Laura Inman, who blogs at The Living Philosopher (Stoic and Literary Ideas as a Guide to Living), explores, in contrast to the happiness of the hedonic treadmill, what is that leads to Stoic happiness….
On the front page of a section of The New York Times this weekend was an article about a psychologist who has studied happiness and gives advice on how to achieve it. The piece revealed very little of her secrets to happiness (I guess they might be called), but one observation of hers is that renters are happier than homeowners. Maybe that is indicative of other conclusions she might propose, like married people are happier or people in a certain region are happier. Maybe people find that kind of thing interesting, like knowing somebody’s astrological sign. However, in terms of providing the basis for a way to live life, how could such conclusions have any validity or worth? Were the renters and homeowners in question alike in all respects (even most) with regard to happiness except for their status as renters or homeowners, such that the difference in this one aspect could be the cause in a cause and effect relationship? The article also made note of “hedonistic adaptation,” which Stoics routinely recognize as a reason not to pursue pleasure per se as a route to happiness because it invariably cloys or simply wears out. Probably the article was short on details about happiness so as not to preempt the book, which should lure readers searching for happiness in their lives. They might find a couple of mildly interesting observations, and then forget all about them when confronting failure or hardship, those things that life generally has in store that tend to undermine happiness.
What is happiness? Maybe the psychologist-author defines it front and center in her guide to happiness. For Stoics, it is tranquility, which is freedom from negative and excessive emotion– or rendered poetically by John Keats in Hyperion: “To bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!” If one exalts in and strives for giddy highs and devastating lows and thinks that such a pendulum existence is desirable, then Stoicism is not the answer. The longer I live, and it has been quite a while now, the more I value emotional calm: I value it in others, I like the way it feels, and I work at obtaining it, although it does not come naturally to me.
Frances Lyndale discusses the life of a 21st Century Stoic, exploring which aspects of Stoic philosophy can be particularly helpful for the fast pace of modern life. Frances’ piece raises interesting questions: how much Stoicism is enough? Should the whole of the philosophy be revived or just particular parts of it (in the which case, which parts?)…join the debate below!
The Life of a 21st Century Stoic
The revival of any ancient philosophy must be sympathetic to the original birthplace. Whilst we must acknowledge that Stoicism originates in antiquity, we are now existing in modern times; the era of developing technology, growing knowledge and expanding minds. If we are to produce a successful revival of Stoicism, we must make it accessible and functional in modernity. However, the transition from theoretical to practical Stoicism can seem a daunting leap for some 21st Century hopefuls. This is because it is an art, a practice, a way of life. This occurs not overnight, but as an ongoing process. The modification of Stoicism allows for the life of a 21st Century Stoic to become an actuality; a realistic and practical account of the reformation of an ancient Stoic.
This introduces a key concern at the heart of 21st Stoicism. If we choose to revive only the elements that are to our liking and relevance of the philosophy, then is this still Stoicism? The idea of cherry-picking favourable aspects calls for an evaluation of the philosophy itself. Here, we can make reference to the ‘Theseus Ship Paradox’ introduced by Plutarch and discussed by both ancient and contemporary philosophers (Plutarch’s Vita Thesei, 22-23). The summary of the paradox is that Theseus’ ancient ship is in need of some serious TLC and begins the road to recovery by replacing the old, decaying planks with new timber. If all of the parts of the ship are replaced, what then remains of the original ship? This provocative metaphor has been taken a step further by Hobbes, bringing a new dimension to the paradox; if the original decaying planks were somehow restored to make an entirely new ship in addition to the revived ship, then which ship is closer to the original? Perhaps it is exactly this reassembled model of the ship which retains the most rights to the original, since it is made of the same foundations, only constructed in a different way. Does it then follow that the 21st Century Stoic is entitled to claim themselves as an original yet ‘new and improved’ version of the ancient? Whilst it could be argued that what remains of the philosophy is not Stoicism, perhaps the beneficiaries of pursuing a life of fulfilment and happiness overrides the importance of originality. To prevent the literal and metaphorical disintegration of Theseus’ ship, it must be revived to keep in tune with the changing times; the philosophy of Stoicism is kept alive through the life of a 21st Century Stoic.
Stoic Week 2013: The Results!
By Tim LeBon
All the questionnaires you submitted (thank you!) have been analysed and the verdict is: Stoicism really does appear to have significant benefits on happiness, flourishing and well-being.
1) The improvements in well-being after taking part in Stoic week that were found in 2012 were replicated with a much larger sample. Interestingly some very specific findings were also replicated, such as Stoicism being most associated with acceptance, optimism and a sense of purpose. We plan to send follow up questionnaires in a few months time to see to what extent these benefits “stick”.
2) We have piloted a scale to measure Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours, the “SABS”. For the first time we now have evidence of a positive association between well-being and Stoic attitudes and behaviours prior to any interventions. It does seem that being Stoic is good for you. We also know which Stoic attitudes and behaviours are most associated with well-being and which are not. The most “active ingredients” in Stoicism appear to be :
A. I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgements and actions.
B. When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
C. I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare.
There is also now evidence that the emotion Stoicism is most associated with is not so much indifference or passivity but – joy!
There’s a lot more detail, and also some qualifications to the headlines above in the full report (below) and also recommendations for next steps. Please post a comment if you have any thoughts about what you read, including possible next steps and applications for Stoicism, now that we are developing a much more substantial evidence base.