How many articles about happiness have you read in your life? Probably a an awful lot! But as the saying goes, “trying and doing are two different things.” Like many people, you may have read a lot and tried a few of these tips, yet are still not happy.
When it comes to reading and doing, we can consume all the self-help materials that exist, but until one is actually ready to “do,” its mostly just theory — and at some point, theories need to be put into practice.
I’ve been reading about the ancient Stoics and the concept of “stoicism.” Stoics understood that one cannot be happy by just absorbing knowledge and seeking happiness — they knew that to be happy, one had to adapt the techniques and put it all into motion.
“That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.” — Epictetus
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy (developed by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. as a refinement of Cynicism) which teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. It does not seek to extinguish emotions completely, but rather seeks to transform them by a resolute Asceticism (a voluntary abstinence from worldly pleasures), which enables a person to develop clear judgment, inner calm and freedom from suffering (which it considers the ultimate goal).
Stoicism is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, but rather a way of life, involving constant practice and training, and incorporating the practice of logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, and a kind of meditation aimed at training one’s attention to remain in the present moment. – The Basics of Philosophy
After doing some reading, some of the life-lessons I took away from the stoics made perfect sense. Their approach to living life in an active state of happiness encompass some of the following actions:
Life isn’t the problem — our attitude and interpretations of life are the issue
Events in life aren’t really the issue. It’s how we react to them and let them control us that zap our happiness.
You’re almost late for work and while rushing for the train, you see your neighbor on the sidewalk. He doesn’t know you’re running late, so he stops to say hello and ask how you’re doing — this makes you miss your train and you seethe inside blaming him and thus, allowing yourself to ruin your own day.
Your neighbor did nothing wrong. He was simply happy to see you and he wanted to talk to you. Why blame him? Why blame anyone for that matter? Of course it’s not optimal that you’re now actually late for work, but allowing anger to consume you doesn’t really negatively impact anyone but you.
It’s how we interpret and react that matters. Stoics believed that the world is what it is and we allow ourselves to be unhappy (read: angry), because of how we interpret situations and events. But, if we choose to, we can change those interpretations and change our feelings.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” – Epictetus
Stop, breathe, relax
Next time you find yourself becoming agitated over something, consciously ask yourself why you’re letting it bother you. Before letting negative emotion overtake us, we should take a deep breath and really look at our emotional and physical response — is it worth allowing it to make us unhappy?
While there are many circumstances, events and people that can drive us nuts, the reality is, that can only happen if we let it.
Your friend was supposed to call you and make plans to have dinner that evening. She doesn’t. You sit home alone and one of two things can happen:
You can rage inside about your “terrible friend” and dwell on being blown off. The result? Your mood sours, and you become so agitated, you eat a pint of ice cream, falling asleep on the couch, waking up the next morning, moody, bloated and achy from a bad night’s sleep.
– or –
You quickly acknowledge being a bit annoyed, but you decide to make the most out of your evening. You make a healthy salad and decide to watch a movie on Netflix. That movie turns out to be one of the best you’ve seen in ages. It makes you laugh out loud and it lifts your spirits, re-energizing your mental health. All-in-all, deep down, you had a better evening than had you gone out to dinner.
In a cruel twist of fait, when it comes to the personal choice of being happy or not, choosing not to be seems to come so much easier than opting to be happy. I don’t know why that is, but it does. This is why before we react, we need to stop, breathe, think and then, with a clear head, choose the path of happiness.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor Frankl
Condition your mind
With positivity, its most often about consciously choosing the good over the bad. It’s about taking the right path and moving in a healthy direction. The same is true with the principles of stoicism. You can let events control you, or, you can better control those events, by not letting them dictate your reaction. If we consciously accept this and work to train our minds, we can transition away from being reactive, to being active — and that is to actively choose how we respond to negative situations.
You can’t change people
People! They can be the greatest cause of our unhappiness. For one thing, its usually people that cause the very events and circumstances that result in our becoming angry/unhappy. So, unless we can change other people, we’re going to have to change ourselves (its also good to note here that we ourselves can be the cause of someone else’s unhappiness, whether we mean to or not). One of the best mindsets to adapt is to accept that people are not perfect, and that includes ourselves. Knowing this, we should always choose to love people without limit — we should strive to be calm, patient and kind and, work to not judge or hate another person.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.” – Marcus Aurelius
This is new?
My take-away after reading more about the stoics is that I already knew most of this and odds are, so do you. But chiefly, my take-away is that it all make sense: we can keep reading techniques on how to be happy, until we’ve saturated our mind with these tip, or, we can finally implement them and just be happy. As with most learned knowledge, at some point, we need to put it all into action — we have to stop reading and start doing.
So what I learned was really all about “action” — taking that leap of faith and just being happy.
“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.” – Marcus Aurelius
“When you wake up every day, you have two choices. You can either be positive or negative; an optimist or a pessimist. I choose to be an optimist. It’s all a matter of perspective.” – Harvey Mackay
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You can learn more about Stoicism here.