Feeling stressed? Well, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Last year the American Psychological Association conducted a survey of levels of self-reported stress amongst adults in the United States. The results were, unsurprisingly, not so great.
Seventy eight percent of adults surveyed reported that their levels of stress have either increased or remained about the same over the past five years. Sixty one percent of adults say that managing stress is very important, however only 35 percent say they are doing a good job of managing stress. The top reasons people feel stressed were concerns over money, work, and the economy.
Okay, okay, so people are stressed, what’s a philosopher to do? Drink another Red Bull and just power through? Well, you could do that, but let’s find a method that won’t cause inevitable heart failure.
Stoicism! Now that’s the ticket.
What is Stoicism? How did it come about? What are the ins and outs of this complex philosophy? Where did I put my cup of coffee? These are the types of questions that I often ask myself whenever I sit down to write on a topic of philosophy.
And while we could spend hours and hours going over the specifics of Stoicism, I think too much information at once can often lead to an undue amount of stress. That would, obviously, defeat the purpose of our whole investigation.
So let’s settle for an abridged definition of Stoicism and then we will go right into a few stoic lessons that you can apply to your every day life to become just a little less anxious.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a brand of philosophy that focuses almost exclusively on the areas of ethics, virtues, and the very difficult task of living a good life. Stoicism as a way of life would originate in Greece, as most philosophy does, in the later years of the Hellenistic age and would gain momentum right up to the height of the Roman Empire.
The founder was Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher who began his lecturing days not long after the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE. While Zeno was the founder of the Stoicism, he is often eclipsed by some of the more prolific stoic authors of the Roman empire. Among these are Epictetus, Seneca the younger, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism taught, above all else, that we ought to live according to nature. They believed that there was a great design to the universe and that nature was the highest form of perfection. Nothing inconsequential happens within the world, everything is, in one way or another, part of some perfectly constructed plan.
Additionally, living according to nature means that we ought to live according to our human nature. What is our human nature? Well, it is our ability to think rationally and our need to pursue wisdom and understanding. We will be supremely happy when we are living according to our human nature. All other things we might find, wealth and money for instance, will never truly make us live a good life.
Sound good so far? Of course it does. So if you want to live stress free and stoically, you might want to follow these simple rules.
Rule #1 Recognize that which you have control over
Do you want to know who is very good at living a stoic life? Recovering alcoholics have this down pat. If you have ever spent time around recovering alcoholics or, like me, ever worked in a facility for addiction treatment, then you have probably heard the following phrase:
God grand me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
What is interesting about that expression, is that it almost perfectly summarizes our first rule of living a stress free, stoic life. The first thing we have to do is recognize what we have control over and what we do not.
Let’s say you are stuck in traffic, the cars are stacked one on top of the other for miles. Now, you could very easily become disheartened by such a situation. Perhaps the stress could get to you and you could start tearing out your hair. But now let’s ask another question.
Do you really have any control over the traffic?
Of course you do not. There is nothing in your power that you can do. You cannot split the traffic as if you were Moses splitting the Red Sea. You cannot fly out your window and escape I 95. We must recognize that the situation is out of our hands, there is nothing to be done.
We can apply this principle to all sorts of things. Whenever you are in a stressful situation, we must ask if we have any meaningful control. The answer, very often, is no.
We, as individuals, can no more meaningfully effect the economy or world affairs any more than we can effect the rotation of the earth. Believe me, I have friends who are brokers in New York City. They tell me the same thing.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus said as much as this within his Discourses. The philosopher suggests that much of our anxiety stems from our desire to have things that are not within our power to give.
“A lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power.” -Epictetus (Discourses)
So we are often wracked by anxiety when encountering situations whose outcome we cannot control. Will we ever escape the gridlock heading north out of Miami? Will the lute player receive an applause after playing the lute?
We don’t know. More importantly, we can’t know. All we can do is manage our reactions and maintain our stoic demeanor. Oh, and we could just try to play the lute as best we can. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen.
Rule #2 Recognize real problems from imaginary problems.
Taking another tip from Epictetus, we know that…
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems” -Epictetus
“But what if…” is a rather popular statement for the more anxious among us. “But what if…” give us an excuse to worry over problems that have not arisen yet. It gives us an excuse to stress.
When we consider problems that are very real, that are happening here and now, what do we really have? Perhaps there are actual concerns, but more often than not they are simply concerns of what MIGHT happen rather than what IS happening.
Recovering alcoholics, once again, learn this lesson one way or the other. What is truly a problem for us right now? We might be homeless tomorrow, but we aren’t today. We might not have a penny to our name next week, but for now we are doing alright. All we really have is right now, and right now we are doing okay.
A man in recovery once told me…
“ I realized eventually that I was just creating problems to get drunk off of. I don’t know where my children are. That will be a problem one day, but it isn’t right now. Even if I could find my children, I wouldn’t know what to say. I would run.
I don’t have any money. But that isn’t a problem right now because I have a roof over my head, a meal on my plate, and I can always get cigarettes. I might be lost and alone tomorrow, but I’m not today.”
So if you want to live stoically, and apparently you do, then you really ought to consider which of your problems are real and which are inventions of an overly anxious mind.
Rule #3 Learn what you can live without
What do you really need? Have you ever thought about that? Insofar as you are a human being, what do you need? Are you more successful as a rational individual if you have a flat screen television? Are you more noble or glorious as a person if there is a Mercedes Benz in your drive way?
In the course of Discourses, Epictetus comments on how he finds it strange that we continue to attach ourselves to more and more things, even when these things very often bring us misery.
“But now when it is in our power to look after one thing [our minds/ rational soul], and to attach ourselves to it, we prefer to look after many things, and to be bound to many things, to the body and to property, and to brother and to friend, and to child and to slave. Since, then, we are bound to many things, we are depressed by them and dragged down.” -Epictetus
Living stoically is not easy. It asks us to surrender many of our desires; chief among these are our desires for luxury and wealth. While we may want these things, our desire for them very often lead to disappointment and sadness. We continuously look toward what we want and refuse to recognize that which we already have.
A philosophy professor explained this idea to me in the following way…
“If you are the type of person who just won’t be happy until you are a millionaire and spend every night partying at Playboy mansion, then you are bound to be disappointed. The Stoics would tell you to wake up! Recognize the good things you already have and set some reasonable goals for yourself.”
Put more succinctly by Marcus Aurelius…
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” -Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
Rule #4 Cultivate your inner self
Okay, so this has been a rather difficult process for some of us. All we have done so far is talk about things that we should stop doing. Stop worrying about things that are beyond our control. Stop creating problems that may happen in the future. Stop creating unnecessary desires that you think will make you happy.
So what can we actually do?
Well, the Stoics would tell you that you ought to cultivate the one thing that you actually do have control over, your inner self. When it comes right down to it you are not in control over the economy, the world, or even your body. You are, however, in control of the state of your mind and your soul.
If we are most human when we are actively pursuing knowledge or understanding, then we will also be happiest while performing these tasks. Who you are, the only part of you that is of any real consequence, is your inner self. It is the part of you that comes to understand virtue through doing virtuous acts, wisdom through pursing true understanding.
The Stoics believed that a peasant could be happy so long as he was a sage, but a king would be miserable unless he was also a sage. And while the king might have more markers in the game of life, more cards up his sleeve, what is of real importance is how you play, not if you win or not.
And I know that some of these rules are rather difficult for us. It is not an easy thing to let go all of our desires, our woes, our fears just because some philosophers thousands of years ago said that the universe had a plan for us.
Believe me, I know.
Still, if you could follow even one of these rules within your daily life, I think you might find that you become just a little less anxious. And you might soon be on your way to living a stress-free, stoic existence.