August 18, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
How to be content: The Stoic approach
[This is the nineteenth article in the series Stoic Strategies for Daily Living. In this series, I will explore Stoic solutions to our everyday problems. The emphasis is not just on solutions, but also on how to apply them to our daily lives. In this article, I explore what Stoicism says about living in the present moment. Chuck Chakrapani]
The winter (spring, summer, and fall) of our discontent
We have access to things such as smartphones, fast personal computers, almost self-driving automobiles, which, just fifty years ago, would have been the stuff of science fiction. We have more scientists alive today than ever before. We, as a group, are the richest people to ever walk this planet. I am not trying to minimize the poverty and misery in the world. But even if you are an average person living an average life anywhere in the West or in most emerging countries, I would assume that you have a roof over your head, and you have enough to eat. I would assume you have access to a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone to be able to read this.
Yet, are we content?
Probably not. Things don’t go our way. Someone is ‘against us’. We really need this promotion. We don’t have enough. We need a better car, a better house, a better job, a better neighborhood, a better government, or even better weather. Our reasons for our discontent are limitless.
Discontent is the cancer that gnaws away at our happiness. Stoics show us a better way.
We need very little to be happy
We don’t need much to lead a happy life. Whether a house is big or small, whether a car is luxurious or not, whether clothes are ordinary or expensive, they serve the same basic purposes equally well. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us,
You need very few things to be happy.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.67
Look at what you have, not what you lack
We are unhappy not because we have too little, but because someone else has more. We are happy with our salary — unless we find out our peers are paid more. We are happy with the house we live in — until we visit a house that is much better than ours. We may have everything we always wanted. We may be perfectly happy with what we have. But then we come across someone who has more. Suddenly, what made us happy yesterday, makes us unhappy today. Yet, nothing has really changed. Epicurus warns us,
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.
We don’t pay attention to what we have. We ignore all the good things we have and long for things we don’t have.
Don’t dream about things you don’t have. Instead, think about the best things you now have and how much you would crave them if you didn’t have them.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.27.
When we are unhappy that we don’t have the latest of … (cars, smartphones, clothes, computers…), think of a third of humanity for whom having enough to eat today is their greatest joy.
Separate natural desires and desires of opinion
We need food and water to survive. We need shelter and clothing to protect us from the elements. When we desire these things, we are dealing with natural desires or desires of need. These needs are easy to satisfy. But there are desires that arise because we want these things, not that we need them. These are desires of opinion or desires of want. We falsely assume that we need them for our happiness. They are not always easy to satisfy.
Natural desires are limited, but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are traveling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. — Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 16
Fix a limit on your desires
Consider your needs, not wants. Once you have done so, you know you have all that you need. There is no harm in having more, but there is harm in believing your wants are your needs. You probably have most of the things you hoped for when you were young. If you are still not happy, it is because your desires are a moving target. Every time you near the goalpost, it moves further.
Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them. If there were anything substantial in them, they would sooner or later satisfy you; as it is, they merely rouse the drinkers’ thirst.
— Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 15
Your desires seem attractive before you achieve them but lose their attraction once you do. Do things you bought last year thinking they would make you happy, make you as happy now as when you bought them? Or, are you thinking of something else that will make you happy now? Drinking doesn’t satisfy the drinker’s thirst. It only increases it.
The only way to be content is not to crave for more and more and more but to look at what you have and limit your desires.
Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.
Epicurus, often (mistakenly) associated with advocating fleeting pleasures, has this to say:
Anyone who does not think that what they have is more than ample is an unhappy person, even if they are master of the whole world.