Stoicism and How to Be Happy

I have thought about happiness a lot over the last few years. Going through a divorce, along with almost any other major life change, especially a negative one, tends to concentrate the mind marvellously on What Really Matters. I must admit to not reading a single one of any of the many contemporary manuals on the subject, but I have done much personal research from the depths of my hammock, and also read some Stoic philosophy here and there. Stoicism might not seem at first glance to have much to say about happiness. It is generally thought to be about bearing up under privation and various unhappinesses with a stiff upper lip. 

However, I am coming to understand, that actually, it is a way of defining What Really Matters, also, a devotion to Doing the Right Thing, accepting that What Is, Is, and appreciating every single, wonderful good thing with joy and thankfulness.

First, bad things are bad things, and this world is full of terrible, awful examples of ways in which we are unpleasant to each other. And don't forget the general categories of Bad Things That Just Happen, such as losing a job, losing all your money, fire, earthquake, plagues of locusts, the death of someone you love, missing the bus, being invaded by barbarian hordes, being married to the wrong person, not having your novel published, the cat throwing up on the rug, and supermarkets.

This is what Stoicism says about Bad Things:

Be the best person you can be. The kindest, greatest, bravest version of yourself. This resolves many problems, especially interpersonal ones.

Accept that Bad Things happen. They do. All the time. Often to kind, brave people. Railing against Fate is tiring and unproductive. Remember that you have a limited amount of control in your life. There are many, many things you can't change. And again. Railing against Fate is tiring and unproductive. If you can change it, then change it. If you can't, do the best you can in your circumstances. Also remember that changing other people is impossible. Just don't try it. Much of my unhappiness in life has stemmed from extremely unproductive attempts to Change Other People.

Don't be a victim. Really, this is not going to help. Ask me how I know. Accept responsibility for your actions, and find ways to keep moving forward whether the Bad Things that happened were your responsibility or not.

Deliberately Court Hardship. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor. He grew up wealthy in a patrician family, but as a teenager he chose to sleep on the floor, wrapped in a shepherd's blanket, and ate 'poor' food, like lentil porridge. This really annoyed his mother. However, it meant he never feared poverty, and was well prepared for his many years of campaigning against the barbarian hordes, living on the front lines with the army. 'Going without' is a fabulous strategy for gratitude for what you have. If you feel restless and antsy and unhappy with your life, if you think that more things, or better experiences would make you happier, try going without some modern conveniences, technology, or food other than rice or beans for a few days. You will be so excited about that hot shower or movie, or chicken salad at the end of the week. It is a strategy of subtraction to make you happy, rather than the pursuit of endless addition, which is how our consumer culture wants us to seek happiness.. Also, you might discover that less is just fine, and that becomes your new normal, which again lessens the probability of your being unhappy.

Another experiment you might try here is being alone. If you are single, instead of hunting for a partner, become comfortable with being single. Cheerfully turn up at parties by yourself, invest in family and friendship, become happy in your own skin, learn to be independent, become skilled at looking after yourself and others. The nearly four years I spent alone after my divorce were the very best preparation for being in a relationship.. however, that wasn't my intention. I was actually preparing myself for a rewarding lifetime of happy singledom. This is the very best protection, by the way, against ending up with the wrong person. If you are happy alone, then only the possibility of a truly marvellous partner for you will tempt you out of your contented single state.

And even if you are happily together with someone, I believe it is still important to cultivate your inner self and learn how to function independently and alone.

Remember that everything is temporary. Life. Love. Wealth. Even plagues of locusts can't go on forever. Because even locusts run out at some point. Also, roses and fat baby knees and chocolate eclairs are all fleeting. The good and the bad. All we can be sure of is today, this minute. So let's kiss the baby knees, smell the roses and learn to make healthy, protein-rich locust flour.

Gratitude. I believe a lot of studies list gratitude as important to happiness. Well, yes, but.. I don't think you can start with gratitude. I believe that gratitude, like happiness, is actually a by-product of all the other things I've written about. If you are striving to do the right thing in your community, if you can embrace discomfort and accept trouble, take responsibility for your shortcomings, and recognise that everything in life is fleeting and fragile, you will be grateful every day for every single wonderful good thing. You will be content with what you have, you will be able to make plans for the future while accepting that they may never come to pass. You will not be dependent on what others think of you because you are following your own inner compass.

What if you still aren't happy? See above. I think that if you follow these principles you are as likely to be happy as you will ever be. But maybe you won't be. There are so many factors at work. I have always been a fairly happy person. Clearly genetics plays a part. Hormones. Mental health. Upbringing. Physical health. Life circumstances. All these play a part. But so much unhappiness is caused by ourselves. If we can eliminate self-induced unhappiness, there will be that much less to contend with, and maybe enough room for wee glimpses of joy to make their way in.

This is clearly a very limited and imperfect meditation on the subject of human happiness. It is really Notes to Self, So Far, For What It's Worth. Please discuss:)


simplelife said…
Jo this is a great note to self post. you've read the stoics and I've read a lot of buddhist teachings and there seems to be quite a bit of overlap. I have also read many, too many, how to be happy, self help books, which sadly I have slowly come to realise have actually detracted from my happiness. So I'm giving them a miss, and no longer following any of them in the unreal world either.
I have so many thoughts about this post, but I need to sit with them and find a way to actually write them. I think I'll be back to comment later. I wish I could chat with you, although I'm quite shy and take awhile to open up I am better at speaking than writing.
cheers kate
Anonymous said…
I agree with Kate, how wonderful it would be to sit and talk, and share this blog post with you. Happiness...I cultivate it daily even when I feel sad. I spend a lot of time alone, and I nurture my spirit. I forgive, and I hope, and I think these things have helped me come out of the despair I have felt, most recently at loosing my beloved.
I am going to ponder this post some more. Will be back. Thank you always, my friend.
Patricia FL/USA
Jo said…
Kate, however you feel about your writing, you come across as very articulate to the rest of us:) And I would love to chat - anytime you can get to Launceston, let me know, and we can get together:) I have read a little, not much, about Buddhist teachings, and I think you are right, there is overlap with the Stoics, especially in the sense of accepting what comes, which I believe is a big part of Zen teachings. I think that Stoicism may have more emphasis on doing good in your community and being a good citizen. As I understand it, for the Greeks and Romans, serving the gods and serving society were very much two sides of the same coin. But as I say, I don't really know what Buddhism has to say about that. I think most religious teachings are likely to recommend doing good by your neighbour.. and being a useful member of a community is also as likely as anything to contribute to being happy.
I look forward to your further thoughts.

Patricia, dearest, I am so sorry for the loss of your beloved. Being alone after unhappiness is in many ways a blessed relief, but being alone after losing the beloved is a whole other kettle of fish. And yet, you have come through. You have journeyed through that dark night of the soul, and here you are, without bitterness, forgiving, hoping, nurturing - not only your own soul, but the souls of others. You do it here and in the other places I have seen you on the interweb, and I am sure you do it for the people around you as well. I think you will have sadness weaving through your days for such a long time, maybe forever, but maybe your grief has also made you more compassionate, more able to comfort others, more determined to wring every drop of joy from your days? I would love to hear more about your thoughts on happiness after despair; it is such a difficult place to come back from. Much love to you xx
I recall being told I was stoic, I think I was 11 or 12? And I thought it meant: stiff upper lip. And in some ways, it can and does.

Overall, I like to think I demonstrate some of the stoics qualities, and I certainly continue to cultivate that. And I am single. And my gosh, am I content with my own company that only exceptional company by way of dates makes it worth my while - I met someone for the first time for dinner Wed night, and on Thurs evening he wanted to 'hang out'. Ah no. And then it starts becoming 'my loss' and 'no time like the present' and in my head I'm thinking - nope, my present is just fine. Home alone. An early night before an early morning of volunteering. I am not so lonely or starved for company that I need nor want to spend another evening out of the house. With someone tipsy. And I am content to slowly get to know this new person.
Jo said…
Sarah, yes, there is an element of quietly bearing your troubles in Stoicism, but that definition leaves out the capacity for enjoying the wonderful parts of life as well. The Stoic does not reject joy.. because the good in life also comes from the gods..
It is a great thing not to be dependent on other people for your sense of worth. Having said that, as an introvert, I like to spend a lot of time alone. If I was an extrovert, I'd like to think I would also have been able to spend these last years without a partner, but I would have spent a lot more time with all the good people in my life. In another life I would like to be someone who could live in a communal situation.. I think there are so many good things about that life. As it is I am a hermit, but you never know, things may change..
simplelife said…
Thanks for your kind words Jo, I'm not in Launceston very often, but I will endeavour to make time for a meet and greet with you next time I am that way.

I don't think I know nearly enough about buddhism to really take it any further than the superficial, but I do think you may be right. While it does seem to be about acceptance and compassion, for self and others, it also seems to be more about do no harm rather than actively do good for the community. I'm sure someone with much greater knowledge than I can explain it better.

cheers kate

Anonymous said…
Thank you for your lovely words of encouragement.
Patricia Fl/USA
Beznarf27 said…
I get SO excited whenever I see a new blog post from alltheblueday these days! I know its going to make me feel good so I make the most of it. I settled down with a cuppa and prepare for a tiny space of sunshine. I especially love your posts about stoicism, my very favourite of the "isms".

Putting everything into perspective and knowing that at the end of the day there is still a "forward" to move into is always going to give you the best outcome for finding the way to happiness. Knowing how to be content with a whole lot less is the perfect way to centre yourself and stopping trying to keep up with everything and everyone else gives you time to stop, smell the metaphorical roses and actually work out who you are and how absolutely amazing life is.

I have been studying a course that was going incredibly well this year but it suddenly went a bit pear shaped at the end of the year and I don't deal well with stress and neither does Steve. We reverted to our old stress crutches of overeating (me) and drinking (Steve) and it didn't solve a single problem but as soon as the "crisis" was over (YAY!) I stopped overeating and ate very simple food for a week. Do you know how amazing my first bowl of soup was after eating steamed veggies and tofu for a week? It was like the angels were singing in my own little personal heaven. This was soup that I had previously put into the freezer because I wasn't all that fond of it but was too frugal to throw it out. I thought that I might be able to use it up in something else but after a week of deprivation that soup tasted incredibly good. I am SO with you about trying deprivation to remind yourself of just how bloody amazing things are without it.

I loved this post SO much I just shared it to my Facebook page for my wonderful friends and family to read as well as to my Pinterest boards. We all need to be reminded of just how simple it is to start off down the lesser known track to simple happiness although I think I might let you have the locust flour. I am taking cues from your post and am learning about my shortcomings and have decided to be most generous and let you keep it all to yourself...
Kym said…
Happiness truly comes from within. Like a fruitful garden, it needs to be tended to every day. Our thoughts nourish our selves. Lovely read, and so spot on.
Gregg Koep said…
This is very wise, and I love it.
Meg said…
I think the sh&*t that happens truly does just happen, randomly sometimes, and I think as I've grown older I've come to know that, to not dwell on that which I cannot change, or when younger would have cursed as wickedly unfair, but to follow paths where I can have some influence in my own life. My experiences have taught me that there are things that could just about bring you undone but that there are ways back from that brink, albeit that take time and sometimes a long time.

Pam in Virginia said…
Hi, Jo!

This post gives me strength - and makes me happy!

Treaders said…
I agree with Sarah. I've been divorced almost 7 years and am perfectly content in my own company. I dated a colleague for 6 years after my divorce and while we are no longer a couple we are still friends and we were talking just last week about how some people don't seem able or willing to live alone. My ex is one case and my friend had just received a text from his ex (10 years after they separated) seemingly "fishing" as he put it. It seems she is no longer happy with her live-in partner and (according to my friend) is looking for a replacement. Yuck. I would rather be on my own than desperate to be with someone/anyone! For the maybe 10% of loneliness I might experience, I wouldn't compromise the 90% sheer bliss of living my own life as I see fit.

Oh and I agree, experiencing living with less is probably a really good way to appreciate just how much we have! Anna
Anonymous said…
Hi Jo - I have been silently reading your posts and I’m inspired by your bravery and honesty in everything you write!! but thought it worth popping my few cents in for the first time. (Very nerve wracking experience for me!)

I feel compelled to highlight that spending a lot of time and energy focusing on the aim of happiness at the time of pain and adversity, and being stoic about the situation, can be a good method to keep yourself strong, but it can also become problematic - because I know for many people, sometimes women in particular, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that something which is perfectly valid to be feeling isn’t worthy of time or attention from yourself or others.

I feel like the method you’ve discussed definitely has its place in allowing oneself to grow and develop personal resilience - however I also feel it is important to acknowledge the role that unhappiness plays in life - because without feeling unhappiness, we also don’t know happiness - so I don't think we should necessarily always be striving for for a constant state of happiness.

For me, I might be on the younger end of your reader’s scale, and I graduated university in the past few years and landed my dream job in mental health policy and research - so I’m great at recognising the theory and signs and knowing different coping methods and applying that to others when it comes to looking after one’s mental health, I also thought I’d been doing a good job of it with myself too. However I have since learnt that I’m good at it during the ups and downs of every day life, because Ive been able to do a lot of what you wrote about in your post - but I’m less great at applying all of that to myself after a significant emotional event - and this has resulted in the events of the past 6 months catching up to me (which I now realise is due to my habit of Just Getting On With Things)

Despite knowing through my work that it is perfectly valid to not be okay and need support sometimes - through a society that expects women to Just Get On With Things, one that stigmatises a lot of things relating to how we feel - what I've really needed recently is for someone to sit me down and tell me that it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to take time to process and feel what you need to feel, too.

So, whilst sometimes picking yourself up, making effort to appreciate the good things you have, accepting that bad things sometimes just happen, and remembering that everything is temporary - can be the best thing for you at the time - and doing all this and moving on can be strong and empowering - too much for too long can make things harder than they need to be in the long run, too. Sometimes it’s okay to allow yourself to feel sorry for yourself for a little while. Or to not have the energy to appreciate the sunshine and actually be wishing for rain when wild stormy weather would be much better suited to your desire to curl up in bed in your pyjamas and Be Sad.

I’ve learnt that it’s healthy to not always be striving for a state of constant happiness, rather I think we should be striving for the ability to embrace what we feel for what it is because whilst happiness is great at the time - we only really appreciate it fully when we have also felt sadness - so I think it’s all about balance.
Jo said…
Kate, would love to catch up:) And re Buddhism - possibly what we 'know' of it and how it is practised in its own cultures are completely different kettles of fish..

Patricia, :)

Fran, thanks so much for letting me keep all the locust flour. You are a generous soul. I love how you have expressed your difficulties and your responses to them with no self-judgement whatsoever. I think that is a wonderful example of how to move on: Life has hiccups. Sometimes we respond in ways that aren't helpful. But then we change tack. Things look up. Yes, that is such a good way to put it:)

Kym, as a gardener, I like your metaphor. Much pruning, weeding, mulching, and standing around with a cuppa deciding what to do next is involved in pursuing a good inner life:)

Jo said…
Gregg, thank you:)

Meg, yes, it is always to tempting to look around around for something or someone to blame, and I know I have done my fair share of that. And, like you, I think acceptance is something we tend to cultivate later in life, possibly out of sheer fatigue, but hopefully due to all that wisdom we have accumulated over the years..

Pam, and your comment makes me happy, so that makes us.. happy squared??

Anna, being able to go it alone is a wonderful gift to self, isn't it? I do want to be careful how I write about this though, because as an introvert, I find it much easier to do than life's extroverts do. I don't believe that living alone is necessarily the path for everyone, and yet to be reliant on others for your sense of self also seems problematic. I really do think that being part of a close community would be ideal for us all, with an opt-out clause for peace and quiet for us introverts..

Anonymous, thank you so much for your words. I very much appreciate the courage it takes to write, and your honesty in writing. I hear you absolutely on how we are expected just to Get On With Things, and often as women we feel we have to be cheerful as well, because one of our roles is to keep everyone else happy at all times, while men feel they have to bear the burden of everyone's material well-being, and that they are expected to fix all the problems at all times. It is important to acknowledge this, because once we have seen what the programming is, we can recognise it, although it is still difficult to step aside from it.
I mentioned at the end of the post that I believe that both gratitude and happiness are by-products of attempting to live a good life, and I really do believe that is a key. Seeking happiness itself is not something the Stoics ever did. They were seeking to live a good life as they saw it. Happiness sometimes just happens when you are on that path. And yes, absolutely, pain and difficulty are very much a part of life. Bad Things happen, and the goal from there is not to bounce back to Pollyanna-style cheerfulness, so much as to practice acceptance of that dark night of the soul, or even the grumpy morning of the soul..
It is wonderful, and terrible, isn't it, when all the theory falls down, and you find that actually, Life itself has given you an answer, and showed you how to live. Listening to that still, small voice that comes from within and tells you what you need, that is the beginning of wisdom. Sounds like you are well-tuned to that small voice, and it will stand you in good stead:)

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