A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - by William B. Irvine

Stoicism and Zen have certain things in common. They both, for example, stress the importance of contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us and the importance of mastering desire, to the extent that it is possible to do so. They also advise us to pursue tranquility and give us advice on how to attain and maintain it. There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.

The joy the Stoics were interested in can best be described as a kind of objectless enjoyment--an enjoyment not of any particular thing but of all this. It is a delight in simply being able to participate in life.

To be virtuous is to live as we were designed to live; it is to live, as Zeno put it, in accordance with nature. The Stoics would add that if we do this, we will have a good life.

Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.

We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires. The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation. One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.


Negative visualization was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics' psychological tool kit. By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life.

The negative visualization technique can also be used in reverse: Besides imagining that the bad things that happened to others happen to us, we can imagine that the bad things that happen to us happened instead to others. In his Handbook, Epictetus advocates this sort of "projective visualization." Suppose, he says, that our servant breaks a cup. We are likely to get angry and have our tranquility disrupted by the incident. One way to avert this anger is to think about how we would feel if the incident had happened to someone else instead. If we were at someone's house and his servant broke a cup, we would be unlikely to get angry; indeed, we might try to calm our host by saying "It's just a cup; these things happen." Engaging in projective visualization, Epictetus believes, will make us appreciate the relative insignificance of the bad things that happen to us and will therefore prevent them from disrupting our tranquility.

A practicing Stoic will keep the trichotomy of control firmly in mind as he goes about his daily affairs. He will perform a kind of triage in which he sorts the elements of his life into three categories: those over which he has complete control, those over which he has no control at all, and those over which he has some but not complete control. The things in the second category--those over which he has no control at all--he will set aside as not worth worrying about. In doing this, he will spare himself a great deal of needless anxiety. He will instead concern himself with things over which he has complete control and things over which he has some but not complete control. And when he concerns himself with things in this last category, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals for himself and will thereby avoid a considerable amount of frustration and disappointment. It is especially important for us to internalize our goals if we are in a profession in which "external failure" is commonplace.

Whenever we desire something that is not up to us, our tranquility will likely be disturbed: If we don't get what we want, we will be upset, and if we do get what we want, we will experience anxiety in the process of getting it.

We should be fatalistic with respect to the external world: We should realize that what has happened to us in the past and what is happening to us at this very moment are beyond our control, so it is foolish to get upset about these things.

The fatalism advocated by the Stoics is in a sense the reverse, or one might say the mirror image, of negative visualization: Instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better.

Musonius [Rufus] thinks that besides living as if bad things had happened to us, we should sometimes cause them to happen (self-denial). In particular, we should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless. Or we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though water and food are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available. Musonius would point to three benefits to be derived from acts of voluntary discomfort: (1) by undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort--by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed--we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future. (2) A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well, so the prospect of experiencing such discomforts at some future time will not, at present, be a source of anxiety for him. (3) Acts of voluntary discomfort help us appreciate what we already have. In particular, by purposely causing ourselves discomfort, we will better appreciate whatever comfort we experience.

Musonius would argue that someone who tries to avoid all discomfort is less likely to be comfortable than someone who periodically embraces discomfort. The latter individual is likely to have a much wider "comfort zone" than the former and will therefore feel comfortable under circumstances that would cause the former individual considerable distress.

Besides periodically engaging in acts of voluntary discomfort, we should, say the Stoics, periodically forgo opportunities to experience pleasure.

Besides reflecting on the day's events, we can devote part of our daily meditations to going through a kind of mental checklist. Are we practicing the psychological techniques recommended by the Stoics? Do we, for example, periodically engage in negative visualization? Do we take time to distinguish between those things over which we have complete control, those things over which we have no control at all, and those things over which we have some but not complete control? Are we careful to internalize our goals? Have we refrained from dwelling on the past and instead focused our attention on the future? Have we consciously practiced acts of self-denial? We can also use our Stoic meditations as an opportunity to ask whether, in our daily affairs, we are following the advice offered by the Stoics.

Another sign of progress in our practice of Stoicism is that our philosophy will consist of actions rather than words. What matters most, says Epictetus, is not our ability to spout Stoic principles but our ability to live in accordance with them. Epictetus thinks that in our practice of Stoicism, we should be so inconspicuous that others don't label us Stoics--or even label us philosophers.


Marcus recommends in our social relations with an annoying person, we keep in mind that there are doubtless people who find us to be annoying. More generally, when we find ourselves irritated by someone's shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual's faults and therefore become more tolerant of him. When dealing with an annoying person, it also helps to keep in mind that our annoyance at what he does will almost invariably be more detrimental to us than whatever it is he is doing. In other words, by letting ourselves become annoyed, we only make things worse.

Social fatalism: In our dealings with others, we should operate on the assumption that they are fated to behave in a certain way. It is therefore pointless to wish they could be less annoying. What Marcus is saying is that even though it is possible to change others, we can take some of the agony out of dealing with them by telling ourselves that they are fated to behave as they do.

One of the stoics' sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset. Suppose, for example, that someone mocks us for being bald when we in fact are bald: "Why is it an insult," Seneca asks, "to be told what is self-evident?"

Another sting-elimination strategy, suggested by Epictetus, is to pause to consider how well-informed the insulter is. He might be saying something bad about us not because he wants to hurt our feelings but because he sincerely believes what he is saying, or, at any rate, he might simply be reporting how things seem to him. Rather than getting angry at this person for his honesty, we should calmly set him straight.

One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn't upset me. Suppose, however, that I don't respect the source of an insult; indeed, suppose that I take him to be a thoroughly contemptible individual. Under such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel relieved: If he disapproves of what I am doing, then what I am doing is doubtless the right thing to do. What should worry me is if this contemptible person approved of what I am doing. If I say anything at all in response to his insults, the most appropriate comment would be, "I'm relieved that you feel that way about me." When we consider the sources of insults, says Seneca, we will often find that those who insult us can best be described as overgrown children. In the same way that a mother would be foolish to let the "insults" of her toddler upset her, we would be foolish to let the insults of these childish adults upset us. In other cases, we will find that those insulting us have deeply flawed characters. Such people, says Marcus, rather than deserving our anger, deserve our pity.

One other important sting-elimination strategy, say the Stoics, is to keep in mind, when insulted, that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult. This last advice is really just an application of the broader Stoic belief that, as Epictetus puts it, "what upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things." Do the things that happen to me help or harm me? It all depends, say the Stoics, on my values. They would go on to remind me that my values are things over which I have complete control. Therefore, if something external harms me, it is my own fault: I should have adopted different values.

Even if we succeed in removing the sting of an insult, we are left with the question of how best to respond to it. Most people think that the best response is a counterinsult, preferably one that is clever. The Stoics, however, reject this advice. And how are we to respond to an insult, if not with a counterinsult? One wonderful way, say the Stoics, is with humor. By laughing off an insult, we are implying that we don't take the insulter and his insults seriously. To imply this, of course, is to insult the insulter without directly doing so. It is therefore a response that is likely to deeply frustrate the insulter. For this reason, a humorous reply to an insult can be far more effective than a counterinsult would be.

Refusing to respond to an insult is, paradoxically, one of the most effective responses possible. For one thing, as Seneca points out, our nonresponse can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result.

The Stoic needs to keep in mind that he is punishing the insulter not because she has wronged him but to correct her improper behavior. It is, says Seneca, like training an animal: If in the course of trying to train a horse, we punish him, it should be because we want him to obey us in the future, not because we are angry about his failure to obey us in the past.

Grief is a negative emotion and therefore one that we should, to the extent possible, avoid experiencing. If a friend is grieving, our goal should be to help her overcome her grief (or rather, if we properly internalize our goals, it should be to do our best to help her overcome her grief). If we can accomplish this by moaning insincerely, then let us do so. For us to "catch" her grief, after all, won't help her but will hurt us.

Besides being used to prevent grief, negative visualization can be used to extinguish it. In normal, prospective negative visualization, we imagine losing something we currently possess; in retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never having had something that we have lost. By engaging in retrospective negative visualization, Seneca thinks, we can replace our feelings of regret at having lost something with feelings of thanks for once having had it.

Seneca offers lots of specific advice on how to prevent anger. We should, he says, fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and our tendency to jump to conclusions about their motivations. We need to keep in mind that just because things don't turn out the way we want them to, it doesn't follow that someone has done us an injustice.

If we are overly sensitive, we will be quick to anger. More generally, says Seneca, if we coddle ourselves, if we allow ourselves to be corrupted by pleasure, nothing will seem bearable to us, and the reason things will seem unbearable is not because they are hard but because we are soft. Seneca therefore recommends that we take steps to ensure that we never get too comfortable.

To avoid becoming angry, says Seneca, we should also keep in mind that the things that anger us generally don't do us any real harm; they are instead mere annoyances. By allowing ourselves to get angry over little things, we take what might have been a barely noticeable disruption of our day and transform it into a tranquility-shattering state of agitation.

What seems vitally important to us will seem unimportant to our grandchildren. Thus, when we feel ourselves getting angry about something, we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Doing this might enable us to nip our anger in the bud.

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. Buddhists practice a similar thought-substitution technique. When they are experiencing an unwholesome thought, Buddhists force themselves to think the opposite, and therefore wholesome, thought. If they are experiencing anger, for example, they force themselves to think about love. The claim is that because two opposite thoughts cannot exist in one mind at one time, the wholesome thought will drive out the unwholesome one.

What worries Seneca about employing anger as a motivational tool is that after we turn it on, we will be unable to turn it off, and that whatever good it initially does us will (on average) be more than offset by the harm it subsequently does. "Reason," he cautions, "will never enlist the aid of reckless unbridled impulses over which it has no authority." Although Seneca rejects the idea of allowing ourselves to become angry in order to motivate ourselves, he is open to the idea of pretending to be angry in order to motivate others.

I have found that one wonderful way to avoid getting angry is to imagine myself as a character in an absurdist play: Things aren't supposed to make sense, people aren't supposed to be competent, and justice, when it happens at all, happens by accident. Instead of letting myself be angered by events, I persuade myself to laugh at them. Indeed, I try to think of ways the imaginary absurdist playwright could have made things still more absurd.

Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor. Epictetus therefore advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. We will, he says, have enslaved ourselves.

If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval.

Cato consciously did things to trigger the disdain of other people simply so he could practice ignoring their disdain.

The desire for luxuries is not a natural desire. Natural desires, such as a desire for water when we are thirsty, can be satisfied; unnatural desires cannot. Therefore, when we find ourselves wanting something, we should pause to ask whether the desire is natural or unnatural, and if it is unnatural, we should think twice about trying to satisfy it.

It is perfectly acceptable, says Seneca, for a Stoic to acquire wealth, as long as he does not harm others to obtain it. It is also acceptable for a Stoic to enjoy wealth, as long as he is careful not to cling to it. The idea is that it is possible to enjoy something and at the same time be indifferent to it.

The Stoics are careful to avoid becoming connoisseurs in the worst sense of the word--becoming, that is, individuals who are incapable of taking delight in anything but "the best."


The psychiatrist Sally Satel and the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, in a book that challenges certain aspects of modern psychological therapy, write, "Recent findings suggest that reticence and suppression of feelings, far from compromising one's psychological well-being, can be healthy and adaptive. For many temperaments, an excessive focus on introspection and self-disclosure is depressing. Victims of loss and tragedy differ widely in their reactions: Some benefit from therapeutic intervention; most do not and should not be coerced by mental health professionals into emotionally correct responses. Trauma and grief counselors have erred massively in this direction." These authors add that they reject the doctrine, now commonly accepted, that "uninhibited emotional openness is essential to mental health."

The Stoics don't think it is helpful for people to consider themselves victims of society--or victims of anything else, for that matter. If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim--if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances--you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take.

The Stoics thought they could prove that Stoicism was the one correct philosophy of life, and in their proof, they assumed that Zeus exists and created us for a certain purpose. I think it is possible, though, for someone to reject the Stoic proof of Stoicism without rejecting Stoicism itself. In particular, someone who thinks that the Stoics were mistaken in their assertion that we were created for a purpose might nevertheless think that the Stoics, in their philosophy of life, chose the correct goal (tranquility) and discovered a number of useful techniques for attaining this goal. Thus, if someone asked me, "Why should I practice Stoicism?" my answer would not invoke the name of Zeus (or God) and would not talk about the function that humans were designed to fulfill. Instead, I would talk about our evolutionary past; about how, because of this past, we are evolutionarily programmed to want certain things and to experience certain emotions under certain circumstances; about how living in accordance with our evolutionary programming, although it may have allowed our evolutionary ancestors to survive and reproduce, can result in modern humans living miserable lives; and about how, by "misusing" our reasoning ability, we can overcome our evolutionary programming. I would go on to point out that the Stoics, although they didn't understand evolution, nevertheless discovered psychological techniques that, if practiced, can help us overcome those aspects of our evolutionary programming that might otherwise disrupt our tranquility. Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear, and various other negative emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence. By practicing Stoic techniques, we can cure the disease and thereby gain tranquility. What I am suggesting is that although the ancient Stoics found a "cure" for negative emotions, they were mistaken about why the cure works.

I came to realize that Zen is incompatible with my personality. I am a relentlessly analytical person. For Zen to work for me, I would have to abandon my analytical nature. Stoicism, though, expects me to put my analytical nature to work.

I have discovered in myself a desire to have my Stoicism tested. I already mentioned my desire to be insulted: I want to see whether I will respond to insults in a Stoically appropriate manner. I have likewise gone out of my way to put myself into situations that test my courage and willpower, in part to see whether I can pass such tests.

I was struck by how natural and appropriate it is to invoke Stoic principles to help someone cope with the challenges of old age and ill health.