Modern day Stoicism has much to offer the individual who is seeking a life philosophy. In his book “A Guide To The Good Life,” William B. Irvine has put a modern twist on the teachings and techniques the Stoics developed more than two millennia ago.
After reading this excellent book I found that many of my preconceived notions concerning the Stoics were utterly false and untrue. Irvine explains that the Stoics weren’t necessarily these stuffy old guys that never had any fun, were pessimistic in their views on humanity, and never showed any emotions. Actually, they were quite the opposite in several instances he explains.
When I was in the midst of my four-year trek around North America, I would always seek out philosophical discussions with the people I would meet. I had a sort of list of favorite topics I liked to touch on. When I would ask people what it was that they most wanted in life, “happiness” always seemed to be the “boiled down” answer. We all just want to be happy. So let’s have a look at what the Stoics did to try and savor happiness.
First of all, there are several reasons someone may be unhappy, but for the most part, human unhappiness stems from the fact that we are insatiable beings. We form a desire for something we think we really need, then we work our asses off to fulfill this desire, believing that once we fulfill it, we will gain the satisfaction we were searching for. The problem lies in the fact that once we fulfill a desire for something, we adapt to its presence in our life and as a result, we stop desiring it, or we don’t desire it like we once did. Usually sooner rather than later, we end up just as dissatisfied as we were before fulfilling the desire. The name for this phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill.”
NEGATIVE REALIZATION TECHNIQUE
There are many things in our lives that we have probably adapted to, including our relationships, our house, our car, our job etc. An important key to our happiness is to forestall this adaptation process, even better, we need a way to reverse it, and the easiest way to do this is for us to learn how to want the things we already have.
The Stoics have a technique to prevent us from taking things for granted once we get them. They believed that by contemplating the bad things that can happen to us, we will lessen their impact on us when they do happen. They recommend that we spend time imagining that the things we value most, were suddenly taken from us – that our car was stolen, we lost our job, or that our wife/husband has left us. In so doing the Stoics believe that we will value our car, our job, and our wife more than would otherwise be the case. This technique is referred to as “negative realization” and can be applied to many other areas of your life too.
“Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.” -Seneca
So, while we are enjoying the companionship of loved ones for instance, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. A famous Stoic from ancient times named Epictetus advocates that when we kiss our child, we need to remember that they are mortal and not something we own, they have been given to us only for the present, not forever. He continues: “In the very act of kissing the child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that they will die tomorrow.
This technique can be used for our friendships too. We should silently remind ourselves when saying goodbye to a friend, that this could very well be our final meeting. If we do this we will be less likely to take our friends for granted, and as a result, we’ll probably derive far more pleasure from our friendships than we otherwise would.
Another famous Stoic named Marcus Aurelius, who was also a Roman Emperor, said instead of spending our idle moments thinking of the things we want but don’t have, we should instead be spending this time thinking of all the things we already have and reflecting on how miserable we would be if they were not ours, or if they were suddenly taken from us.
This technique can be used for several other areas in our lives too, like losing our ability to walk, talk, hear, breathe or swallow for instance.
I believe the Negative Realization technique teaches us to embrace life more, to help us extract every ounce of delight we can from it, while simultaneously teaching us to prepare ourselves for the changes that life will throw at us. It teaches us to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.
When we contemplate the impermanence of everything the world has to offer, it forces us to recognize that everytime we do something, it could be the last time we do it. This recognition will add significance and intensity to that which we do, which would otherwise be absent.
This article was originally twice as long, and included a few of the other techniques used by the Stoics. I will publish another article including these at a later date. Until then, practice this technique in you`r life and see how it works for you.