Can living by Stoic values make for a happier life?

Stoicism has been – unfairly – painted as a cold, detached form of thinking.

This common misinterpretation doesn’t live up to the reality though, according to those who practice the school of thought.

Going back to ancient Greece and Rome, this philosophy is designed to maximise happy emotions, and lessen the negative ones.

Isn’t that something we’d all like?

So how do you do that, without living inauthentically?

Lydia Scratch, a certified Stoic life coach, tells ‘I like to use Stoicism because it is applied common sense with a great track record, and it is so simple.

‘It also provides a playbook, or an operating system, for living life. It is that easy to implement.

‘Stoicism isn’t all woo-woo-live-your-truth empowerment. It is grounded and practical.

‘Living a good life is about using wisdom, courage, temperance (or self-mastery), and justice as we go about our lives.

‘These are the four cardinal virtues, and if you live according to those virtues, the Stoics say, you can live a good life. That’s it.’

Those four virtues are hard to master, though.

‘The Stoics had several practical exercises we can implement to aim for a good life,’ Lydia continues.

Stoicism’s core tenets, according to Lydia:

  • Determine if something is in your control or not. If it is, do something about it. If it isn’t, let it go. Derren Brown writes in Happy that if something isn’t in our control we should just shrug and say ‘It’s fine’.
  • The present moment is all that we really have control over. Right here, right now. Focusing on the future can bring on anxiety, and focusing on the past can bring on depression. The Stoics had a phrase, ‘memento mori’ to help bring this home – it translates into ‘remember we will die’.  How’s that for focusing the mind on what we’re doing right now?
  • There is no inherently good or bad in nature – there are only our perceptions. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet that ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’. This helps us reconsider our first impressions: what are we loading on our first impressions? Are those impressions true?
  • Accept whatever life throws at us. Nietzsche coined this as ‘amor fati’ which translates to ‘love your fate’. Treat everything that happens as something to be embraced, not avoided. Because it happened, and we can’t make whatever it is unhappen. One of my coaching catch phrases is ‘Life doesn’t happen to you. Life just happens.’ 

Lydia, who even has a tattoo with ‘amor fati’ written on her wrist, has had glowing reviews when she encourages clients to embrace Stoic values.

When asked whether this works for everyone, she responds: ‘Honestly, I can’t see Stoicism not working for anyone.

‘For all of its simplicity though, it does take practice to put into action. And that’s okay.

‘I still sometimes get annoyed if someone cuts me off in traffic or if I read some bullsh*t some politicians spout. And then I remember to ask “Is this in my control?”

‘People often assume that Stoicism is all about being like Spock from Star Trek – unemotional and overly analytical.

‘That is definitely not what Stoicism is about. Emotions aren’t right or wrong, and we can’t control them. What we can control is our reaction to our emotions.’

Separating emotions to reactions – as often the two are seen as almost conjoined – can be liberating. Our emotions don’t necessarily have to warrant a reaction, and that reaction when it is given is within our grasp to control.

Note that it’s not about suppressing emotions either – to moderate how you react to your emotions, you have to be very in tune with them and emotionally intelligent.

Why does Stoicism make us happier?

It all boils down to determining what you can and can’t control.

Lydia explains: ‘Putting the basic Stoic tenets into practice frees us from caring too much about things that are beyond our control.

‘It helps us focus on the present (because it’s the only thing we can control) and to take life as it actually happens, not as we wish it would happen. 

‘There’s a sense of calm that can come to us when we start to let go of things we have no reason to hold on to.

‘Mark Manson, in Subtle Art of not Giving a F*** puts it this way: we only have so many f***s to give.

‘When we learn to only give them to things that are really worthy it, we can calm down.’

Despite the benefits, people can find it really hard to adopt Stoicism into their everyday life.

‘It can be very hard for people to let go of things they can’t control,’ Lydia says. 

‘Stoicism calls for us to separate life’s goings on into things we can control and things we can’t control. And that can be a very difficult thing to put into practice.

‘We tend to inflate our own influence on the life around us. We think things are in our control when they aren’t.

‘Think of investing – it’s our control that we invest money into funds that we’ve researched, but as soon as that money is no longer in our hands, we no longer control it.’

There are lots of free resources online to explain the basic concepts of Stoicism, but it all comes back to similar messaging: let go of what you cannot control.

Beginner practices to introduce Stoicism into your everyday life

  • Don’t obsess about current events. ‘And definitely stop using social media like Twitter or Facebook as your source of news,’ Lydia says. We should be informed about what’s going on in our world, but not obsessed about it. Primarily because we have no control over whatever is going on in the world.’
  • Take a Stoic pause between stimulus and response. ‘If someone snaps at you, a first response could be to snap back. But if we take a pause after being snapped at, we have the opportunity to try to understand what happened and maybe think about why it happened. First impressions needn’t be trusted. And that pause gives you an opportunity to try to find context for the snapping.’
  • Say the Serenity Prayer (popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous) as you go about your day. ‘It is applicable always and everywhere. It is an easy way to centre ourselves on control and encourages us to calm down.’

‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference’

Lydia is on a free panel event about Stoicism in October, tickets available here.

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.

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