November 12, 2016 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
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When to use it?

Use this exercise whenever something interferes with your happiness.  The Gatekeeper exercise puts each negative thought to three tests before accepting it and letting into our mind.

How does it work

The exercise of consists asking yourself three questions:

  1. What makes you unhappy under your control?
  2. If not, is it really essential to your happiness?
  3. Does feeling unhappy over this add value to your life?

You accept the idea to be true and let it into your mind only when it passes this test of three questions.

How to apply it

Example 1

You are unhappy because of something that happened in the past. It could relate to something that happened a long time ago (such as an impoverished childhood) or to your recent past (such as not getting the job you wanted). Before uncritically accepting the idea that your past is causing you unhappiness, test it to see if it is really true by examining it by the principles we have been talking about:

  1. Is your past something you can control?
    Your past is not under your control. You cannot change it.
  2. If it is not under you control, is it essential for your happiness?
    If it is not under your control, it is not essential for your happiness. It is an indifferent. You can be happy despite your impoverished childhood. You can be happy despite not getting a raise.
  3. Does brooding add value to your life? (Is brooding over the past a preferred indifferent or a dis-preferred indifferent?)
    Since brooding over the past cannot add any value to your life it is a dis-preferred indifferent. Therefore, it is nothing to you. What happened in the past is not the cause of your problem and there is no point brooding over it. There are people who had impoverished childhoods who are happy and people who don’t get a raise and are still happy.
Example 2

You are likely to get a promotion but worried someone else might get it instead.

  1. Getting the promotion something you can control?
    Whether you will be promoted or not is not under your control.
  2. If it is not under you control, is it essential for your happiness?
    If someone else decides it, you can be happy even if you don’t get that promotion.
  3. Does worrying add value to your life? (Is worrying over the future a preferred indifferent or a dis-preferred indifferent?)
    Since worrying cannot add any value to your life, it is a dis-preferred indifferent. Therefore, it is nothing to you. You decide to enjoy your promotion if you do get it. If you don’t, you can still be happy because there are so many other enjoyable things in life.

What is the basis of this exercise?

Stoics call this the discipline of assent. Every time you face unhappiness, you have assented to (agreed to believe) something that is untrue. The discipline of assent teaches us to be careful what ideas we let into our mind. We should be careful to guard the mind, so no untrue idea gets in.

Next time you find yourself worrying about something and feeling unhappy, realize you have let some untrue thoughts into your mind. Use the gatekeeper exercise to examine the thought more closely. If we continue to challenge the cause of unhappiness like this, after a while, it will become second nature. We will stop being unhappy about hundreds of things that cause us unhappiness now.

The Stoic quote

“It is the mind’s nature. It will assent to the truth, reject what is false, and suspend judgment in doubtful cases.” Epictetus, Discourses, 1.28.2.

(Photo credit: By sowrirajan s – Flickr: Gate Keeper, Srivaikundam, CC BY 2.0,