Isn't it kinda crazy how we're never taught how to manage our day-to-day psychology?
We go through school and learn stuff like how many planets there are in the solar system, who was the 13th president of the United States, and where babies come from. But we don't explore how to manage negative emotions, how to appreciate what you have, or how to develop compassion.
The default path is to spend life chasing meaningless goals and regretting it as we get older.
Granted, some institutions do try to help.
For example, religions teach moral virtues and give people a sense of purpose. However, they don't teach how to manage your psychology day-to-day.
University departments have philosophers specializing in ethics, politics, metaphysics, logic, etc. But these philosophers focus on theories and history. Not much practical.
This lack of practical guidance has led to enlightened hedonism throughout the world. Generation after generation, many people still lusting after the same damn things. Money and status. Myself included!
Nevertheless, Stoic philosophy has recently reemerged as a framework for living. Many believe that Stoicism is about being devoid of all emotions. But stoicism the word is different from Stoicism the philosophy.
Stoic philosophy is about managing negative emotions so you can experience positive emotions more often. It's about managing your own psychology. Not philosophical theory.
Today, we've eschewed practical techniques in lieu of theoretical beliefs. But it wasn't always this way. In this post, we'll look back on the history of early philosophy and explore four Stoic psychological techniques for living a better life.
History of Early Philosophy
There have always been philosophers trying to understand the human condition.
Lao Tzu and Confucius in China. The Buddha in India.
But in 470 BC, Socrates came on the scene. He led an explosion in the study of philosophy.
Before Socrates, philosophers in Ancient Greece focused on science. But Socrates focused on understanding the human condition.
“Pre-Socratic philosophy begins with the discovery of Nature; Socratic philosophy begins with the discovery of man’s soul.”
So why is Socrates revered?
It isn't because of his discoveries. His greatest discoveries showed us what we don't know. Instead, he stood out because he integrated philosophy into his daily life. He lived his teachings.
At the time, Socrates' teachings were so controversial that he was sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the youth. As Plato eloquently recounts in The Republic, Socrates had many chances to escape his death sentence.
But his philosophical principles wouldn't let him do so.
Plato was his best student and focused on theoretical teachings. Top philosophers like Plato created their own schools in order to train others in their way of thinking.
Over time, theoretical philosophy has flourished while practical philosophy hasn't.
Today, philosophy is taught at universities but they don't teach how to develop a philosophy of life. In the past, it was different. Philosophy was studied for enlightenment and entertainment.
In Ancient Greece a few examples of schools that taught a life philosophy include:
- Cyreniacs: taught that life is about maximizing pleasure; these were the hedonists
- Cynics: taught an ascetic lifestyle; must want nothing
- Stoics: taught a mindful lifestyle; enjoy experiences, but don't cling to them
Around 300 BC, Zeno of Citium founded the first school teaching Stoicism. In it, he combined theory and practice like Socrates did. Stoicism was an instant hit because it helped adherents live a meaningful life without requiring Cynic asceticism. Instead, Stoics favored a lifestyle that allowed creature comforts. As long as you weren't attached to them.
They taught that money, alcohol, and sex weren't inherently bad. What mattered was your relationship with them. Addiction was not okay. But it was okay to enjoy them as long as they didn't become a part of your identity or impact how you treated others.
So, what made a good life for Stoics? Wealth? Fame? Status?
No. Because you can have all those things and still be miserable
Instead, Stoics taught tranquility.
Stoic tranquility is about managing negative emotions so you can experience positive emotions - like joy - more often.
Although Stoicism started in Greece, it was popularized by four Roman Stoics:
- Seneca - a talented writer
- Musonius Rufus - a practical teacher
- Epictetus - an analytical teacher
- Marcus Aurelius - the most famous practicing Stoic
In 161 AD, Marcus Aurelius was the powerful man alive. He was the head of the Roman Empire. He would regularly write about his emotions and the challenges he was facing in his personal journal. After his death, the journal was published. In it, he wrote:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness - all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” - Marcus Aurelius
Today, practical Stoic philosophy is seeing a resurgence thanks to the rediscovery of writing by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
Now let's explore how to put Stoicism into practice.
Four Stoic Psychological Techniques
There are four key psychological techniques that Stoics use for living a better life:
- Negative visualization
- The trichotomy of control
Humans are unhappy because we have an insatiable appetite. We work hard for something but quickly move on without appreciating it. Psychologists call this "hedonic adaptation".
Researchers proved this phenomenon by studying lottery winners. At first, lottery winners were ecstatic. They'd buy a new house, a nice car, luxury clothes, etc. Over time, the lottery winners got used to their new lifestyle and desired more. Eventually, they ended up about as happy as they were before they won the lottery.
This same hedonic adaptation happens to all of us. We crave that promotion. Or a new house. Or an attractive mate. But once we get it, if we ever do, we adapt to the new normal and start the craving cycle again.
Given hedonic adaptation, how can we learn to appreciate what we have?
One way is to imagine that we've lost it.
By visualizing the loss of your job, health, freedom, money, and loved ones, you can begin to appreciate them. Take time in the morning to reflect on what it would be like to lose these things. Once you open your eyes and realize it's all still there, it will be much easier to appreciate them.
Hedonic adaptation causes us to take our lives for granted. However, negative visualization helps us experience life fully by enjoying what we have.
Self-denial is helping you get comfortable being uncomfortable.
By default, our brains seek comfort. So we begin to fall into these routines where we can go days, weeks, or months without challenging ourselves. Over time, we may develop anxiety or fear around losing these comforts.
Instead, every now and then, go 24 hours without eating, take a cold shower, walk barefoot, wear odd clothing, sleep on a hard surface.
Welcome a degree of discomfort so you cease to fear it.
This has two benefits:
- Harden yourself against future discomforts like being broke, hungry, sleep deprived, cold, etc.
- Helps you appreciate what you have
Stoics realized what modern science has proven. That willpower is like a muscle. It needs to be broken down in order to grow. This develops courage and self-control. This newfound strength can then lead to a more meaningful life.
The trichotomy of control
Life experiences fall into three categories:
- Do control
- Don't control
- Kinda control
For what you do control, focus your energy here. This includes your goals, habits, values, and how you react to your emotions.
For what you don't control, don't worry about it. This includes physical traits, external events like the weather, etc.
For what you kinda control, focus on the parts you do control. For example, you don't fully control whether you get a promotion, but you do control your work ethic and values. Focus on that.
When you feel a negative emotion arise, try to label whether it's because of something you do control, don't control, or kinda control. Then, take action.
Stoicism and Zen Buddhism have a lot in common. They are both philosophies for how to live instead of a belief system. They also teach mindfulness as core tool for living a better life.
Stoics teach adherents to reflect on their thoughts, emotions, and actions. Then, assess whether they were in accordance with your values.
"Did something upset me? Why? What could I have done to remedy that?"
Think of yourself as having two minds, one that thinks and one that observes.
Throughout the day, we tend to automatically react to certain experiences. With mindfulness, you can catch yourself in the midst of an automatic reaction and instead show up the way you want to be present.
To summarize, Stoicism is about managing your own psychology. Early philosophers were obsessed with developing life philosophies but over time, we've strayed away from that.
Through negative visualization, self-denial, the trichotomy of control, and mindfulness, you will be well on the path to living a more meaningful life.