From Vol. 5, Issue 8, August 2023
Joy through everyday experiences
Although the Stoics emphasized being rational and virtuous as the cause of of joy, they did provide some specific suggestions about finding joy in our daily lives.
1. Finding joy in everyday things
We are surrounded by things than can make us joyful.
But we fail to notice this and go after things that we currently don’t have – be it money, power, position, or whatever. For Marcus Aurelius, joy is everywhere you look.
Almost everything – even if it is only incidental to something else – adds extra pleasure to someone who is sensitive and insightful about how the universe works. The way loaves of bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just by-products of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they rouse our appetite without our knowing why. Or how ripe figs begin to burst. - Meditations, 3.2
Even when you believe somethings are not intrinsically pleasing, if you develop a real friendship with nature, they will leave you fascinated.
The grinning jaws of lions and tigers are as admirable as paintings or sculptures of them. So is the mature beauty of an old man or an old woman, and the loveliness of children. Things like these will not appeal to everyone, but the person who has developed a real friendship with nature and her works will be fascinated. - Meditations 3.1
We don’t have to wait for a special day, wait to make more money, work toward a promotion to find joy. You can find it right where you are, in the life you are leading now. Seneca points out that,
In any kind of life you will find relaxations and pleasures. - On Tranquility, 10
Then he goes on to say,
We should take walks outside so the mind can be strengthened and refreshed by being outdoors as we breathe the fresh air. (MEII 283)
So to the Stoic, joy is not just traveling to an exotic place or going to a museum. Joy is everywhere – the rising sun, the breeze, the storm, the lightning, thunder, rain; a spider weaving its web, an insect crawling, a child laughing, a stranger smiling, a walk outside – are all sources of joy if you relax and watch.
A Stoic does not wait for something special to happen. She finds joy everywhere.
2. Getting rid of things that stand between you and joy
Stoics did not seem to believe that you must do something to attain joy. If you are not joyful, something stands in your way. What is it? You. Your unexamined assumptions, your unnatural desires and fears.
[W]e burden ourselves with so many things that they weigh us down. - Discourses, 1.1
So the Stoic focus has been on getting rid of things that stand between us and the feeling of eudaimonia, a sense of wellbeing that results in joy. Here is what Seneca says about how we can attain serene joy:
When we have driven away all things that excite and alarm us, an unbroken calm and freedom will follow. You will see this for yourself without my having to tell you. […] we gain an immense, unchanging, and serene joy with peace, calmness, and greatness of spirit. - On Happiness 3
In simple terms, if you want to experience joy, don’t dwell on the past, don’t worry about the future, just be in the present. Let go of the externals that alarm you.
3. The urgency of joyful living
Not only do we fail to recognize things that make us joyful but, even when we do notice them, we postpone deriving joy out of them. We believe we have all the time in the world. Not so, says Marcus Aurelius, for at least two reasons: we may die at any time and our senses will be less sharp as we age. We may not see as well, hear as well, taste or smell as well as we get older. So now is the time to enjoy everything around you.
We must hurry, not because every hour we are closer to death but because, even before death, our perception and understanding start going down. - Meditations 3.1
Why don’t you enjoy the festival of life when it is given to you do so? - Discourses 4.1
And Seneca expresses the urgency to his friend Lucilius this way:
Above all Lucilius, make this your business: Learn to feel joy. - Letters 23
So the time to be joyful is now. Don’t postpone it to a future day.
You can read an expanded version of thie article on our website TheStoicGym.com:
Stoic Joy: 1. Why we are not joyful?
Stoic Joy 2: How to find joy