5 Stoic Principles for Modern Living
Applying an Ancient Philosophy to the 21st Century
The Greeks put a lot of thought into how life should be lived, from Aristotle to Socrates to Plato, but one of their most practical philosophies remains misunderstood by the majority of people: Stoicism. Despite Stoicism’s undeserved reputation for being synonymous with emotionlessness, it can actually lead to an incredibly satisfying way of life. Stoicism is a very old philosophy that can be practiced by anyone to increase their happiness; many ideas you may already practice in your daily interactions.
Stoicism is, at its root, a philosophy for minimizing the negative emotions in your life and maximizing your gratitude and joy; it includes mindfulness practices and value-based living. Stoicism is a tool to amplify your human experience, both internally and externally. In this article, I’ll share some of the ways that Stoics think by explaining the meaning behind some of their most famous practitioner’s quotes. By incorporating some of their thought processes into our daily lives, I believe we’ll find more joy in our daily duties and respond more resiliently to troubles and challenges that arise.
Principle 1: You can’t change things outside of your control, but you can change your attitude.
A key component of Stoicism is practicing mindfulness. Recognize the events in your life that you do and don’t have control over. If you become frustrated with events outside of your control, you are wasting energy and fostering negative emotion. The stoic practice of protecting your mind from circumstances out of your control is best illustrated by a Buddhist story. The antagonist in the story is Mara, an enemy of the Buddha. Mara heard of the Buddha’s powers and sought to destroy him so he sent a powerful army. Mara instructed the soldiers to throw flaming rocks at the Buddha, but when they got near him they turned to flowers and fell. Buddha’s adversary then instructed the army to shoot arrows at the Buddha, but again the arrows became flowers once they got close to the Buddha’s sphere. There was nothing Mara could do to injure the Buddha because the Buddha had mastered the ability to shelter his happiness from outside events. I draw parallel the rocks and arrows to negative thoughts about external circumstances. You can’t change these events; you can only change your attitude towards them. Through this realization our mind can become impenetrable. So long as we can control our attitudes and reactions, we can very well never be negatively influenced by outside events.
Principle 2: Don’t fall prey to modern society’s materialistic nature.
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” ― Epictetus
Our consumerist society seems to create more desire than it fulfills. This results in everyone keeping up with the Jones’ — but it’s doubtful that even the Jones’ are happy. Our constant exposure to media and advertising keeps us wanting and seeing better out there — we spend our hard earned money on the latest fad, convinced it will leave us fulfilled until version 2.0 comes out next year. If we strive to want less, our desire decreases and we become more satisfied with what we have, which brings us to the next quote.
Principle 3: Picture life without the people and possessions you have to truly appreciate them.
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
We’ve realized now that wanting more leads to dissatisfaction — so how do we find happiness? The key lies in gratitude. We must appreciate all that we have and find joy in it. We live in an incredible period of history with easy access to necessities and technology that provides a standard of living that was unforeseeable just a few generations ago. Instead of appreciating this, we take it for granted. One stoic practice is to imagine that you lost some of your valuable possessions. It may sound depressing initially, but by imagining these losses we come to appreciate what we have more. It’s imperative that we not put too much necessity on the things we have either — for they may not always be there. Being a Stoic means finding happiness through whatever you do have — if you place emphasis on an external item and it is taken away, the stoic should not be upset but rather grateful they had the object to begin with. Everything is borrowed from the universe. Mass comes and goes, but goodness remains, and therein lies joy.
Principle 4: Be genuinely cheerful in all your interactions.
“A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” ― Seneca, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters
We now know that happiness comes from within and from appreciating everything around us — even something as simple as living at a point in time where we can buy bottled water for $1.00 from a vending machine no more than 100 feet from us (We really take things for granted sometimes). Since, with the stoic mindset, our happiness can become independent of other factors; we should be cheerful all the time as stoics because we desire nothing more than human experience. If we desired more, we could allow ourselves to be disappointed. This doesn’t mean that stoics can’t enjoy the finer things in life — it just means we shouldn’t think of them as necessary for our happiness. Only providing goodness to the world through helping people and advancing society — something we each are able to do on a daily basis — can make us truly fulfilled.
Principle 5: Practicing your values beats preaching them.
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” ― Epictetus
Stoic philosophy requires a great deal of personal responsibility. It’s not that you should be insanely hard on yourself, but you should understand that every decision that you make throughout the day contains a moral dimension. Stoicism must be practiced if you want to influence the world in a better way. Ask yourself regularly, “What’s the best way to act in this situation?” You should be looking to make choices based on your personal values to increase the greater good. Live by your moral code.
I’ve personally found that the lessons of stoicism, if practiced, can increase our quality of life. Stoicism is not an “all or nothing” philosophy; feel free to choose which parts of stoicism would best impact your life.
To summarize Stoicism, don’t get caught up in materialism, have cheerful interactions with your colleagues to bring them up, perform work diligently and for the greater good, and recognize what’s in and out of your control — don’t let things out of your control affect your joy. When frustrating things happen, breathe, recognize your emotion and the reason for it, and let it pass. You can’t do anything about it anyway. All that you can control is your reaction, and all you can do is embody goodness and appreciate all you have, which is something I’m sure we’ll all find joy in.