You’ve probably heard about Stoics or Stoicism — and most of what you know is wrong.
They weren’t joyless bores. The ancient Stoics were the first lifehackers: The Original Gangsters of Making Life Awesome.
The Stoics…were very much interested in human psychology and were not at all averse to using psychological tricks to overcome certain aspects of human psychology, such as the presence in us of negative emotion.
Awesome. But does the Old World hold up when it meets the New World? Does science agree with the thinkers of antiquity?
Absolutely. I enthusiastically, maybe even frantically, suggest you “roll old school.”
In the past, I’ve looked at the science behind Dale Carnegie’s old saws about getting along with people. Let’s give the same treatment to classical thinkers.
Where do science and the great minds of the old world agree when it comes to living the good life?
1) “What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”
Ever asked that? Congrats, you’re a stoic philosopher.
“Negative Visualization” is one of the main tools of Stoicism.
Really thinking about just how awful things can be often has the ironic effect of making you realize they’re not that bad.
It’s what the Stoics call, “the premeditation” – that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.
In fact, the Stoics pushed it further: take a second and imagine losing the things that matter to you most. Family. Friends.
Yes, it’s scary. But doesn’t it make you appreciate them all that much more when you take the time to think about losing them?
A few seconds of thinking about loss can dramatically boost gratitude.
At spare moments in the day, make it a point to contemplate the loss of whatever you value in life. It can make you realize, if only for a time, how lucky you are — how much you have to be thankful for, almost regardless of your circumstances…
And science agrees: Practicing gratitude is at the center of the single most proven technique for boosting happiness: 3 blessings.
Though deliberately thinking about losing stuff may sound morbid, the fact that it taps into emotions is powerfully motivating.
Gratitude is how you stop taking things for granted. How you stay happy after the newness of things is gone. How you keep love alive.
(More on negative visualization here.)
2) “As If”
The Stoics valued tranquility and thought being angry was a waste of time. But what should you do when your blood boils?
Force a smile. Soften your voice. Seneca thought if you act calm, you will become calm.
When angry, says Seneca, we should take steps to “turn all [anger's] indications into their opposites.” We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated.
Does outright faking it really work?
Yup. And science agrees.
Researchers told people to smile. What happened? They actually felt happier.
Via The As If Principle:
More than 26,000 people responded. All of the participants were randomly assigned to one of a handful of groups and asked to carry out various exercises designed to make them happier… When it came to increasing happiness, those altering their facial expressions came out on top of the class…
(More on “fake it until you make it” here.)
3) Make It A Treat
We want everything and we want it yesterday.
The Stoics, on the other hand, used to deliberately walk around on cold days without a coat. Or skip meals to become hungry. Why?
Denying yourself something makes you appreciate the things you take for granted.
Ancient advice? Yeah, it sounds like something my grandfather would have said. But science agrees wholeheartedly.
…if you love, every day, having the same coffee, don’t have it for a few days. Once you have it again, it’s going to be way more amazing than all of the ones that you would have had in the meantime… It’s not “give it up forever.” It’s “give it up for short periods of time, and I promise you you’re going to love it even more when you come back to it.”
Making the things you take for granted into “a treat” is something the ancients and scientists agree on. Plus it has other benefits too.
Grandpa was right: it does make you tougher to go without. It increases willpower.
What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.
People have said for centuries that you can build character by making yourself do things you don’t want to do, that by exerting self-discipline you can make yourself into a stronger person. That does appear to be correct.
And what’s more responsible for success than IQ or pretty much anything else? Self-control.
Today skip that Starbucks or that cookie. It’ll be even better tomorrow. And it’ll increase your willpower.
(More on how to boost self-control here.)
4) It’s Okay To Stumble
Does Stoicism seem hard? Don’t want to think about how awful things can be right now? Don’t want to give up your ice cream for a day?
They knew that too. What did Epictetus tell his students after he taught them these Stoic lifehacks?
He told them what to do when they screw up — because we all do.
The Stoics understood that they would encounter setbacks in their practice of Stoicism: Thus, Epictetus, after telling his students what they must do to practice Stoicisim, went on to tell them what they should do when they failed to follow his advice. He expected, in other words, that novice Stoics would routinely backslide. Along similar lines, Marcus recommends that when our practice falls short of Stoic precepts, we should not become despondent and certainly should not give up our attempts to practice Stoicism; instead, we should return to the attack and realize that if we can do the right thing, Stoically speaking, most of the time, we are doing pretty well for ourselves.
And what does science say we should do when we lose self-control or procrastinate?
Forgive yourself and move on.
Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion— being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure— is associated with more motivation and better self-control.
In trying to do anything to better your life, it’s okay to stumble. It takes time. You learn.
(More on self-compassion here.)
You’ve only got 30,000 days of life. Seriously. Here’s what classical philosophers and modern science agree can make those days better:
- “What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”
- “As If”
- Make It A Treat
- It’s Okay To Stumble
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