A Guide to the Good Life
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This book is a modern, approachable guide to Stoicism — a philosophy of life whose goal is to maximize the experience of tranquility in life.
A philosophy of life
There are two components to developing a philosophy of life:
- Decide on the grand purpose of life
- Figure out a strategy to attaining that grand goal
The grand purpose of life according to Stoicism is to live a good life, experiencing tranquility.
Tranquility is the absence of negative emotions (like grief, anger, etc.), and the presence of positive emotions. Tranquility is not the same as experiencing pleasure, which (unlike hedonists) stoics consider not worth pursuing. Tranquility is a calm, subtle joy of life. A positive, but almost neutral emotional state.
Stoics have discovered a number of strategies and psychological tricks to achieve that.
Note: Stoicism is widely misunderstood, to the point that the word “stoical” can be deceiving. Stoics were not necessarily stoical — not emotionally repressed. Their goal was to remove negative emotions from life as much as possible, but enjoy the joys of life (while not being slaves to them).
Why do you need a philosophy of life? Because you only have one shot at life, and without a coherent philosophy (strategy) to life, you risk misliving.
Psychological tricks of Stoicism
Spend some time purposefully reflecting on the bad things that can happened to you. This has three uses:
- You get to prepare yourself, such that the bad thing doesn’t happen
- You come to terms with the tragedy, so that if or when it does happen, it won’t affect you as much
- You get to internalize how lucky you are, realize you could’ve been worse off than you are, so you can enjoy what you already have
The simplest way to be happy is to be happy with what you already have. But hedonic adaptation prevents us from this. Most of us live the life of our past dreams — you have the job/house/car/spouse you once dreamed of. But once you get it, you take it for granted, and you move on to even grander dreams.
By regularly contemplating misfortune and coming to terms with it, you regain the ability to experience joy with what you already have.
- The death of your family, spouse, children
- The loss of friends (due to death or falling out)
- The loss of your health
- The loss of your possessions
- The loss of your job, your career
- Your own death
Nuances of negative visualization
Doesn’t this make you worry all the time about everything that can go wrong? No, the point is to contemplate misfortune, not to experience it in your mind. You can reflect on things without them affecting your emotions. Quite the contrary, negative visualization makes you more resilient against anxiety.
You don’t have to contemplate misfortune all the time, but do so regularly. Once or twice a day, or even just a few times a week is fine.
If you don’t practice negative visualization, you’re likely to take for granted what you have. Therefore, you won’t take full advantage of it. When you lose it, you’ll experience terrible grief — and guilt for not appreciating what you had.
On the other hand, having contemplated this loss, you gain deep appreciation of what you have, causing you to fully take advantage of it. When you lose it, you might still experience grief (it’s just a part of life), but instead of feeling guilt, you can take consolation in the fact that you fully used what you had, while you had it.
Trichotomy of control
- Things you have complete control over, such as your goals
- Things over which you have no control at all, such as whether sun rises tomorrow
- Things you have some, but not complete control over, such as whether you win a tennis match
You should concern yourself primarily with things you have complete control over.
You should not concern yourself at all with things you have no control over. By definition, that’s a waste of time.
However, most things in daily life are things you have some, but not complete control over. For example, you can influence your chances at winning a tennis match with your actions, like practicing. But you can never be certain of winning.
One interpretation could be that a Stoic, then, will not concern themselves with such things, since they might fail and negatively influence a Stoic’s tranquility.
However, a Stoic is an active participant in society. You should instead internalize a goal in such a way that you do have complete control over it.
For example, instead of setting a goal of winning a match, or getting a raise, set a goal of doing your best at the match, or doing your best at work. This you do have complete control over — and ultimately, doing your best (an internal goal) will be highly correlated with actually succeeding at the external goal.
Be fatalistic with respect to the past.
Don’t dwell on it. The past has already been decided and you have no control over it. Only the future can be affected, and therefore is worth concerning yourself with.
This is something of an opposite of negative visualization. In addition to contemplating how things could be worse, don’t allow yourself to contemplate how things could be better.
This is an advanced Stoic technique.
Self-denial is voluntary discomfort. For example, underdressing for the weather (such that you’re cold), or fasting (such that you’re hungry). Denying yourself basic pleasures.
This is a form of hardening, a bit like vaccination. It gives you confidence that if you can withstand a little discomfort you inflicted upon yourself, you can also withstand greater misfortunes life throws at you.
It also makes you appreciate what you have. Similar to negative visualization, but instead of just contemplating how life could be worse, you’re purposefully making your life worse for a little while.
Stoic life advice
Don’t seek fake, even local fame. Seeking it will bring you stress, envy, contempt, and destroy your tranquility.
Don’t care about what others think of you (but don’t show it through, as it might offend others).
Don’t try to win the admiration of others. Many will try to stop you from pursuing things that might fail, because if you succeed, it will make them look bad and feel uncomfortable. By showing indifference to their opinion of you, you might, ironically, win their grudging admiration when you do succeed. And your indifference will be perceived as confidence.
Don’t become a connoisseur. Once you acquire a taste for delicacies, once you grow accustomed to living in luxury, you won’t be satisfied with simple things.
Being accustomed to living a simple life (even if you can afford more) has the benefit that the things you enjoy are easy to obtain. Simple food is readily available. Simple housing is simple to maintain.
A stoic does not seek fortune. It’s still possible that she acquires it nonetheless. That is okay as long as you don’t cling to it. It’s okay to use it wisely, in as much as it supports your social duty. The same applies to fame.
When experiencing negative thoughts, think positive thoughts, and change your outward appearance. Smile. (Yes, that is actually a thing that works — being happy makes you smile, smiling makes you happier)
If you’re criticized by someone you respect, good! They’ve probably given you useful feedback.
If you’re criticized by someone contemptible, that’s kind of good too. You ought to be concerned if someone like this actually approved of you.
Respond to insults with humor. Or don’t respond at all.
A reaction like this is a better insult than a counter-insult. It’s a humiliation to the insulter that you were not touched by their insult.
Exception: When you’re insulted by a subordinate, employee, student, child, or someone dumb enough to not understand you’ve just humiliated then. Otherwise, you’re encouraging them to keep insulting you. But when you punish for an insult, punish to teach them to stop insulting you in the future, not to punish them as a person for insulting you in the past.
Grief is just a part of life. It’s normal, and there’s no point in trying to extinguish it completely.
When someone else griefs, offer consolation, but don’t catch the grief yourself. It doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s like trying to help someone with a flu by catching flu yourself.
Stealth. Consider practicing Stoicism in secret, since it’s widely misunderstood and might make you an object of ridicule.
Start with one thing. Negative visualization is the single biggest take-away.
Effort. One criticism of Stoicism is that it takes too much effort to practice it, and there’s no time for it in the modern world. Stoics argue that it takes a lot of effort not to practice Stoicism. Without a coherent philosophy of life to guide your actions, you might easily end up following your evolutionary programming, and waste time in pursuit of pleasure, money, fame, love affairs, and never attain lasting tranquility.
Choice of philosophy of life depends partly on personality and circumstance. Stoicism might not be the best option for everyone. But it’s worth considering the question in general — it’s better to have some coherent philosophy of life than none at all.
Further reading. Most relevant to a modern reader: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Gaius Musonius Rufus, Epictetus
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