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Ancient Wisdom for the Stresses of Modern Life

Psychological strategies devised by Stoic philosophers can improve well-being.

Key points

  • Stoic ideas center on the fact that your mind controls your perception, and your perception governs whether your response is constructive.
  • Often mischaracterized as emotionless, Stoics embraced positivity, reason, and gratitude, and devised techniques to thwart unproductive impulses.
  • The Stoics strived for tranquility in life by mastering their emotional responses and channeling their energy into virtuous tasks.

Stress and anxiety hamper the quality of life, and recent surveys suggest levels are at an all-time high. Pressures at home and at work have been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a widening political divide.

There are significant challenges we face as individuals and societies, but we cannot rise to them if we are paralyzed by fear and hopelessness. We cannot brainstorm solutions if our mind is clouded with negative emotions. Great things are achieved when we are level-headed, thoughtful, and guided by reason and evidence rather than pride and ignorance.

When the sea is stormy, you can see nothing clearly. –Seneca

I’ve been a ball of stress most of my life, which my doctors tell me is a major factor in some of my health problems, which include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), migraines, and insomnia. As a consequence, I became invested in finding ways to cope with stress and anxiety. I stumbled upon Stoicism while researching the biological underpinnings of happiness a few years ago for my book, Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are, and became intrigued.

I didn’t know much about this ancient Greek philosophy, and I was skeptical that knowledge from 2,000 years ago could help with the struggles we face today. I also assumed that Stoicism was embodied by the character of Spock from "Star Trek," who famously suppressed emotions and operated on pure logic alone. I was wrong on both counts: Stoics did not aspire to be emotionless drones, and some of the strategies they advanced form the basis of modern psychological treatments, including cognitive–behavioral therapy. Could this dusty old philosophy really be of help to you and me?

Putting Stoicism to the Test

I decided to put the Stoic philosophy to the test by practicing it for an entire year. I used The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman as a guide and read additional books by modern authors who make the philosophy more accessible, such as William B. Irvine, Massimo Pigliucci, Donald J. Robertson, and Jonas Salzgeber.

Here is the routine I followed. Each morning, I read the day’s passage from The Daily Stoic and incorporated it into my day’s activities. I followed several Stoic accounts on social media to ensure that a steady stream of Stoic wisdom made its way into my consciousness. I also set reminders on my phone to take breaks from work; I’d go for a short walk, outdoors whenever possible, and practice breathing exercises.

We should take wandering outdoor walks so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing. –Seneca

Every evening in bed, I would reflect on the day’s events and my actions as the Stoics instructed. I would review what I got right and what I could improve. I would contemplate what more I could do to maximize my potential and live virtuously. I would do this calmly and objectively, without praise or blame. I would end this meditation by expressing gratitude for three blessings in my life.

When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by. –Seneca

What I Learned During My Stoic Year

There are several Stoic principles that I found to be immensely helpful in curtailing anxiety and stress. Without these distractions, productivity and happiness can flourish. Most Stoic ideas center on the fact that your mind controls your perception of events, and your perception of events governs whether your response is going to be constructive.

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. –Marcus Aurelius

A key feature of Stoicism is accepting the cards life deals to you, worrying only about what you can control. Stressing about something you cannot change is a waste of valuable time and energy. It is better to invest your efforts into endeavors that will produce results. I hasten to add that this concept is not to be misconstrued as defeatist; it’s about rationalizing which battles are worth fighting.

The Stoics had a variety of tactics to help cope with being dealt a bad hand. First, expect lousy cards to come your way. That way you won’t be surprised when they do, and you’ll be elated at the sight of good cards. Second, sometimes taking misfortune in stride with a sense of humor helps: “OK, universe; you won that hand. Now ante up and deal the next one.” A third strategy is to reframe your perception of the hand you were dealt. Rather than a disappointment, you could consider unlucky cards to be a challenge — for example, a bad hand gives you an opportunity to improve how well you can bluff your opponents.

It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret it’s happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to. –Marcus Aurelius

This reframing strategy involves another major concept in Stoicism, which is scrutinizing your feelings. The Stoics recognized that emotions were impulsive signals that required rationalization before acting on them. Some Stoic writers advocate stepping outside yourself to examine emotions more objectively, as someone unattached to the situation. The next time you feel overwhelmed, pretend that what happened to you happened to a friend instead. Consider how you would comfort and advise that friend. It is likely to be a more level-headed, reasonable, and productive response.

Among the more disconcerting practices of Stoicism is the regular contemplation of mortality. But reminding ourselves of the humbling truth that we will die, along with our loved ones and our enemies, puts life in perspective and prompts us to pursue what is truly important with our limited time. These thoughts inspire me to make the most of every precious day, show my appreciation to those I love, and work to make enemies friends.

Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. –Marcus Aurelius

The nightly meditation has been one of the most helpful aspects of my Stoicism regimen. Instead of trying to reach sleep by racing to it with frantic thoughts, I am gently pulled into a cozy slumber of gratitude. Instead of worrying about what I can obtain next, I rejoice at what I have already. When you are not a slave to desire, you are truly free.

Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess as if they were yours, but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours. –Marcus Aurelius

In addition to contemplating the things I am grateful to have, I recounted problems that I don’t currently have, such as a disease, poverty, or heartache. A nightly reminder of how much better my life is compared to many others was very humbling and made me more charitable. I often felt ashamed for complaining about my comparatively trivial problems.

Will I Continue With Stoicism?

As you might surmise, I’ve been impressed with Stoic living and wish to pursue it further. I’ve recommended the philosophy to others and wrote about its utility in helping with specific circumstances, such as stresses introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a part of Stoic living, I’ve also strengthened my discipline, which means I am eating better and exercising more. These lifestyle changes, coupled with stress reduction, have improved the health issues I mentioned earlier.

During this journey, I also enjoyed developing my own tools based on Stoic teachings. Becoming adept at Stoicism is not as easy as it sounds, and I sometimes backslide into old habits. As soon as I catch myself slipping, I freeze and initiate what I call the “REDO” program: Recognize. Evaluate. Detour. Onward. I would recognize the emotions stirring within, evaluate the reason behind them, and determine whether it is something I can change. If not, I’d focus on a detour, a reframing of the episode so I could proceed onward with a healthy response. Between each step, I would take a deep breath to stay cool and collected.

The greatest remedy for anger is delay. –Seneca

It takes some creativity, but you can reframe just about anything. Consider the common nuisance of a traffic jam. You could scream and curse and pound the steering wheel, but this will not get the cars moving. Alternatively, you could recognize that the situation is beyond your control and perceive it as an opportunity. You could use the time wisely by listening to music or a podcast. You could talk to a friend. You could reflect on what you need to do for the day. You could analyze your surroundings, marveling at the beauty of the sky, trees, or sunset. You could express gratitude that it was not you or a loved one who was involved in an accident that might have caused the traffic jam.

The Stoics strived for tranquility in life by mastering their emotional responses and channeling their energy into virtuous tasks. Their wisdom may have been derived long ago in a different era, but I found it to be timeless advice, and I look forward to continuing my training.

Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily. –Epictetus

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