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From Vol. 1, Issue 2, February 2019

Realistic Expectations: Stoic-style

Stoic Reflections || MEREDITH KUNZ

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One of the major causes of our unhappiness is the gap between our expectations and reality. Stoics argued that reality is not under our control. So, instead of trying to reset reality, we are better off resetting our expectations. Our contributing editor, Meredith Kunz tells us how

There’s no app for that 

An enormous cause of human suffering is the gap between expectations and reality. 

And while in many ways we are better off than in the past, modern progress in technology has actually expanded the separation between what we expect and what we actually get. Technical advances lead us to think we won’t have to deal with difficulty. Have a problem, a question, a need? “There’s an app for that.” Answers are packaged in neat solutions—a device, virtual assistant, or cutting-edge drug. 

Pain and death are inevitable 

In some future-oriented people’s minds, even death seems avoidable. For example, technologist Ray Kurzweil and biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey have been working to cheat death—and live forever. 

But clearly we can’t overcome death, pain, and troubles of many stripes. As soon as we think we can, our expectations get out of whack. And Stoicism teaches that any expectation around externals (health, wealth, status, relationships) is bound to be disappointed because these things are outside our control. 

Resetting our expectations 

So let’s take a closer look: How can Stoic ideas help reset expectations? As a mother, I think of it like this: Stoic philosophy offers a powerful way become more mature, to set aside the childlike belief that only getting exactly what we want will make us happy. Epictetus says: 

If your present desires are realistic—realistic for you personally—why are you frustrated and unhappy? …I want something to happen, and it fails to happen, or I don’t want something to happen, and it does—and can any creature be more miserable than I? ...Attach your desire to wealth and your aversion to poverty: you won’t get the former, but you could well end up with the latter. You will fare no better putting your faith in health, status, exile—any external you care to name. Hand your will over to Zeus and the gods, let them administer it; in their keeping, your happiness is assured. (Discourses, 2:17) 

This passage restates the dichotomy of control. We should acknowledge not being able to “put our faith” in externals. Whether we believe the world is ruled by providence (gods) or atoms, as Marcus Aurelius framed it, expecting satisfied desires all the time will make us “miserable.” 

Signs of progress 

Instead, we follow the path of virtue step by step, hewing to wisdom, justice, temperance, courage. Epictetus lets us know what to aim for: 

And the signs of a person making progress: he [or she] never criticizes, praises, blames or points the finger, or represents himself as knowing or amounting to anything. If he experiences frustration or disappointment, he points the finger at himself.... He has expunged all desire, and made the things that are contrary to nature and in his control the sole target of his aversion. (Handbook, 48) 

“Expunging desire” is not easy in a consumerist society—an economy built on desire. None of us is immune to wanting more. But this kind of progress is essential if we are to live in accord with nature—and at peace with ourselves. 

Meredith Alexander Kunz is a writer in Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter: @thestoicwoman. She blogs at