How to be happy? Live like the ancient Greeks
Should we all live like Stoics? Thinkers like Marcus Aurelius believed that the key to happiness lies in disciplining yourself to handle the best and worst of life with a balanced mind.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”
These words from Marcus Aurelius sum up Stoicism, a school of thought that originated in ancient Greece and is now experiencing a revival.
As part of Stoic Week 2018, hundreds of people across the UK have committed to seven days of living and thinking like Stoics.
The Stoics recognised that most of the things that make us unhappy are completely outside of our control. We cannot make people behave the way we want, or stop our bodies from getting ill or old, but we have complete control over how we react to these things.
Rather than expecting the universe to give us what we want, we should train our minds to embrace events as they happen with rationality and balance. This is the key to a happy life.
Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC, at a time of great instability following the unexpected death of Alexander the Great. The philosophy offered a way of finding calm amid war and crisis.
By the first century AD, Stoicism had spread to Rome where it found three figureheads in the philosophers Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
They each stressed that Stoicism should be put to practical use each day.
Every evening, Seneca would reflect on the times he had been irritated by something trivial or expressed frustration with someone who did not deserve it, in order to behave better the next day.
Stoicism fell out of favour with the rise of Christianity in the third century AD, but its ideas have continued to influence Western thought.
In his 2017 book How To Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci writes that Stoicism is about “acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good.”
In this way, the tradition has a lot in common with mindfulness — a popular well-being trend in recent years — and cognitive behavioural therapy, a leading treatment for mental illness since the 1960s.
Should we all live like the Stoics?
The good life
Absolutely, say some. Our society is in the midst of a crisis of depression and anxiety, but Stoicism offers us a way to cope with the fear of losing material things, love and careers. On a smaller scale, we spend so much time indulging ourselves by being stressing about things that don’t matter in the long run. Stoicism is the perfect antidote.
It’s impractical to just “let go” of the bad things in life, respond others. Stoicism is a lot easier said than done. Even if we succeeded in steeling ourselves against bad things, we’d also sacrifice the joy of a life lived passionately. To succeed in the world, you have to turn up and throw yourself in or be left behind.
- Do you think it is easy or hard to be happy?
- Would the world be better if we all lived like Stoics?
- What is the biggest benefit and the biggest flaw of Stoic philosophy? Sum each up in one sentence and discuss your answers in a group.
- Watch the TED-Ed video on Stoicism in Become An Expert and research Epicureanism, which is often considered to be an opposing philosophy to Stoicism. Which is the better way to live? Write a one-page essay discussing the question.
Some People Say...
“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”Marcus Aurelius
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Stoicism was founded around 300 BC by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium who believed that we can develop wisdom by moderating our emotions and desires with reason. Later, the Roman Stoics such as Epictetus, Seneca the Younger and Marcus Aurelius taught that we cannot rely on external events for happiness, only ourselves. While Stoicism became less popular as Christianity spread, it nevertheless informed Christian thinking, especially in putting the will of God or the universe first, above individual concerns.
- What do we not know?
- Why Stoicism is currently seeing a resurgence — several books promoting the Stoic life have been published recently. Perhaps it is an antidote to the modern dependence on material possessions and external achievements for validation.
- Marcus Aurelius
- He was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD. His death ended a period of peace in the Roman Empire known as the Pax Romana, and would eventually lead to its fall. His writings, known as Meditations, are key texts in Stoic philosophy.
- Happy life
- Stoics talked about a happy life being lived in accordance with logos, which roughly means the reason that guides the universe. They sought to live a simple life based on reason and justice.
- Alexander the Great
- Ruler of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon who conquered a vast area of Eurasia before his death in 323 BC at the age of 32.
- A Roman senator and tutor to Emperor Nero. In 65 AD, Nero forced him to commit suicide over an assassination plot.
- A practice related to meditation that encourages a person to pay attention to their sensations and emotions in the present moment. Proponents say this helps combat negative thinking.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
- A form of talking therapy that encourages a patient to recognise unhelpful habits in their thinking and behaviour to help them cope better with their emotions.