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Ancient Lessons for Modern Problems: Leveraging Stoic Wisdom for a Simplified Existence

Staff Writer Esin Ucur explores how the ancient Stoic divised and practised a method of well-being still relevant to the trials and tribulations of modern day life.

The Stoic School of thought claims that you alone are responsible for the life you live. Adversity, however large or small, is a universal experience as familiar as our morning coffee. How we respond to these hardships defines our existence.

Stoicism has the ability to transform every experience, good and bad, into a valuable course on resilience. It fosters courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. By examining some of the common challenges we face in life, we can delve into their stoic remedies and discern ways in which these philosophies can be integrated into our daily lives.

Searching for the Happiness Hack

There is no shortcut to filling a life with constant joy and leaving it devoid of sorrow. Across cultures and generations, we often yearn for quick fixes, hoping to neatly dispel any discomfort. The self-help industry, consumer culture and social media platforms demonstrate Western cultures’ use of happiness as a barometer of personal success. This paradoxically leads to a sense of dissatisfaction when we aren’t experiencing that feeling. When we’re not basking in the sunshine of happiness, we assume there’s something fundamentally wrong. This binary perspective disregards the transient nature of happiness and the complexity of emotion, leading to unrealistic expectations of perpetual joy and the neglect of uncomfortable feelings.

Stoicism tells us to embrace discomfort.

Being uncomfortable serves as a learning platform for optimism. Negative visualisation is a strange exercise that encourages you to ruminate on the possibility of painful outcomes and emotions, typically loss, which in turn enables you to develop gratitude for what you have. By embracing the reality that nothing is permanent, you appreciate your present comforts and grant yourself internal freedom by acknowledging that you can survive amidst the chaotic shifts of the external world. 

To combat the quest for happiness, you can additionally set internal goals that are detached from external results. Many artists find that the most important part of a masterpiece does not come from the worry of the finished article, but instead the joy of creation. When trying to change a habit or situation, discipline can be inspired by loving the journey as much as you love the outcome. Embrace the discomfort.

Through mindfulness, we can cherish the present moment, build distress tolerance and practice acceptance and emotional regulation.  

Locus of Control

Believing that you are a pawn on the chessboard of life, played by some invisible hand, is comparable to having an external locus of control. Overemphasising factors outside of our control often engenders the perception that someone else is responsible for our problem as well as its resolution. This leaves us within the confines of a victim mentality harbouring the belief that we are powerless in the face of our problems. 

The Stoics urge us to differentiate between our internal and external worlds. Once we are able to recognise the distinction between what we can and cannot control, we can begin channeling our resources towards what we can accept and shape. Long story short, don’t waste your time fantasising over things you have no influence over; focus on what you can change within yourself to make the circumstances as harmonious as possible. It is essential to mention that this perspective does not serve to discredit life’s inherent injustices, but instead propels us to move on and sculpt a life of our own. A few approaches can help this mindset manifest.

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

Firstly, don’t assume the worst about other people’s intentions. Be charitable when considering the possibilities that drive their behaviour, because most people aren’t acting in accordance with absolute evil. Maintaining a positive outlook on humanity can be difficult considering pervasive factors such as extensive negativity in the media, personal traumas, cultural norms that emphasise a pessimistic worldview, personal comparisons made with performative social media posts, institutional power structures that focus on competition and critique and the negativity bias, which results in a tendency to give more emotional weight to negative experiences over positive ones. These ‘external’ explanations can eclipse the myriad acts of generosity and kindness that happen, more often than not. We are all a part of the same whole, and focusing on the light rather than the shadow of others will equip you with a sense of freedom.

Secondly, an internal locus of control can be fostered by not letting the actions of others offend you so easily. Instead of policing and focusing on what others do and say, we can take external action to fix injustices while managing our own emotional reactions. Holding yourself accountable above everyone else is key. It’s easy to assume that someone is intentionally pushing your buttons, but Stoicism suggests that we’re often reacting to our judgments about what’s happened rather than what’s actually happened. For example, if you receive the message “We need to talk”, you may start to feel anxious and make the judgement that you’re in some sort of trouble. The anxiety you feel isn’t because of the message itself, but because of the story you’ve created about it. Instead of multiplying our suffering by adding these false judgments, we should analyse our interpretations and strive for objectivity.

Stoicism and Modern Therapy

The benefits of stoicism for mental health are displayed practically in its incorporation into contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT practitioners recognise neurotic tendencies as a result of the interpretation of an event rather than the event itself and so advocate for clients to replace maladaptive beliefs with more constructive ones. Given their conviction that our thoughts and perceptions directly influence our emotions and behaviour, these therapists employ a present-focused orientation rather than a traditional psychoanalytic approach.

A critique

Though the tenets of Stoicism offer contentment, they have the potential to promote passivity. The philosophy may inadvertently encourage individuals to accept conditions that should be fundamentally questioned. We can argue that Stoicism may be co-opted by the prevailing capitalist system to encourage individuals to practice resilience and acceptance in order to decrease their chances of recognising and challenging broader structural and systemic issues which are at play. The teachings of the Stoics should therefore not be used in isolation to treat individual suffering. The broader role of societal structures must be considered in order to prevent satisfying the few elite at the expense of the many vulnerable. Though there are debates on the compatibility of the two, one can be Stoic as well as protest injustices.  

Moving forward

Stoicism guides us to live with our judgments aligned with reality, act for the common good and respond purposefully to the elements within our control. 

Albeit these recommendations can enrich our ways of affective living, it’s important to acknowledge that, ultimately, values are personal. Though debates persist over whether some values are inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, they are subjective and open to personal interpretation. Provided no harm is inflicted upon another, it’s up to you to determine what is fundamentally essential to your being. In the meantime, however, be courageous, practice moderation, be just in your treatment and remain an eternal student of life. The essence of our existence is not determined by what happens to us, but by how we respond.

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