Stoicism: A Key to Unlocking Joy

Of the many schools of thought that draw my interest, (and it’s a long list that includes Buddhism, Egalitarianism, Rationalism, Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Humanism), Stoicism resonates deeply with me.

As someone who “gets into” process, I’m inspired by Stoicism’s applicability to daily life. The principles are foundational to success; nothing less than a blueprint for living the best life you can. That is to say, by controlling our thoughts, we can build resilience to better cope with reality, maintain optimism in the face of adversity, and grow from failure. Stoicism helps us learn the most we can from all our experiences, so we can become better versions of ourselves.

Of course, the focus on Self-Mastery is hugely appealing to me as an INTJ, and as a writer. I spend so much of my life inside my head, I need to be disciplined with my thoughts.

Stoicism, at its core, maintains that the quality of our thoughts dictates the quality of our lives. Therefore, to live more joyfully, we must align our way of thinking so we are more receptive to joy. In this way, self-mastery becomes the path to a meaningful and happy existence. One could say, a life devoted to self-mastery is a life well-lived.
In a nutshell, here is how Stoicism helps me increase my experience of joy.
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
Marcus Aurelius
Stoic Principles 1 & 2 – Attitude & Gratitude: Attitude is a choice. When we make time to choose our mind-set (to determine the direction of our thoughts and behaviors for the course of the day) – and ESPECIALLY when we choose to be grateful – we accomplish several things:
  • we establish a means for facing difficulties with greater patience and objectivity (we become less reactive to circumstances),
  • we avoid potential consequences of reactivity because we’re not acting out on our emotion,
  • we become more willing to investigate our part in any difficulty (personal responsibility),
  • we become more aware of how really awesome life is, because we’re too busy feeling grateful to feel bad,
  • if we fall into old patterns, it is easier to identify our mistakes and get back on track
  • when adversity strikes, being grateful for even the smallest blessings can sustain us, and it is this resilience which enables us to persevere and grow through difficulty.

The challenge for us is to live life as a sort of perpetual meditation: choosing what and how we think as we rise, as we go about our tasks, when we encounter stress or adversity. We must choose who we’ll be in any given moment.

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Epictetus

 

Think of being in line at the grocery store (I know I use this example a lot, but it’s just so versatile). If the cashier is crabby and rude to us, how do we react? Do we get defensive? Do we start to feel crabby ourselves, and become terse or rude back to them? Do we carry their crabbiness with us and pass it on to the next person we meet? Or do we learn to step outside the emotions, words, and actions of others, so that we remain calm and at peace?

Stoic Principle 3 – Intentionality (AKA We Create Our Reality): We may not understand the value of our calmness and composure, but its benefits extand far beyond ourselves in any situation. We may realize it helps us avoid escalating a conflict further, but do we consider that our calmness can be just as contagious as another person’s chaos? If the behavior we demonstrate holds such influence, then what kind of energy do we wish to put out there? What do we wish to inspire?

I’ve received comments about my coolness under stress, to which I readily admit; I’m a duck in water. Things may look calm on the surface, but underneath, my feet are paddling away.

The truth is, the ability to approach a stressful or frightening situation with composure arises from a calm mind. We can face fear, anger, or other volatile emotions, we can acknowledge their presence, but with the rational part of our brain in control, we can avoid reacting on the basis of how we feel. This kind of self-control is well within our grasp. It is just a matter of practice.

This is of great significance, because our emotions don’t always tell the truth; they cetainly don’t tell us the whole story, and they are often disproportionate to the situation. Take fear, for example: how often do we put-off doing something new or difficult because we’re afraid of failing? If we were to think about the worst possible consequences of such failure, aren’t the potential outcomes ‘not so bad’ as we first imagined?

“There are more things, Lucilius, that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Seneca the Younger

Stoic Principle 4 – Curiosity/Absence of Judgment: Stoicism recognizes the subjective nature of human perception, and challenges us to question our thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs. It encourages us to entertain a reality other than the one we know, to open ourselves to the possibility that things are not always as they appear.

This suspension of judgment is the starting point from which we may view the world more objectively, and others more compassionately. This is the foundation for building healthy relationships, and for minimizing conflict.

 

Stoic Principle 5 – Mindfulness/Living in the Moment: When I think of mindfulness, my mind often turns to the activity of hand-washing dishes, and of being fully in my body as I perform each little task. Paying attention to the feeling of water and soap on my skin, the texture of the sponge, the color of the sky outside the window, the chittering sound of the birds. By expanding our awareness, by tuning into these little details of life, we deepen and enrich our experiences, we slow everything down, and we open our minds to the wonders of the world.

What might have been a dreaded chore is now a welcome pause, during which you can still ‘get shit done’. When we savor every experience, the smell of fresh-mown grass, the warmth of the sun, or a loved one’s breath on our neck, we’re encouraged to find even more opportunities to pause and enjoy all our senses.

 


For more reading on Stoicism and related practices, check out the links below:

Don Miguel Ruiz

Marcua Aurelius

Ryan Holiday

Time Ferriss

Seneca

Epictetus

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