July 30, 2023 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Joy || Mindfulness || Stoicism ||

Stoic Joy: 1. Why are we not joyful?

Chuck Chakrapani

Few of us experience joy on an ongoing basis. Sure, we have periods of happiness, usually when we achieve something or get something. But soon we get used it and we go back to our natural level of happiness. 

What does Stoicism say about joy?

Stoicism says that “joy [chara] is the counterpart of pleasure, is rational elation,” and it includes “delight, mirth, and cheerfulness.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.116) But how do you attain it? Stoic literature is not exactly brimming with suggestions on how to find joy in our lives. The Stoic suggestion is a global one – be rational and virtuous and you will be joyful. According to Seneca “joy is a serious matter,” and “a person is not capable of joy unless his is brave, unless he is just, and unless he is temperate.” (Letters 13, 59).

So, according to the Stoics, you don’t need to do anything to be joyful but just be completely rational and completely virtuous. Maybe so. But being virtuous is a lifelong quest. And there must be a way to be joyful before we are fully rational and virtuous. If we search Stoic literature, it does provide many indirect clues as to how to create joy in our lives. Let us begin by exploring why we are not joyful. First let’s look at the reasons for our lack of joy.

Why are we not joyful?

There are several reasons why we are not joyful: we confuse pleasure with joy, and we are anxious about the past and worried about the future. Then we postpone being joyful to sometime in the future when we have achieved our goals. All these things prevent us from being joyful right now.

1. Confusing pleasure with joy

There is pleasure and there is joy. Both are forms of happiness. What’s the difference?

We commonly associate pleasure with external things such as gourmet food, exotic travel, great sex, money, health, and accolades. Happiness that depends on externals is no happiness at all, argued the Stoics. Since externals are not under our control, they can be taken away, creating pain instead of pleasure. Even when we get what we want, we crave for more and what gave us pleasure once does not any longer. Constantly striving for what we lack rather than enjoying what we have – often in abundance – blocks our path to joy. Joy is internal. It can be derived from externals but is not dependent on them. It is a state of being. We are joyful when we are happy for some reason or no reason.

We are not joyful because we confuse pleasure with joy. Pleasure and joy may overlap, but pleasure is fleeting while joy is enduring. Pleasure can bring us pain, but joy does not.

We are not joyful because we mistake pleasure for joy. (Seneca, Letters, 69)

In fact, the excessive preoccupation with pleasure itself is the reason why we are not joyful.

If you seek pleasure of every kind in every direction, then know that you are short of wisdom and short of joy.  (Seneca, Letters 69)

As long as we believe that pleasure is the same as joy, we cannot be joyful.

2. Our preoccupation with the past and the future

Our thoughts about the past and the future prevent us from experiencing joy. We think about the things we did that we shouldn’t have, things we didn’t do that we should have, and worry about them. We think about the things that might happen in the future and are anxious about them.

Would we not be joyful if we could have everything we want, right now? Marcus Aurelius suggests that indeed we could have everything we want right now. All we need to do is to let go of the past, not worry about the future, and live the right way in the present. 

Everything you’re trying to reach – by taking the long way round – you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice. (Meditations 12.1)

Seneca concurs. Your fear that you could lose something in the future is not different from the pain you would experience when you have actually lost it now. When you bring your future pain generated by your fear to the present, it is not possible to be joyful.

A mind that is anxious about the future and unhappy before misfortune even arrives is a disaster, concerned that the things it delights in should last forever. It will never be in repose, and in its anticipation of what is to come it will lose the present things that it could enjoy. The fear of losing something is equivalent to the pain of its loss. (Letters 98)

As long as our minds are constantly worried about the past or anxious about the future, we cannot be joyful.

3. Our tendency to postpone living

The third reason why we are not happy is that we believe if we achieve all we want in life – money, power, possessions, and the like – we will be forever happy and joyful. The problem is such a day when we have everything we need to achieve happiness may never arrive. Even if it does arrive sometime in the future, we missed joy until that time. So, the third reason we are not happy is that we postpone the experience of joy to a vague future time.

Now we have reviewed the reasons why we are not joyful, let’s see how we can achieve joyfulness in Part 2 of this blog, (To be published on August 6, 2023)


We are not joyful for three reasons: We confuse pleasure with joy, we are worried about the past or anxious about the future, and we constantly postpone being happy and joyful.