I wanted to title this post “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness,” but that happens to be the exact title of a book I read on Stoicism. It’s a good title and a good introductory book. Even if you’ve already read “A Guide to the Good Life” by William B Irvine, I would still suggest reading the Donald Robertson book as it’s more complete.
Stoicism is in part about learning to appreciate what you have. “So what” you ask? Are you kidding? That’s super important. As I mentioned earlier, even when people receive a windfall sum of money, some other good fortune, or when they buy a shiny new “thing,” they’re soon dull to it. The feelings of fanciness only last for so long, no matter what it is. Without something to combat hedonistic adaptation, you’ll never appreciate anything in life for more than a limited amount of time! So we’ve all heard this before, in blog posts, Facebook memes, and sometimes in real life. Knowing this and simply reading fancy quotes about it does NOT work. Just read these words of wisdom and see if they change your life.
Appreciate what you have before it becomes what you had.
Someone else is happier with less than what you have.
Don’t take things for granted because they might not be there tomorrow.
“Uhhh, yes, I know that. Thanks a lot (rolls eyes).” Stoicism can make it stick. How? Of course, it’s not a light switch and it’s not a pill. Changing ingrained thought patterns takes practice.
How to think
Perhaps the most interesting concept in Stoicism is negative visualization. It’s a hands-on practical way to appreciate what you have in life, modernized in the books mentioned above. To sum up negative visualization in a surely less than adequate way, it’s about visualizing what your life could be like, if it were worse. No, the idea isn’t to dwell on imaginary horrors. It’s about taking some time on a regular basis to reflect. For example, do you have air conditioning in your car? I do, and I love it. I didn’t love it before I got to live without it for a few weeks though. Those were interesting, sweaty, uncomfortable times, and I don’t regret a minute of it. It’s true what they say: you can’t appreciate things without loss. Luckily for us though, imagining a loss also has a huge effect. Even though it’s not 100% real, it’s real for a moment in your mind. That’s part of why negative visualization works.
As the Stoics would suggest, you don’t need to limit yourself to merely imagining loss to be able to appreciate what you have. There are things in your life that you can easily give up temporarily to be able to appreciate them more. For example you could go without a car for a week, you could go without electricity for a day, you could go without meat, without fancy food, or without food at all for a day. Of course, a particular experience has to be tailored to a particular goal.
Along with mindfulness, a course on Stoicism could be titled “How to think correctly.” Before reading such texts it was almost as if no one told me I had a choice about how to view things in the world. Stubbed your toe? You’re immediately angry without even thinking about it. Lost your job? Your first thoughts are “Why did it have to happen to me?” Or maybe it rained on your birthday and your car broke down and you dropped your birthday cake in the mud and no one came to your party anyway? As a matter of fact, all of these minor setbacks can be seen as opportunities. Thank goodness I have toes to stub (some people don’t). Thank goodness I’ve had a job up until now and now I’ll have the chance to find a better job. Thank goodness I have a car – being stuck in the rain every day like this wouldn’t be very comfortable.
Of course, even a master Stoic has reactionary negative thoughts when misfortune first happens. It’s a natural human reflex. What changes is how long those negative thoughts last and how it affects us afterwards.
But, I just want to be wealthy?
This is wealthy. Wealthy is being happy with where you are and having an abundance of time, energy and resources. If you can’t be happy with what you have now, then (unless you have very, very little) you’ll never be wealthy. You might be rich one day though, and you might continue the cycle of buying more and more fanciness to “find” happiness. For some people happiness “comes naturally,” because of a combination of their genes and their environment as they discovered the world for the first time. For the rest of us, it can be learned and nurtured with practice.