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From Vol. 1, Issue 8, August 2019

Three things you need to be happy

Stoic Reflections || MEREDITH KUNZ

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My friend asked me a question about Stoic practice: “I know that in Stoicism, you don’t rely on external things for happiness. But if you stop counting on those things to make you happy, then is your default state to just be happy?” This really made me think. 

Much of our conversation in the West today is about happiness. Can working more productively make us happy? Can buying the right stuff? How about meditating? What about having kids? Are parents more or less happy? Every week another study attempts to demonstrate what brings happiness to people’s lives. 

In Stoic thought, our natural state isn’t necessarily happy. We need to pursue philosophy as a means to finding joy. The reason is that we may not instinctively know how to use our rational mind and listen to our ruling center—or that instinct may be distracted by everything else we’ve seen, heard, and been taught. 

This may sound ironic because one of the key Stoic goals is to “live according to nature.” Shouldn’t we find happiness in our original, natural state? In fact, Stoicism suggests that we need to spend significant time figuring out what our true nature is, and what the nature of the world is, and then sync up the two as an ongoing practice. 

We do that by using our ruling center, that “divine spark” that makes humans uniquely able to interpret their world in a reasonable way. Without actively cultivating it, we’d be tempted to follow our animal-like instincts. Or we might be influenced by the whims of whatever society we are living in, which may not espouse good ethics. 

I think that ancient Stoics would say that you have to actually DO some things to experience joy and the tranquility that comes with it. 

1. Question your impressions 

First, you have to use your reason well. It means questioning impressions (first reactions) and seeking to make reasonable decisions, rather than jumping to conclusions or hot-headed actions; it means learning to use wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control as guideposts in decision-making; it means letting go of blame, anger, and other negative “passions” or emotions. 

It's internal, happening inside your own mind. That is why it's so confusing to a culture fixated on externally-valued possessions. Stop to think about the value you’re adding to the world by making the best choices possible in your situation; that should bring some joy. 

2. Make peace with yourself 

Second, you have to make peace with yourself, and accept reality as it is, to be content. If you are constantly trying to change what is outside your control, you'll be frustrated, angry, and you’ll give in to bad passions. A Stoic goal is to elevate good emotions by thinking clearly and acting with reason. In fact, struggles are inevitable and part of the human condition. Yet we can still be present in the moment, finding what joy is possible, without obsessing about the past or the future. That’s Stoic mindfulness. 

3. Be good to others 

Third, because Stoics believed in the common humanity of all people, doing good with and for others in the world can also bring you joy. I interpret this as including any kind of activity that brings some healing, hope, education, or delight to others. Marcus Aurelius said humans should work together like sets of teeth (true—one tooth can't chew!) 

All of these paths can unite into a Stoic-inspired life, bringing a measure of contentment and tranquility. This offers a good reason to pursue a Stoic approach, even when the whole world tries to convince us not to. 

Meredith Kunz is a Silicon Valley-based writer.