The Stoics on Happiness

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

[Previously, I promised to write about the Stoic view on living a good life. This is that post.]

I’ll begin by describing some Stoic exercises to give you a flavor of Stoicism, then I’ll provide a few bullet points of Stoicism, some summary remarks, a brief video, and links to my previous posts on Stoicism.

Part  1 – Stoic Exercises

  1. Practice Misfortune – Practice poverty, eat less, sleep in a tent, etc. If you’re always comfortable you’ll fear that comfort will be taken away.
  2. Turn the Obstacle Upside Down – If someone is unkind toward you, practice patience and understanding. If someone you love dies, practice fortitude.
  3. All is Ephemeral – Remember our passions are ephemeral and our achievements are trivial.
  4. The View from Above – Remember how small you are in the big scheme of things.
  5. Meditate on Your Mortality – You could leave life today. Let that guide what you do and say.
  6. Differentiate Between What You Can and Cannot Control – No amount of rage will change the weather or the traffic. But you can reject anger and rage.
  7. Keep a Journal – Remind yourself and reflect upon what you’ve learned each day.
  8. Practice Negative Visualization – If we prepare for the worst our inner peace will more likely remain when we encounter setbacks.
  9. Love of Fate – Happiness isn’t getting what you want but wanting what you get. Treat all you encounter as something to be embraced.

(I am indebted to the authors of The Daily Stoic for the above list.)

Part  2 – The Bullet Points

a) Don’t Suppress Emotions, Control Them

To begin let me clear up the misconception that Stoicism advocates suppressing emotions. We instinctively react to situations with emotion but the Stoics teach us to reflect on the extent an emotion or passion is appropriate or justified. For example, we may quickly feel in love or angry with someone. But, after reflection, we may decide not to cultivate such feelings. In other words, we may (or may not) conclude that these feelings are appropriate.

For the Stoics, emotions or passions are ‘things which one undergoes’ and are to be contrasted with things one does. The Stoics aren’t arguing for apathy, but rather that you resist being subject to your passions—manipulated or moved by them. Instead, you should actively and positively control your reactions to things as they occur or will soon occur. Passions that particularly manipulate us are appetites and fear.

To reiterate, the Stoics don’t think that we should excise normal impulses or desires, only our excessive and irrational passions. These passionate emotions have a kind of momentum which subverts your reason. If, for instance, you are consumed with lust or greed you might act in ways that you would otherwise deem imprudent.

So the goal of the Stoic is to prevent the passions and emotions from controlling us and upset our peace of mind and equanimity. And this requires that we practice virtues such as wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation.

b) Control What You Can, Ignore What You Can’t Control, and Do Your Best 

Stoics made a sharp (perhaps too sharp) distinction between things that are under our control and things that lay outside of it. The first category includes our own thoughts and attitudes, while the second one includes pretty much everything else. (For a funny rendition of this distinction, see this short bit by comedian Michael Connell.) The idea is that peace of mind comes from focusing on what we can control, rather than wasting emotional energy on what we cannot control.

However, this doesn’t imply that we neglect human affairs; remember, many prominent Stoics were politicians, generals, or emperors who tried to influence the world for the better while recognizing they couldn’t control the outcome of their efforts. And they accepted that things didn’t go their way.

c) Love for All 

Indeed, Stoics thought of their philosophy as a philosophy of love, and they actively cultivated a concern not just for themselves and their family and friends, but for humanity at large, and even for nature itself. They were interested in improving humanity’s welfare.

d) Virtue is Happiness

The Stoics recognized that, among other things, we: (i) behave in order to advance our interests and goals (health, wealth, etc.); (ii) identify with other people’s interests; (iii) try to navigate the vicissitudes of life. These propensities are related to the four cardinal virtues of courage temperance, justice, and practical wisdom. Temperance and courage are required to pursue our goals, justice is a natural extension of our concern for an ever-increasing circle of people, and practical wisdom is what best allows us to deal with whatever happens. The most important good in life is a virtuous character.

Still, the Stoics readily admit that a preference for, say, wealth over poverty isn’t groundless even if such things aren’t always good for us. (For instance, wealth may make it easier to become addicted to harmful drugs.) Other things being equal, it is objectively preferable to have health rather than sickness.

Part 3 – Summary Remarks

The Stoics wrote about how we can become better, happier people capable of dealing with life’s problems. Consider that practicing misfortune makes you stronger in the face of adversity; reflecting on obstacles transforms problems into opportunities; not being controlled by passions leads to a better life; distinguishing between what you can and can’t control helps avoid distress; putting things in perspective makes for inner peace; and remembering how small you keep your ego in check.

So Stoicism is less a systematic philosophy than a series of tips for living a good life. It is a soothing ointment for the injury of living. As Epictetus said, “life is hard, brutal, punishing, narrow, and confining, a deadly business.” Stoicism means to help us flourish nonetheless by maintaining equanimity amidst the inevitable difficult situations that we will confront.

And here is a link to a short, recently-published essay:
How an ancient philosopher helped me through one of the worst crises of my life


Wikipedia – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Stoic Passions How To Be A Stoic – The Daily Stoic – The School of Life – Reddit/Stoicism – “A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism” – Modern Stoicism


[My previous posts on Stoicism. The first 3 listed have each been viewed over 50,000 times.]

Marcus Aurelius: A Brief Summary of The Meditations

Summary of the Discourses of Epictetus

Summary of Seneca On the Shortness of Life

Summary of Seneca “On Tranquility”

The Stoics on the Emotions or Passions

Marcus Aurelius On Getting Out Of Bed

Western Philosophical Meditation

Critique of Epictetus and Stockdale

Epictetus and Admiral James Stockdale


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4 thoughts on “The Stoics on Happiness

  1. “Turn the Obstacle Upside Down – If someone is unkind toward you, practice patience and understanding”

    “Patience, yes. Understanding? Understand what?
    We really do not subscribe to turning the other cheek– because we only care about our family + friends; plus self-esteem demands we be assertive. However self-esteem in reality means ego, pretty much negating stoicism.

    Are you going to understand a thug who threatens your family? No, you’re going to call the police and prosecute him to the full extent of the Public Defenders Office budget.

    Sure, it is understood we are talking philosophy, not sociology; still ‘understanding’ is a bit trite in such a context because you want the guy to understand what the inside of a jail cell looks like. Yet another reason Christianity fails.

    And men are expected to be Men. An old joke: a man says to his wife, “you want a husband who is patient and understanding? You find a guy like that and I’LL marry him.”

    In Christianity, patience and understanding are well nigh synonymous with smarminess; the ‘pro-life’ movement is deep down based on an anger comparable to Communists fighting for their imaginary revolution. Religion gave birth to today’s impatient and misunderstanding politics.
    Problem with Marcus Aurelius is not Marcus Aurelius; problem is his son Commodus; question is: what did Marcus Aurelius do or not do wrong to have the legacy of the Five Good Emperors destroyed by his own son?

    Or, examining this question from Marcus Aurelius’ perspective, why did the gods turn against the empire and what role did Marcus Aurelius play in somehow unintentionally insulting the gods? One definition of a gentleman is a man who never unintentionally insults anyone.

    Was Marcus Aurelius’ legacy punished for mistakes Marcus Aurelius made as a military commander? Was the Roman Empire punished by the gods via Commodus for its ‘sins’?

  2. Well as a Christian, I am supposed to forgive since the example Jesus portrade on the cross. Of which is my biggest problem, being as I do believe in his deity!!! Jesus is Lord of all.

  3. I don’t really see how stoicism and Christianity can coexist. Religion is the worship of a deity. Philosophy involves changing the way you think to better yourself and thus better your relationships with others. It does not involve worshiping a deity. Religion involves following rules to appease a deity. Philosophy involves examining how you think in order to better yourself. In religion, your deity is the focus. In philosophy, you are the focus. It seems like a bastardization to try and combine the two. Both will suffer.

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