Do you remember when you were young and you never wanted to eat your vegetables? Mom would tell you to eat your spinach because you’ll grow up big and strong, but you just stuck up your nose and demanded dessert. Mom would then tell you, “Hey, you should be happy with your spinach, there are some kids in Africa right now who have nothing to eat.”
This is a classic case of the “things could be worse” argument. Of course as a kid you would always shrug it off and think, “Yeah, but this isn’t Africa!” However, as it turns out, Mom and Dad might have been sharing an important pearl of wisdom that night at the dinner table.
According to the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Stoicism (a philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC) used to teach a similar mentality about life. The Stoics believed that by freeing oneself from excessive desire one could live a happier lifestyle.
The Stoics would frequently and vividly image worse case scenarios, such as the death of a child, financial catastrophe, or ruined health. And by doing this the Stoics believed you could learn how to better appreciate what you already have, as well as curb your appetite for more material goods, more social status, or more of whatever object it is that you desire.
This process of “negative visualization” can seem counter-intuitive in a society where self-help books are filled to the brim with the opposite advice: stay positive and remain focused on your desires. I have to admit that I too have fallen into the trap of focusing too much on what I want and not enough on what I already have. By imagining ways that my life could be substantially worse, I can greater appreciate everything that is right in front of me.
Most mistaken the word “stoic” to mean “unmoved” or “unemotional.” But this is only half true. Stoicism teaches you to shown concern only to what is in your control, mainly your actions and your thoughts, but to show apathy or indifference toward what you can’t control. Worrying about things that are outside your sphere of influence is often a waste of time and at worst self-destructive. Stoicism aims to free individuals from these fictional responsibilities that we often create from excessive rumination on grief, fear, desire, and self-pity.
Negative visualization is one technique the Stoics use to free themselves from excessive desire. We don’t always have control over where we are in life, but we do have control over how we react to those circumstances. By consciously saying to ourselves “things could be worse,” we become much more accepting and grateful for the cards we have been dealt. Sure we should rejoice in fortune when it comes our way, but wishful thinking for future pleasure and prosperity only distracts us from living with content in the present.
Stoicism’s aim is to define the boundaries of our self-control. Where are the limits of cosmic determinism and human free will? The one aspect of life Stoics widely agree is subject to our volition (or “free will”) is how we view our own life. Epictetus said, “Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”
Our emotions are largely based on the perspective we take. If we look at our life and constantly create new wants and desires, we will always be one step further from achieving happiness. It is precisely the concept of “seeking happiness” that makes it unobtainable – because if we can’t be happy today, what makes us think we can be happy tomorrow? Stoicism believes we already have all the resources we need to be happy and by looking at life from an alternative perspective we can overcome these destructive tendencies by finding happiness here and now, unconditionally.
Buddha’s teachings bare a striking resemblance to Stoicism, in the sense that both teach a kind of “detachment” from the ebb and flow of life. It is this indifference or equanimity that allows us to perceive the bigger picture and live with greater gratitude. Professor, author, and philosopher Corey Anton does a wonderful job describing this “grateful indifference” in the YouTube video below. He mentions how “grateful indifference” can seem like a paradoxical concept; however, the indifference isn’t a “life’s a bitch, deal with it” attitude, but instead a way of acknowledging the areas of life beyond your control, being indifferent to those areas of life, and realigning yourself with what is in your natural capabilities and free will. Regardless of the spontaneous events that happen to us day in and day out, we need to focus on what we can personally change.
“Whatever life’s gift is, it’s a gift that gave some things under your power, but not everything. And [you should] be happy with that.”
The goal of Stoicism clearly isn’t to make the world perfect or to raise everything to the status of divinity. In fact, not all Stoics believed in God, but those who did saw the mind’s ability to create meaning as only fragments of divinity, but never the whole thing. The key concept here (and this relates back to the “things could be worse” argument) is that it is better to have some divinity – in other words, some creative control over our existence – than to have none at all. How we respond to what we can control is the ultimate test in life.
Stoicism – The First Cognitive Therapy?
Stoicism had a profound influence on Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, two psychologists from Penn State University who influenced the emergence of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Both CBT and Stoicism focus on similar theories about happiness and well-being, including self-discovery, self-control, and learning to treat the ebb and flow of life with a sense of inner peace and equanimity.
In his book The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, British psychologist Donald Robertson discusses these compelling parallels between CBT and ancient Greek philosophy. In the video below you can watch Robertson discuss some of the core tenets of Stoicism, how it seeks to define the boundaries of the self (much like mindfulness does in CBT), and how our attachment to external conditions is often the cause of our anxieties.
Another common component in both CBT and Stoicism is the use of reason to discover faulty thinking that could lead to irrational behavior. By being more mindful of our thought patterns we can become better at correcting this faulty thinking, sometimes called “cognitive restructuring,” and we can thus better avoid those thought patterns in the future. Through the diligent use of contemplation and reason we can gradually change our perspective on the world toward something more practical and effective. The Stoics were huge advocates of this reason-based approach.
Exercise: Identify one desire you could do without.
We all have certain things we are too dependent on. These are often the sources of our unhappiness. We don’t feel satisfied unless we get our fix, just like a drug, and when we can’t get the object of our desire we are left anxious and needy.
Try this: identify one desire that you find your happiness too dependent on. First spend a minute thinking about the worst-case scenario that your desire could lead to. For example, maybe you like gambling. If so imagine how awful life would be if you gambled away everything you owned. Be thankful that this hasn’t happened to you. Now, with that insight in mind, imagine what life would be like if you quit gambling altogether. How might your world improve? Perhaps you’d have more money to save for retirement or more time to spend with your kids.
This kind of perspective-taking can give you a clearer view of your actions and what really matters to your life in the long-run. By thinking of the worst case scenario you can better appreciate where you are. And by thinking at the other extreme you can gain insight into making wiser decisions for your future.
Remember, your perspective and thoughts are some of the few things you have control over, so make sure you exercise that ability on a daily basis.
You can learn more about self-improvement in my new e-book The Science of Self Improvement.