Category Archives: Philosophy

The plague that is social media

It might take a moment of clarity or an absolute meltdown, but the realization is the same — we are being bombarded with so much distraction and insignificant ranting that social media becomes a troublesome burden rather than some harmless pass time.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Like almost any domain you want to look at, there is no escaping the corporate imperative of having your brain diverted from it’s course and firmly entranced by some new piece of novelty. Cat videos are usually cited here, but the plethora of friends meals, kid photos and their precious opinion about the election infiltrate your retinas and ultimately take up space in your frontal lobes.

So social media is nothing but candy — junk food that ought only be consumed occasionally but often becomes an addiction.

It turns out addiction isn’t an extreme choice of words in this case either. Author and computer scientist Cal Newport says social media is like having a slot machine in your pocket. It’s inherently addictive to seek out novel stimuli and to doubly get the social proof that comes from getting positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on your own posts.

In this way, social media provides a steady stream of dopamine ‘hits’ throughout the day — little pleasurable snacks that keep boredom at bay.

Seen this way, social media hits can be likened to avoidance strategies. With all the responsibilities and problems on one’s plate, what harm could a little mental detour have?

Therein lies the problem. One needs to see one’s addictive behaviour as a problem in order for it to register as something they need to change. One or two short viewings or interactions isn’t the problem — it’s the compulsion to repeatedly disengage from reality and dive into the online world that is the real cost.

To that end, may I suggest going without all forms of social media for 7 days. Go ahead, try it. You will learn a great deal about your habit, your compulsion to use it and you might find, as I have, that there is a tremendously peaceful mental space that opens up.

That mental space is precious to me now and I have to fight hard for it. So many things are banging on the window of my consciousness wanting in. If I’m not proactively setting boundaries for those distractions, my day will be swayed this way and that with little of my conscious input.

Cal Newport, in his Tedx talk Quit Social Media makes the point that social media companies are in the entertainment business and not a savoury one at that. He says that they hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to make them as addictive as possible.

Yes, your attention is valued that much by media and social media so why aren’t we waking up and valuing our attention enough to limit our consumption of these apps?

The bigger picture

In Deep Work, Cal Newport outlines what is truly valuable in today’s economy (indeed in any economy ever): “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal calls this “Deep Work” as contrasted by the most common type mode of approaching life — scattered, distracted and fragmented attention. Cal argues, successfully in my opinion, that Deep Work is a rare commodity and that anything truly valuable that is being created today is coming from a deep work approach.

On the other hand, what the market does not value is tasks that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. He says social media is the epitome of low value work (after all, a 16 year old with smartphone can do it!)

This gels nicely with the idea of craftsmanship, a seemingly antiquated idea that dedication by a craftsperson with exceptional skill and expertise leads to inherently valuable and meaningful products. However, that’s a rant for another day.

For the time being, I encourage you to examine the impact social media is having on your life and take the 7 day challenge. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot about the impact of social media and some things about yourself in the process.

I can’t tell you how much freer my life seems without constant detours off into some meaningless piece of fluff content or rage filled hate post.

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Cold showers can change your life (not just make you cold!)

Why would anyone in their right mind even contemplate going through the discomfort of taking a cold shower?

A valid question indeed. which contains the seed of a profound answer: Choosing to be uncomfortable hardens your mind and resolve.

Think about it, almost everyone goes through life making decisions that are easy and comfortable. I mean, why would you even want to be uncomfortable right? Shouldn’t everything be exactly as you want it and even better?

This is the society we live in and we’re paying a price for it. We have more than any society has ever had before. More options, variety, more food, more freedom to travel and do as we please, yet somehow this isn’t enough.

The easy choice is the wrong choice if we want to be happy and fulfilled. Does that mean we should make life intentionally difficult. Yes and no.

It is here we need to make a distinction between masochism and extending our comfort zones. Taking a cold shower isn’t masochism, it is merely an inconvenience we can choose to experience. If we do, we can gain more of an appreciation for having hot water available, which is something most people in the world do not have access to.

We can also develop thicker skin. If the power went off for three weeks we know we could handle bathing in cold water.

Prescription for contentment

But there’s something profound that happens when you start making choices to endure doses of voluntary discomfort: Your mental outlook changes. You shift from needing to have things as perfect as possible in order to enjoy life. You stop being so darn precious about feeling uncomfortable… These cease to be excuses for inaction, whining and not enjoying life as it is.

I know it’s a tough sell, and I’ve gotten a multitude of strange looks for mentioning this idea, but really, it is a small thing you can do to set in motion positive changes. Both in mood (you feel funky for hours afterwards) and in long term emotional states because you develop a level of resilience.

If you’re the sort of person who has to have everything exactly as they want it, taking cold showers will seem utterly foreign to you. No doubt this expectation that your experience must fit a narrow set of standards in order for you to feel fulfilled/happy produces a great deal of discontent. Doing something against the grain is probably the best thing you could do.

Don’t believe me?

Try it. Take a cold shower for 7 days. That is cold from start to finish. Revel in it, look forward to it, abandon hesitation and you’ll notice your days go much smoother.

If you’re really keen to improve your mental outlook, stop having your morning coffee. Maybe that one is for another time 🙂

Here’s a few cool resources for more info:

 

 

 

Stoic Week 2015 — Hitting the ‘reset’ button

Stoic Week 2015
Stoic Week 2015 commences on 2 November. What is Stoic Week? In a nutshell, it is a chance for anyone who wants to understand what the Stoic perspective and daily practice entails, and to experience some of the benefits that comes with developing a Stoic approach to life and all its complexities.

This will be my second Stoic week, so to make sure I get the most out of the experience I’m starting to get momentum the week prior by really taking seriously the central tenets of Stoicism, including:

  • Virtue is the only true good worth pursuing
  • Living a frugal lifestyle with a reduced focus on the acquisition of external ‘goods’ and the cultivation of a contentment for the internal life and qualities
  • Developing a mindful moment-to-moment approach to “impressions” and learning to use my power of judgement to nip unhealthy desires and fears in the bud
  • Recognising what is in my power and focusing my efforts in those areas
  • Accepting what is not within my power
  • Practising Stoic exercises such as the morning and evening meditations and reading Stoic texts.

If you are new to Stoicism, then I suggest you check out the Stoicism Today site for a complete run down on what Stoicism is and how to take part in Stoic Week.

One of the things I struggled with after Stoic Week 2014 was keeping the momentum going following that 7 days of intense focus on Stoic principles. It is too easy to fall back into patterns of indulgence in excessive irrational pleasure, including food and drink, wanton consumerism and wasting time on the internet.

I’ve found myself focusing too much on things I can’t control and feeling anxious because of this. Modern Western cultures prize insecurity and excessive hedonism, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us or that we should continue to participate.

Pushing the reset bUTTON

Stoic Week 2015, for me, will therefore be a reset of sorts. By taking a flying start and beginning my Stoic intensive the week before Stoic Week, I believe I’ll be able to better adopt Stoicism as an “operating system” for making better decisions in life.

Stoic Week is a great opportunity to reflect on your life, examine it through a Stoic lens and gain valuable insights on how your life could be better by taking on a more Stoic attitude to life.

A practical philosophy

The success of Stoicism in recent years is in part due to its practicality — it is philosophy you can use to lead a better life.

With that in mind, here are some of the things I’ll personally be doing to put Stoic principles into practice. This is in addition to the Stoic techniques that will be outlined in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook:

  • Eat only a simple meat-free and dairy-free diet
  • Manage cravings, hedonism with proper use of impressions
  • Cultivate simplicity in all things
  • Perform simple bodyweight only workouts with full presence
  • Be a producer: Make good use of my time in service of producing work rather than consuming (i.e. Being a creator of web content that helps others rather than consuming content on the web).
  • Act from my highest values and virtues, not emotions
  • Cultivate a disciplined mind: Minimise distractions by applying the Pomodoro Technique to ensure sustained attention on the task I am doing
  • Sleep well
  • (New addition) Cold showers

*For an idea of what Stoic Week entails, check out the 2014 Stoic Week Handbook (pdf).

Just do it!

Stoicism has already had a profound effect in my life and the lives of thousands of others. If you’re religious, it will make you a better believer. If you’re not religious, Stoicism will give you an operating system and code of virtue ethics that will make you a better person, family member, friend and citizen of Earth.

Stoic Week also serves as a research project, based at the University of Exeter in the UK so by participating, you can help add vital data in to the mix.

Rethinking the role of pleasures in life

Many people don’t even consider the role of pleasure in creating a ‘good’ and ‘flourishing’ life.

In fact the word flourishing probably doesn’t factor in to any one person’s philosophy of life.

This is primarily a cultural thing — very few of us are ever presented with the idea of questioning the cultural norms and attitudes we are inculcated in. You’re a consumer, you consume and thereby participate in the great cultural experiment of no-limits capitalism.

It is my contention that life truly worth living requires some critical reflection on the relationship we have with pleasure and the external objects and events that we rely on for fulfillment.

To some, the idea that pleasure isn’t somehow connected to a valuable and worthwhile life is dumbfounding. This was certainly my realisation when I first discovered Stoicism and virtue ethics as a way of developing a personal code for living.

In fact, the pursuit of pleasure, despite being a tremendously self-centred preoccupation, often leads to discontentment or worse, addictions.

“It is self-discipline, above all, that causes pleasure.”
— Socrates

As it turns out, philosophers have been debating ideas around what constitutes a good life for at least 2500 years. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy been preoccupied with areas that are academically interesting, but bare little relevance to practical living.

Epicurus and the “pleasure garden”

Of the Hellenistic schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans held that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In fact, the Cyrenaic school only lasted a century — their project essentially carried on by the Epicureans.

Like most words pertaining to Greek philosophy that survive in modern English, ‘Epicurean’ distorts the original meaning of the word.

Epicurus did expound a hedonistic philosophy, but his take on pleasure was vastly different to that of the modern standard. His hedonistic ethics were aimed at the attainment of ataraxia — freedom from unnecessary pain while being content with simple pleasures.

Epicureans were not rampant pleasure seekers at all costs. Food, drink and sex were not objects of unusual desire for them. Instead, Epicurus and his ardent followers did all they could do maintain this blissful state including:

  • Withdrawing from politics and, to a large extent, public life
  • Retiring to a plush garden to practice philosophy and live the good life among friends
  • Enjoy pleasures in moderation while abstaining from unhealthy pleasurable pursuits
  • Avoiding superstitious beliefs that cause undue existential harm (e.g. Gods that punish us in an afterlife).

The latter point to me is the most interesting as a modern skeptic. Epicurus’ theory of atomism stemmed from his insistence that beliefs should be proportioned to the empirical evidence. Epicurus thought it unnecessary to worry about the gods and to fear the consequences of judgement from the gods. This was a bold departure from the beliefs of the populous at the time.

So Epicureans pursued a state of tranquility through the taming of desire, because they knew that wantonly fulfilling desires is an unending pursuit that leads to discontentment.

Staunch Stoics

The Stoics went one further than the Epicureans — pleasure is not a good at all, in fact virtue (those actions that perfect one’s character) is the only good. The Stoics were unimpressed with pleasure and craving after desires. They thought these to be the cause of much human unhappiness.

The way to combat perturbations or “unnatural movements of the soul” is to live apatheia (without passions). To achieve this state, one must pursue only those things that are within one’s control. Any ‘passion’ in Stoicism is inappropriate because the presence of such intense emotions can only arise in a person if they mistakenly place value in an external object, sensation or event (which are only indifferents with respect to a flourishing life).

That is Stoicism in a nutshell — quell passions like desire by judging only internal things within our control to be good. Value those things and be indifferent to everything else (in fact we should love whatever befalls us because that is what nature has willed).

Stoic practice is therefore training to hone one’s wisdom about what is truly good and what is truly bad and to act in accordance with nature.

As with much of the Stoic canon, Epictetus is bang on when he says: “It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

The mental disposition of yearning, craving or lusting after something external is the very definition of discontentment. However, this way of thinking, puts us squarely at odds with the frantic, never satisfied life we’ve landed ourselves in.

What that means for us today

Many people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that there is more to life than just fulfilling every desire that enters their consciousness.

In rich countries, we’re sold on the idea from multiple sources — the media, big business, governments… That the goal in life is to have the house, the car the toys, the holidays and everything in between. We’re supposed to work ourselves into the ground to pay for these things and when we can’t we can just sign on the dotted line and go in to debt.

The above narrative is not only faulty it is the also the cause of a great amount of human unhappiness, environmental degradation and social problems. The lie persists, however, because so much is at stake for those who profit from us buying into it.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Perhaps the most insightful and life changing aspect of my study in Hellenistic philosophy stems from challenging the role desire plays in my life. For me, preoccupation with pleasure has reduced dramatically and the positive results as well as increased sense of well-being has flowed into all aspects of my life.

Your path might be different to mine — I have principally studied Stoicism, but it really doesn’t matter. Eastern philosophies and religions have also much to say about how desires and aversions rule our lives. The point is: examine your life, don’t just sleepwalk through it. And evaluating the effect of pleasure and desire in your life is about as fundamental an examination as you can get.

Even if you come out of your study of practical philosophy as a full blown consumerist hedonist, at least you’ll know why and be able to recognise the limitations of that philosophy of life and be prepared for any challenges that you may face.

Putting and end to being offended

In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris recently, debates have raged throughout the Western world regarding the free expression and its role in society.

Many conversations have been outright condemnation. Sadly, a good number of other conversations have gone: “Nothing justifies murder, but…”

“We shouldn’t attack ideas with satire and ridicule for fear we might provoke outrage,” they say. This just hands power back to the thugs by giving them exactly what they want — control of others by fear and force.

But here are the facts: Words do not do any intrinsic harm. Ideas don’t have feelings and don’t deserve respect. People deserve respect.

Two things are at play here:

(1) People honestly believe that violence is permissible if someone is provoked

Pope Francis clearly believes this — the paragon of virtue of the Catholic Church supports the wife beater’s (she made me do it) defence, saying: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

It should be no surprise that a Catholic official is in favour of violence towards those who the Church deems as “opposition” (just look at Church history), but this is the meek and mild saviour of the Church speaking! The most popular Pope for a long time because he has appealed to the liberal and non-Catholics.

The kind of revenge society that Pope Francis is advocating is not the sort of society reasonable people want to live in. The idea that violence is justified for any reason other than defense  is simply barbaric. We condemn the kids who inflict physical punishment on the playground; we try to stamp out bullying, yet some of us are quick to say that inciting violence if insulted is okay. Progress in human rights, justice and ethical living since the Enlightenment has been away from this kind of meathead justice.

Violence is never the right answer to words and ideas we don’t like. Better ideas and better words are.

(2) People like to gain control by being reflexively offended

In recent years it has become fashionable for some to try to silence others and exert control on public discourse by playing the “I’m offended” card. The notion being that we all must have our feelings protected and if “I say I’m offended then you’d better just stop”.

But the world is constituted in such a way that this is clearly an absurd position. Just look at the droves of American Idol contestants in genuine shock and denial after receiving negative comments about their lack of singing talent. This is likely the first time they ever received any negative feedback because their so-called friends are constantly pumping them up and egging them on to “pursue their dream”.

You have the right to be offended but you don’t have the right to silence people in public discourse just because their arguments are inconvenient or uncomfortable to you. For if it is acceptable to silence others for your benefit, then it must be fine for others to demand that same level of respect of their beliefs from you.

If we try to change the world to conform with our wishes we are in a head-on course with disappointment and suffering.

It is impossible to not offend someone, somewhere. For some, the mere existence of atheists is offensive. Others just can’t be offended at all, though they feel revulsion at things done in poor taste. The thing is, ideas and concepts aren’t intrinsically offensive, people get offended.

Be not offended

Have you ever noticed that if you take two very similar people (similar interests and stations in life) and tell them the same thing they will respond differently? That’s because it’s not the words or the message that matters, it is the meanings people derive and layer on top of the message.

Words do not injure; words merely carry meaning and that meaning can only lead to injury if it is perceived to be so in the mind of the receiver.

Despite this, it blindingly obvious that when we lash out in response to things we don’t like it is because at some level we believe ourselves to have been injured in some way.

This is probably due to the fact that people identify with their beliefs and the more conviction and importance they assign those beliefs, the more sting they’re likely to feel if their beliefs are challenged. While they maybe ideas to us and we might even recognise them to be in error, to the person who holds the belief it is a matter of utmost importance. This is particularly the case when it comes to religion, primarily because those kinds of ideas are at the root of a person’s identity.

How the Stoics handled insults and criticism

As usual, the Stoics had some of the better insights on dealing with anything people had to say, positive or negative. This was because the Stoics knew that too many people place too much importance on what people thought, to the point where it would derail them emotionally.

Many of the following Stoic approaches to handling insults have been used with great effect in anger management classes and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The Roman Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepared himself for the hostile life in Roman Politics by reminding himself not to be surprised that people ware scoundrels:

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill”.  People do not choose to behave they way they do so “[t]hat men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice.” – Meditations 2:1

Much of the shock we experience from the actions and words of others is because we at some level we think people shouldn’t be nasty or provocative. This is however, an unrealistic expectation and Aurelius’ morning reminder posted above is an antidote for such idealistic delusion.

We can’t control other people, but we can control our responses to them.

Another very effective way of dealing with comments is to refrain from thinking of them as negative or positive in the first place. After all, it is the assignment of meaning to statements that governs our emotional response.

“Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” – Meditations 4:7

The above quote reveals a central theme in Stoic training that survives today in modern CBT: Don’t allow your initial impression to catch fire and turn into a full-on emotional outburst. Ultimately, we have the faculty of reason that can pour water on the sparks of emotional fires thereby keeping our equanimity and calm.

Epictetus says it much more eloquently:

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. – Enchiridion 1.5

Ideas don’t deserve respect, people do

In a civil society it is our duty to challenge ideas and allow the best ideas to make to survive while discarding those that are subversive, harmful and factually wrong. This can only happen with reasoned debate and inquiry free from corruption.

Words, ideas and pictures don’t have feelings, they can’t endure suffering and can’t be offended. Ideas deserve no special treatment for if they did then the idea that Earth is center of the universe or the ideas of alchemy would not be cast on the trash heap of history as they should be.

This is the big point that people like Pope Francis don’t get: we have only made moral and scientific progress — away from barbarism and the archaic notions that hold humanity back, by criticising ideas, holding them up in the light of day and seeing whether they’re valid, invalid, helpful or harmful.

However, ideas do carry power — power to change society, transform lives and shift wealth. This means people and and heads of corporations and institutions such as religions are motivated to suppress, deny and rubbish ideas that don’t serve their purpose or will lead to a loss of power. This is why we need freedom of speech — to avoid abuses of power in all its guises.

summary

Some things will offend people, regardless of how tame they maybe. You can’t not offend people. If we had a society that remained tight lipped over important issues for fear someone may cry “offense” then that lack of honesty and transparency would be allow all kinds of abuses and toxic ideas to flourish. The bullies would win.

The main take away points:

  • Words, pictures and actions are not inherently offensive, we become offended.
  • Words and ideas don’t deserve respect but people do
    Ideas don’t have feelings.
  • Trying to bend reality to meet our expectations is a flawed strategy.
  • Remind yourself daily, as Marcus Aurelius did, that you will encounter people who are rude, critical, irrational and outright nasty. Expect insult and avoid injury.
  • Repugnant ideas should be met with counter ideas in a civilised society, so that we can make moral progress.
  • Violence is only justified when meeting violence, never because we don’t like the words or ideas of others.

Stoic week 2014 and the necessity of philosophy

Philosophy has been a source of strength and wisdom throughout the ages — two things sadly missing from our modern world.

Next week is Stoic Week 2014 — an event organised by researchers and Stoicism enthusiasts from the University of Exeter in the UK. In its third year, Stoic Week is both an experiment and a chance for people to “try on” a different philosophy of life.

If you don’t do anything for Stoic week but get the Stoic Week Handbook, you will still receive tremendous value from the event.

Ancient philosophy is important today because our modern cultural ideas have a lot to answer for. For one, we’re taught to worship our emotions. We’re told we should have that new pair of shoes, eat that cake and basically reward ourselves for getting up in the morning.

We are also taught that everything should basically go our way and if it doesn’t this is cause for disappointment. Having ones plans disintegrate right in front of their eyes will unhinge many people, leading to frustration, anger and despair.

Philosophy, particularly the Stoic School informs us that we’re misguided in valuing pleasure too highly and for shielding ourselves from discomfort. The remedy? Start by assessing your expectations.

Expectations — the tranquility destroyers

Recently, I heard an interview with Tony Robbins where he said “If you want a better life trade expectations for appreciations”. Expectations are simply delusions we have about how things ought to go. Expectations set us up for frustration and disappointment.

For one, having expectations relies heavily on our ability to (a) sum up the reality of a situation in order to (b) make realistic predictions about how things will turn out. Human minds are unreliable in both these instances. Sure we can use experience to come up with reasonable estimates about how reality will work out but the universe is far more complex and chaotic than we could ever account for.

The point that Stoic philosophers repeatedly asserted the importance of knowing what is within our power to control and what isn’t.

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” – Epictetus

A key Stoic maxim is that to have a good life, one must “live according to nature”. In other words, things that happen and the things we have in our life come from providence and can just as easily be taken away. Fretting over things that happen is contrary to nature. Trying to control what is outside ourselves is the source of human suffering.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asserts often in his Meditations that our concern and despair for things that happen as a matter of natural course of the universe is misguided and pointless. He often mentions that we’ll soon be dead so what’s the point of suffering for no reason.

“… But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.” – Aurelius, Meditations.

Freedom comes from within

If we allow ourselves to be swept away by the impressions (thoughts/appearances) then we have given away our freedom.

Epictetus was the most forceful in this respect. He repeatedly reminds us in his Discourses of the need to be on guard from ‘impressions’ or appearances. In fact the opening lines of Epictetus’ Enchiridion (The Handbook) proceed as follows:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This is where ancient philosophy meets modern therapeutic practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Freedom, Epictetus says, flows from the ability to step in between impressions and not be bold over by passions that flow from those impressions. Epictetus wants us to realise that we have control to step in and judge impressions, delay judgement, exert self-control and gain freedom from being swept away by external things and events.

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus

A prescription for a better life

How then do we put expectations aside and not be swept away by external events and circumstances? The Stoics devised a number of practices to fully integrate philosophy into the fibre of your being.

Realign your perceptions with reality

Firstly, do a thorough analysis of what is in your power to control and what isn’t. Then discard all concern for those things you can’t control. This practice is connected with the Stoic conception of values. Truly good things are not conditional — they are intrinsically good. These are the virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance (self control).

Realign your expectations

In Western society we are sheltered from the world in many ways. We find innovative ways to avoid thinking about death, we expect things to go well and we constantly seek comfort. It seems somewhat strange then to question these societal norms.

But keeping ourselves in a suspended state of comfort and ignorance just means when things go wrong in life, and they will, we are more likely to not have the courage, strength and wherewithal to navigate through the difficulty and emerge victorious on the other side.

Enter the most prized (in my opinion) Stoic exercise: Praemeditatio futurorum malorum — Anticipation of future difficulties (literally: future evils).

Spend time occasionally contemplating misfortune, including losing the people and things we love. Imagine losing these things in a sort of detached way, not in a way that causes anxiety. The goal is to make sure you are fully aware that these things can and do happen in life and to be prepared should they happen.

This one exercise will recalibrate your expectations and help you develop a deeper sense of gratitude for everyone and everything in your life. By contemplating what life is like having lost the things and people in your life, you are more fully able to feel joy and gratitude in the present. Positivity through negative thinking… I like it!

Both Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Marcus Aurelius devised negative thinking practices to handle the rudeness, annoyances and challenges that arise in everyday life.

Aurelius, who was embroiled in the turbulent political life of Roman Court, used exercise below to keep an even keel.

Aurelius morning exercise

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

Seneca On Anger

Seneca speaks quite timelessly in his essay On Anger about the need to accept the fact that things don’t always go our way in order that we be at peace with them. Seneca’s rather insightful observation is that anger not only had dire consequences if not controlled, it also resulted when we were shocked by events that happen.

Here is a good exercise to demonstrate the power of Seneca’s insight. For most of us living in cities, this will be of particular benefit.

Spend a few minutes every morning thinking about and even expecting people to cut you off in traffic, being stuck in traffic, being late for a meeting… Expecting people to be in a rush and inconsiderate on the road.

Expecting people to let you down, be rude, greedy, impatient and obnoxious inoculates you against these things. They are after all, to be expected as the natural course of things.

Practical philosophy to overcome modern ills

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” – Epictetus

My wife is often the source of both inspiration and incisive comments. While this can be tough to handle sometimes (no one likes hearing the truth all the time!) my life is immeasurably better because of her honest appraisals of my conduct (a euphemism if ever there was one).

Anyhow, she made a comment a while ago that really rocked me. After reading a couple of articles on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog, I expressed an interest Stoic philosophy as guidance for how to live a better life. She laughed and said that I already had a philosophy of life — hedonism! In that moment I had keen insight into why I needed to pursue a philosophy of life. Hedonism, while not inherently a bad philosophy of life, is the default approach to life most of us in industrialised nations take.

Hedonism: The satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Hedonism is, at least for many, leads to an unrewarding way of life. The ancients in many schools of thought observed that the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake was not only easy to do (no special character development needed) it also had a cost associated with it.

This explains the popularity today of Buddhist retreats, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in the modern world. The way many of us live today — in large industrial cities — is a relatively new state of affairs for the human animal to be dealing with. Couple this with the need to fulfill the numerous roles in the many relationships we have and it really is a perfect storm for burn out.

What people need are practical approaches to decompress and deal with the world, other than mindless shopping/consuming in the vain hope at the end of it we feel fulfilled and content.

Ancient philosophy as an operating system for your life

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
– Henry David Thoreau

The phrase “what’s your philosophy of life” might not be the most common dinner party question. In fact it probably isn’t something many people consciously think about. We tend to take on the attitudes, beliefs and approaches of those around us without much questioning.

Philosophy is also a word with baggage. To most people, philosophy is a purely academic exercise, and the joy of learning the wisdom of the philosophers is lost sometime between assignment one and the end of term exam.

This is unfortunate — philosophy  in the ancient Greek and Roman sense was practical philosophy. A student of one of the many schools in Athens and Rome would have as there goal the attainment of certain virtues in life through philosophical contemplation and the practice of key tenets.

I like Tim Ferriss’ take on philosophy — that it should be an operating system for making better decisions.

Any philosophy of life must address a few key questions:

  • What is our true nature as humans?
  • What should we value?
  • How should we act given our values/nature?
  • How does one go about dealing with problems, obstacles and misfortune?
  • What is our role in society?

Stoicism, self-control and virtue

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” – Epictetus

Any philosophy of life, other than hedonism, will require self-control. While maximising our opportunities for pleasure seems logical, pleasure for pleasure’s sake ultimately isn’t a rewarding way to live for many people, and requires little or no self-control at all.

Hollywood offers the best examples of this — people who seemingly have it all are constantly destroying themselves and the lives of others through sexual excess, drugs, alcohol, aggression and a host of other destructive practices. According to hedonism, these people should be maximally happy, but we know for a fact that many of them aren’t. Fame and riches own them, and sadly it costs lives.

Failing to put our circumstances into proper perspective is part of the problem. The Stoics, for example, advocated forgoing pleasure and in some cases advise us to actively seek out discomfort so that we may have the proper appreciation of our circumstances.

With appreciation for what we have now we can abandon the suffering that stem from our desires, making it possible to live a life of durable happiness — a life that remains on a positive path despite what is going on externally.

The happiness conundrum

The Stoics were principally concerned with Eudaimonia — the Greek word that roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca stated that such a condition can only be achieved by one who has a tranquil mind. This, to me, seems a much more worthy goal in life than the vague and undefined ‘happiness’ which can mean different things to different people. Tranquility, on the other hand, is a state of mind and we can then reason backwards and find ways of achieving this state.

The Stoics devised many practical ways to achieve a tranquil mind and the attainment of virtue (in the classical sense). This is good news for the modern man or woman trying to deal with life’s stresses, temptations, problems and challenges.

Because of this, stoicism is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism withered on the vine for centuries, only to emerge at several times throughout the past 1000 years.

Zen Buddhism has many cross overs with Stoicism but have different approaches to the same end. Stoic practices tend to be more about reflection and analysis of our lives whereas Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, these are increasingly popular as people find them useful for achieving some inner peace in a mad world.

Simple stoic exercises can help you:

  • Develop an operating system for better decision making
  • Deal with stress and eliminate needless suffering
  • Tame pleasures rather than be owned by pleasures
  • Put the value of the people and things in your life in proper perspective
  • Increase your joy in the life you have right now (without trying to fill the void by consuming or chasing ‘external things’).

**Check out the online resources below for specifics on Stoic exercises and practice.

Concluding thoughts

I have lived my entire life to this point taking the easy road. After all, if I didn’t have to exert myself, why should I? Why would I wake up earlier? Why shouldn’t I eat that chocolate bar? The only problem with this style of living is that I ended up coasting through life never really achieving much of anything and infuriating people when I didn’t follow through in my role, whatever that was (husband, co-worker, friend…)

The Stoics were very astute in their observation that relying on external events of objects to create within us the positive emotions is a losing battle.

One of the more profoundly life-changing aspects of stoic principles is in extinguishing stress and eliminating anger. Epictetus probably said it better than anyone:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This quote is a central tenet in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The notion that between an event and our response is a judgment we make. Change the judgment, change the response.

At the end of the day, the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome had tremendous insights into human nature and how we can flourish, despite the travails of life. Can we gain from their works? Absolutely. Given that these philosophers lived in sophisticated societies at times of war, political turmoil and upheaval, their insights about how to live a good life are as relevant today as they ever were.

Philosophy of life and Stoicism online resources: