“Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” – Alan Watts
I’ve been reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine this past week, and while I don’t agree with 100% of Stoic teachings, there are many lessons and philosophies contained within Stoicism that align with Buddhist ideologies and scientifically backed happiness studies that I think most people will be able to get behind.
In A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine gives us a modern introduction to Stoicism, weaving themes of acceptance, contentment, and fatalism into easily digestible psychological practices we can adopt to start living life happier now. Here are four that stood out to me:
1. Understand “Hedonic Adaptation” and Start Appreciating What You Have Through “Negative Visualization.”
Hedonic adaptation is the phenomenon that occurs when humans return to previous levels of happiness after getting a slight boost in happiness that comes from getting something they want. I’m sure you’ve noticed this before – humans spend their whole lives wanting. We start by wanting a certain job – but once we get that job, we want a better job, more pay. We start wanting a house – but once we get that house, we want a larger house, a bigger garage, maybe more windows.
Studies have shown that once people get something they want, they typically return to a baseline level of happiness not too long afterwards. In fact, one famous study shows that lottery winners return to similar baseline levels of happiness 18 months after winning. If this is true, it doesn’t make sense to fall into the trap of constantly chasing “more.” We run the risk of chasing more until our lives are over – thus never experiencing true happiness and contentment in our lifetimes.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t ever be ambitious and reach for more in our lives. Not falling into the trap of the “hedonistic treadmill” means that we should enjoy every step of our journey. We should never reach for “more” just to reach “more,” and we should spend way more of our time enjoying where we are and what we have. Study after study has shown that the secret to happiness is found in contentment: wanting what we have and enjoying the little things in life. It isn’t the huge, hallmark moments that truly fill our lives with joy – it’s the small, unnamed moments – a cup of coffee and a book; the feel of your dog warm, asleep against your leg; and the sound of your favorite record playing as you get ready to cook dinner with your partner.
Irvine also introduces the Stoic concept of “negative visualization” as a way to intensify the feelings of enjoyment that come from experiencing what you have in life. To practice negative visualization, imagine if you didn’t have everything you have. Imagine your favorite car being totaled in a car crash. Imagine today as the last day you’ll ever see your best friend. Imagine the cup of tea you just had as the last one you’ll ever be able to drink. (Okay, hold on, you’re thinking. This is starting to sound negative.) This was also my exact thought upon learning about this concept – but, what is really being suggested is that you savor your experiences.
Stop thinking about what you don’t have, and start thinking about how lucky you are to have whatever you’ve got. Start being grateful that nothing has taken those things away from you (yet). And enjoy what you have (all the wonderful, small things) with everything inside of you.
2. Improve Your Enjoyment of Things through Self Denial and Minor Acts of Self Deprivation.
Masochistic as this sounds, another way we can improve our enjoyment of life is by occasionally denying ourselves a constant stream of pleasure. I don’t think this is a first-world suggestion for self-flagellation – rather, I think the message behind this sentiment is, when your baseline for satisfaction is lower, you increase the number of chances you have for experiencing joy.
Instead of constantly appealing to our hedonistic desires for increasing pleasure and comfort, we can practice discipline and train ourselves to appreciate the smaller, less luxurious things in life. If we become slaves to our desire for more, we become slaves to an ever-increasing threshold for happiness that becomes more and more impossible to satisfy. Think of a dog and its happiness upon being taken out for a walk. Think of the joy on its face when you come home from a long day at work. Ponder how your cat continues to play with cheap cardboard boxes with the utmost glee no matter how many expensive cat toys you continue to buy. The fact remains – your quality of life does not go up with the size of your income. In fact, many studies have shown that once your income reaches a certain point (the point where you’re no longer stressing over lack of money), incremental increases in income do not equal equivalent increases in happiness or life satisfaction. In fact, our happiness levels plateau as our incomes go up from there and (surprise) even start to dip.
There’s a reason why Costa Rica, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, remains one of the happiest countries in the world. It’s been said time and time again, and as trite as it sounds, happiness has a lot more to do with how we perceive our world and how easily we find contentment – and a lot less to do with what we actually have. It also (not surprisingly) has a ton to do with the relationships we have in our lives. The United States, a highly individualistic country that prizes material gain and power over anything else, produces a society that perpetuates dissatisfaction, isolation and disconnection from what really matters. We are constantly chasing a dream we’ll never reach, and it’s unattainable by design. We are taught to be perpetually dissatisfied. We are told that this is the key to growth. These outside societal voices mix and merge with our inner voice until we don’t know who we’re actually listening to. Is this what we want?
A Stoic philosophy of life isn’t, however, an unambitious lifestyle reeking of mediocrity and smug ambivalence. Instead, it encourages a mindset of growth – with the right perspective. Which brings us to the next point.
3. Internalize Your Goals, and You Can’t Fail. (Plus, You’ll be Happier.)
Going after a goal without being attached to the outcome creates an environment where we can be happy no matter what. It also produces an atmosphere ripe for a sense of self worth that comes from within. Practicing Stoicism doesn’t mean you should be a chronic underachiever without any dreams – it means you can create a goal of growth without attaching your worth to an outcome. In other words, fall in love with the process and the journey, and do not become too attached to arrival. There isn’t a place to arrive to. Because we will never “arrive,” we might as well experience joy from all the little moments in between. Our goals should reflect that fact that there is never an arrival point, because in this moment, we’re perfectly imperfect just the way we are. Believing anything otherwise sets us up for a lifetime of feeling inadequate. And who wants to do that to themselves?
Instead of creating goals like “become the Director of Marketing at a major, well-known company,” or “be the most hilarious husband ever,” we can create goals like “do my best to work towards becoming a Director of Marketing,” “strive to continue to challenge myself,” “make an effort to make my wife smile every day,” and so on. When we internalize our goals, we can’t fail, and we can still put all of our effort into improving our lives and our circumstances. The key here is detachment from outcomes. As my dad used to say repeatedly, “all we can do is the best we can do.” If you’ve done that, no matter what happens, be happy with yourself. That’s all you can really ask for.
As for the outcomes? Those are just pleasant side effects. And you weren’t really trying to “arrive” anyway, were you? If you consider life to be a race where you’re trying to reach a destination…well…good luck and have fun racing to death. Yup, I said it. Sorry.
4. Finally, Amor Fati.
Amor fati means simply, to love your fate. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche puts it, Amor fati means:
“That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”
In the words of Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher:
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
What this means is that you should fall in love with every part of your life, not just the great moments – in fact, go so far as to fall in love with your struggle and your pain. This is obviously much harder than (or as hard as) it sounds. But if you consider that your struggle allows you to experience joy, it might be a little easier. It is the contrast of darkness and light that allows there to be light. It is nothingness that allows there to be “something.” In fact, it can be argued that the “nothing” creates and defines the “something.” Our lives go through constant cycles – what goes down must come up, and what comes up must go down, eventually. So instead of simply loving one part of your life and only the happiest moments, try to love the whole. Amor fati encapsulates the philosophy of simply loving what “is.”
Everything in Balance.
Is a Stoic philosophy (or any philosophy of happiness or well being, for that matter) hopelessly optimistic? My opinion? Hopefully not. Not too long ago, I subscribed to the idea that we should only ever pay attention to the bright spots in life, while ignoring the dark. I hoped that in doing this, I would increase my life satisfaction by focusing on and “growing” the good things in my life through visualization and positivity. This practice of relentless positivity improved my outlook, resilience and overall feelings of happiness. Yes, “law of attraction” definitely works, and you can create the things you want (in physical form!) in your life by believing they will happen and by visualizing what you want.
The flip-side? An intolerance for anything other than relentless positivity in both myself and others left me ill-equipped to deal with the truly palpable low points in my life and in this world. We cannot turn a blind eye to suffering, because in doing so, we are in essence denying ourselves of our humanity and a decent portion of our lives. Interestingly, it was my very refusal to accept pain and discomfort that caused me more pain and discomfort than anything. The cognitive dissonance that occurred whenever I felt anything less than positive was immense, and I’d waste hours of my life berating myself for not being “resilient” enough, “positive” enough, or for not being able to pick myself back up.
This isn’t to say that we should allow ourselves to sink into despair, or that we shouldn’t be resilient, solutions-oriented people who always believe a brighter day is yet to come. We should continue to do those things, for that is one (very important) side of the coin. The other side, however, can’t be ignored or rejected. We should allow ourselves to be less than perfect, less than positive, and even a little defeated at times. That is as much a part of life and being human as is being resilient and positive.
We should stop kicking ourselves, and sometimes allow ourselves to sink low into the bath, candles burning – to hide from the world for just another day…
…for tomorrow the sun will come up again, like it always does.
We are the most incredible nothing, and the most incredible everything.
“If you are aware of a state called is, or reality, or life, this implies another state called isn’t -or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness or death. You can’t know one without the other. And so as to make life poignant, it’s always going to come to an end. That is exactly – don’t you see – what makes it lively. Liveliness is change – it is motion. You see, you are always at the place you always are…and you think “Wowie, we’ll get that thing. I hope we don’t go further down so that we don’t lose what we have.” But that is built into every creature’s situation no matter how high or how low. So is this sense, all places are the same place. And the only time you ever notice any difference is in the moment of transition. When you go up a bit – you gain, when you go down a bit you feel disappointed, gloomy, lost. You can go all the way down to death. Somehow, there seems to be a difficultly in getting all the way up. Death seems so final. Nothing seems so very very irrevocable and permanent. But then if it is, what about the nothingness that was before you started? On the contrary, it takes nothing to have something. Because you wouldn’t know what something was without nothing. The most real state is the state of nothing. See if you think of this idea of nothingness as blankness, you haven’t understood it. Nothingness is really like the nothingness of space, which contains the whole universe. All the sun and the stars and mountains, and rivers, and good men and bad men, and the animals, and insects, and the whole bit – all are contained in void. So out of this void comes everything and you are it. What else could you be? Because you are really nothing. But this is the most incredible nothing.” – Alan Watts