Things Could Be Worse: The Stoic’s Guide to Happiness

things could be worse

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 who are starving right now and have nothing to eat.”

This is a classic example of the “things could be worse” argument. Most people don’t like to hear it, especially when it’s coming from someone else. However, this concept does touch on the important idea of seeing the “bigger picture” in your life – and all the things you do have to be grateful for.

According to the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the philosophy of Stoicism used to teach a similar mentality about life.

The Stoics believed that by freeing oneself from excessive desire one could live a happier lifestyle. And this even included exercises such as “negative visualization” where stoics would vividly imagine 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, but may often take for granted.

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’ve grown a greater appreciation for more of the things that are right in front of me.

When people hear the word “stoic,” they usually think it means “unmoved” or “unemotional.” But that isn’t really the whole story.

Stoicism teaches you to only show concern toward what is in your control – your attitude, thoughts, and actions – but to show indifference toward what isn’t in your control.

Worrying about things that are outside of your influence is often a waste of time, and at worst self-destructive. You can’t change everything and you can’t take responsibility for every single thing that happens to you. Sometimes, accepting your limitations allows you to focus more on the areas in your life you actually have the power to change.

While we don’t always have control over where we are in life, we do always have control over how we react to those circumstances.

By consciously recognizing that “things could be worse,” we often become much more accepting and grateful for the cards we have been dealt. As Epictetus said himself, “Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”

Our perspective is the foundation for our emotions and feelings.

If we look at our lives and constantly find new wants and desires – “things could be better” – 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?

In fact, a recent study showed that a “must have the best” mindset can magnify feelings of regret and dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, if we look at our lives and find new things to appreciate and be grateful for – the “things could be worse” perspective – we will be much more capable of finding happiness today in the present moment.

Stoicism believes we already have all the resources we need to be happy – and by looking at life from an alternative perspective we can find happiness here and now, regardless of where we find ourselves.

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