more. They practiced discomfort to be ready for life’s challenges and be less dependent on things. Recall Tyler Durden’s quote in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.” That phrase could be easily credited to the Stoics.
Seneca believed that putting yourself in stressful situations increases your resilience. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius (Letter 18 – On Festivals and Fasting), he says, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with a coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?”
You could practice this by fasting or taking cold showers. You could choose not to use the A/C once in a while or go out dressed lightly in cold weather. You’ll see that it’s not the end of the world if you do these things.
You might even discover a thing or two about yourself.
Meditate on Your Mortality
In my previous article, I discussed how the Stoics viewed death as a means of achieving a state of calm and joy. Ultimately, understanding that you are mortal is one of the best ways through which you can learn to live.
Rarely do things bring more urgency to our way of life as death does. It motivates us, makes us forget about trivialities, and focus more on the things that fulfill us. Remember, death isn’t a thing that we’re moving towards. As Seneca said, we die every minute, of every day. You’re dying as you read this.
In his popular blog post “The Tail End,” Tim Urban provides a glimpse of the weeks we have left on this Earth. It’s a very sobering message that time goes by so fast. It shows us that looking back, we’ll wish we spent it in a virtuous way.
Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario
“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”
In his book “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy,” William Irvine describes negative visualization as the “single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological toolkit.”
Negative visualization makes you fully appreciate the things you have by imagining that they’ll be gone one day. This could include friends, family members, children, and other people you cherish. Imagining that you may lose them will make you appreciate them more the next time you share a meal or go on a date.
It’s one of the principles and techniques often criticized by those who say that such thinking will leave you in a state of perpetual misery. I tried it myself to see if it’ll work. My mother is in her seventies, so I imagined how it would be if something happened to her. After all, it’s more probable than not in those years. Just thinking that made me want to spend more time with her.
Of course, there’s a difference between contemplating and worrying to death. Be mindful of that when you practice. It’s hard to do this with your loved ones, imagining that something terrible may happen to them. But, if it fills you with gratitude every time you’re together, I’d say it’s well worth it.
Internalize Your Goals
When I set out to write this article, I didn’t imagine how many times people would read it. Instead, I focused on doing my best.
This principle is closely related to the dichotomy of control, i.e., that we shouldn’t worry about things we can’t control and instead focus on the things we can. I can’t control how many shares or likes this article will receive. I can control how much effort I’ll spend writing it and how meticulous I’ll be in my research. I can control how honest I will be in my writing.
In his bestseller Atomic Habits, James Clear says, “When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.” If you’re working a 9-5 job, you have control of the amount of effort you invest each day to do the best job possible. If you’re trying to lose weight, you control what you eat and how much you exercise.
It’s these things you should meditate on to achieve your goals. Not wishing for an easier life, wishing for a relationship, wishing for a higher paycheck. Actually doing the work, doing the actions required. Fall in love in the process, expecting nothing more.
My guess is that more will come either way.
Meditate on Your Success (And Failure) as a Stoic
Seneca advises that we spend some time reviewing our efforts to be a good Stoic each day. Let’s say you’ve taken up journaling (which you would be wise to do). Try and end each day with a review of what you have done, good and wrong, during the day.
Write what you thought you could have done better. Maybe you worried too much about something you don’t have any control over (your boss wasn’t in a good mood). Maybe you lashed out at your spouse (which you have complete control over). Write these things, meditate on them and imagine how you would do better tomorrow.
In time, you will.