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Stoicism and the Art of Happiness - Ancient Tips For Modern Challenges: Teach Yourself Kindle Edition
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I made such an effort, and my main conclusion is that we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to happiness, because we tend to naturally interpret our lives and circumstances in ways that lead to more negative emotions than necessary. The remedy is to become masters of our minds, using our abilities to reason and observe ourselves, so that we gradually train ourselves to habitually apply various psychological techniques which cause us to interpret things in ways that reduce negative emotions and foster positive emotions. We may never reach true mastery in this regard, but striving for it will still (hopefully) enable enough progress to make the effort worthwhile. And to help us make progress, we can use stoic sages as models for emulation (eg, ‘what would Epictetus do in this situation?’).
Here’s a summary of some key psychological techniques:
• Don’t be bothered by things over which you have little or no influence. That includes accepting that things sometimes won’t turn out as you intended or planned, so always be ready to adapt.
• Mentally prepare for tough circumstances, imagining handling them with calm composure. Such preparation will reduce fear of tough circumstances and lessen their effect when they happen. If necessary, also take a ‘time out’ to let emotions dampen. And taking it further, make tough circumstances a positive by treating them as learning opportunities.
• Be oriented largely towards the present, since the past is done and unchangeable, and the future is largely uncertain and out of our hands.
• Find a balance between being engaged in the world versus somewhat detached. Treat life as a festival or game, with the goal being to enjoy observing and participating for the short duration we’re here, but without being concerned too much about outcomes.
• Focus more on the inner development of your character rather than attaining or hanging on to external things which may be transient or beyond your control (material things, sensory pleasures, social status, health, even loved ones).
• Appreciate that things may happen according to a universal scheme which has underlying reason and meaning, but is beyond our finite understanding. Use this perspective to remind yourself that the things which trouble us are generally ‘small stuff’ in the overall scheme of things, which is mysterious but at least seems to entail an incomprehendably vast universe which has existed for billions of years.
Since most reviewers like this book, I don't want to deter people from reading it. But since the book didn't resonate with me, I think it's safe to say there will be others it won't resonate with either.
I'm simultaneously reading Irvine's Guide to the Good Life, and finding Robertson's introduction helpful in understanding Irvine's idiosyncratic interpretations of Stoicism. Robertson gently critiques Irvine in several places in useful ways. For instance, Irvine translates praemeditatio malorum as "negative visualization" and views this Stoic practice as imagining losing things like loved ones, health, or possessions. Therefore he sees this as a way to feel gratitude for what one has, rather than taking it for granted, and thus reversing "hedonic adaptation."
Robertson rightly points out that this view is a view that pleasure is good and pain is bad, and therefore a hedonistic conception of the good life (eudaimonia) which would fit more with a rival school, the Epicureans, than with the Stoics. Instead, Robertson translates praemeditatio malorum as "premeditation for adversity," giving many examples from Stoic texts, and explains how by imagining undesired events such as illness, death, and loss, but also general annoyances, one can become resilient and mentally prepared for whatever comes one's way. Importantly, Robertson emphasizes that the purpose of this exercise was not simply to feel good (gratitude) but to practice treating "externals" (things that are not in our direct control) as irrelevant to living a good life, and to practice responding to such things with detachment, wisdom, and virtue.
I appreciate how Robertson references many other useful texts, both primary and secondary sources, which invites the reader to seek out the original Stoic texts from Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, to other modern texts such as Hadot.