We’re all looking to lead a purposeful and meaningful life, one where we can gracefully handle life’s challenges, let go of unhelpful emotions and focus on what truly matters.
But in today’s modern world, it feels like we’re swinging from one crisis to the next. From distressing global news events and the rising cost of living to comparison culture, discontentment, and jealousy, it seems harder than ever to find happiness with our lot in life.
In her latest book, ‘Reasons Not To Worry,’ author Brigid Delaney suggests that the answer to our modern quandary may have been under our noses for centuries. According to the Guardian columnist and writer, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has the power to equip us with all the tools we need to access our inner wisdom.
Delaney, who committed a year to practicing Stoic principles, has crafted a modern guide inspired by three ancient Stoic thinkers: Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. By embracing these timeless teachings, she believes we can learn to tune out of a fast-paced, capitalist world and reconnect with our authentic selves.
What exactly is Stoicism, and who were the Stoics?
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that later found its place in Roman culture and was developed by notable philosophers, including Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. “It emerged during a time of intense philosophical exploration, making it common for people to engage with philosophical ideas,” explains Delaney.
“What sets Stoicism apart from other philosophies is its fundamental belief that there are only a few aspects of life over which we have control: our character, our actions and reactions, and how we treat others. Everything else – including our health, reputation, and wealth – lies outside our control or rests in the hands of fate.”
What did the Stoics believe?
In ‘Reasons Not To Worry,’ Delaney writes that there are five key Stoic principles. These are:
- Acknowledging that you can’t control much of what goes on in your life.
- Seeing that your emotions are the product of how you think about the world.
- Accepting that bad things are bound to happen to you from time to time, just as they do to everyone else.
- Seeing yourself as part of a larger whole, not an isolated individual; part of the human race, part of nature.
- Thinking of everything you have as not your own but simply on loan, that one day will be taken back.
Above all, Stoics advocated for focusing on what is within our control and accepting that many aspects of life are beyond our influence. If you’ve recently experienced a breakup, a job loss, or a string of bad luck, you may have spent some time wondering what you could have done differently.
“This is what the Stoics referred to as ‘suffering twice,'” notes Brigid. The first suffering is unavoidable, as you have no control over your partner or employer’s actions. But the second suffering – the evenings spent feeling down and regretful – is in your control.
The Stoics also believed in the concept of natural law, “which dictates that we’re all here to contribute to something larger than ourselves, regardless of our circumstances,” says Delaney. Giving back to the community in whatever way we can is more likely to bring us happiness than focusing on acquiring wealth. In this way, Stoicism is a very holistic philosophy that doesn’t solely center on the individual.
What benefits does Stoicism offer?
“Our culture hasn’t really equipped us with meaning or a map for navigating these last few years,” says Brigid, referring to the pandemic. “In our secular society, there is no religion or broadly agreed-upon social and moral tools for rising to life’s increasingly complex challenges. Instead, we are left to make it up as we go along.”
One of the most attractive aspects of Stoicism is its ability to provide a framework for living a meaningful life. In a world full of digital distractions, individualism, and comparison culture, Stoicism reminds us to focus on our character, actions, and contributions to society. “It encourages us to acknowledge the brevity of life and our limited time on Earth, urging us to make the most of the present moment.”
It can also help us to quit ruminating on other people’s opinions of us. “In situations where I’d had conflicts with friends, Stoicism taught me that I can only control my reactions to their actions, not their emotions or the situation itself,” Delaney shares. “It freed me up to understand what I could and couldn’t control. So if the situation didn’t unfold as I wanted, I let it go.”
How can we apply Stoicism to our daily lives in the modern world?
Stoicism might seem rather inpenetrable, but it’s a surprisingly practical philosophy. It can be applied to almost every quandary in life, from breakups and bad dates to grief and loss.
“Ancient Stoic philosophers lived in perilous times. Mothers and their babies died in childbirth, diseases ravaged populations, there were plagues, massive inequality, and slavery,” writes Delaney. “Because of this, they learned how to prepare for the worst.”
The Stoics believed that you should grieve your loved ones while they are living. “They advised you to think of their death frequently while the person was still alive, to prepare for the inevitable,” says Delaney. “Seneca said, ‘Let us greedily enjoy our friends,’ as we should also enjoy our children, ‘because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.”
By treasuring the time we have with our nearest and dearest, the idea is that when death does inevitably touch us, we will be less filled with sadness and regret towards the past.
In order to prepare for grief, the Stoics used a technique called ‘negative visualisation,’ where you imagine someone you love dearly dying the following day. By acknowledging that time is finite, we’re able to let go of unimportant stuff and treasure the time we have now.
Make work meaningful
The ancient Stoics believed in working hard, no matter your job, but they also understood that work is just a small part of life.
According to Delaney, “What they really stressed was how you use your time matters more than your job title or how much money you make.” For them, work was a way to contribute to society, exchange ideas, and help the community.
In our modern world, one of the essential lessons from Stoicism is realising that material possessions don’t bring lasting happiness. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “‘Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.’”
Seneca also emphasised not procrastinating and making the most of our limited time. He said, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” In today’s age, with apps like X, TikTok, and Instagram tempting us to endlessly scroll, Seneca’s advice feels more relevant than ever.
Control what you can – let go of what you can’t
Stoicism teaches us to accept what is beyond our control and find peace amid uncertainty. This is especially relevant in times of global crises when many aspects of life are unpredictable. Control is important to us psychologically, but if the Stoics are to be believed, we only have control over three things: our character, how we treat others, and our actions and reactions.
This is what’s known as the “control test,” which is a pillar of Stoic philosophy. “I still use it every day to make an assessment of what I should and shouldn’t worry about,” says Delaney. “Once you start seeing life on these terms, it can be very freeing.”
“One of the upsides of following the control test is tranquility. If you can’t control something, then there’s no point worrying about it or getting angry. That’s just a waste of energy. Instead, your energy should be focused on making the most of what you can control.”
Aim for ataraxia, not euphoria
It’s impossible to feel euphorically happy all of the time. Instead, Stoics say we should aim for tranquility. “They had names for it—ataraxia, meaning ‘a lucid state of robust equanimity characterised by ongoing freedom from distress and worry,’” says Delaney.
“Ataraxia is a word that has fallen out of modern usage—but shouldn’t have. We need it more than ever.”