A Guide to the Good Life by William Braxton Irvine
Psychological techniques and advice to practice Stoicism for attaining a good life.
Table of Contents
- What is a good life according to Stoicism?
- Psychological techniques to practice Stoicism for attaining a good life
- Advice on daily living
What is a good life according to Stoicism?
Having a good life is not about making a good living or having a high-paying job since one could hate the job or have conflicting thoughts about its moral.
A person must be virtuous in order to have a good life. A person’s virtue depends on their excellence as a human being, how well one performs the function for which humans were designed. For example, a virtuous hammer is one that can drive nails well, a virtuous scissors is one that can cut well. To be virtuous is to live as we were designed to live, that is to reason, to do certain things, to have certain duties. For example, one of which is the social duty that is to honor our parents, be agreeable to our friends,…
Psychological techniques to practice Stoicism for attaining a good life
Bad things happen, no matter how hard we try to prevent them. Assuming we will always be able to enjoy things we value causes us distress when they are taken from us.
We are unhappy largely because we’re insatiable. After working hard for what we desire, we quickly get bored, dissatisfied, take things for granted and eventually chase new desire.
- Consumer purchase: longing for a new TV, laptop, phone after buying one several weeks ago
- Job: wanting higher pay, new workplace, new boss after landing the job of our dreams
- Relationship: fantasizing about starting a new relationship after marriage
The solution is to forestall the adaptation process, even better reverse it so that we stop taking things for granted and desire what we already have.
- Image that we have lost the things we value, our wife has left, our relatives and friends were death, we lost our job, our house, our money and so on.
- As we go about our day, reflect periodically that we will not live forever and this day could be our last. The goal is not to change our activities but our state of mind that we carry out these activities and appreciate today.
Most of us are already living the dream, having a wonderful partner, a dream job, a good car though we take things for granted other than delighting in them. Some are less fortunate, still the practice of negative still can be applied.
Being satisfied with what we’ve got doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek certain things in life or strive to become better.
Trichotomy of control
There are things over which we have:
- Complete control: goals we set for ourself, opinions and values we form
- No control: whether the sun will rise tomorrow
- Some but not complete control: whether we will win a competition or become a millionaire though we try really hard for it
We should not concern ourselves with things that we have no control of. If we want things that we have less or no control, we will sometimes fail to get what we want, be upset and anxious about it.
A strategy to deal with things that we have less or no control is to be careful about the goals and values that we form. Instead of setting a goal to win a competition, which we only have partial control, set a goal to do our best in the match, which we have complete control. We’ll free ourself from frustration or disappointment if we lose.
We must learn to welcome whatever comes to us and trust that it happens is for the best.
We have no control of the past as well as the present (this very moment). That said, we’re wasting time worrying about past and present events. Instead of wishing it could be different, embrace it.
Self-denial (extension of negative visualization)
Besides contemplating bad things happening, we should sometimes live as if they had happened, cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could have avoided (experience cold weather even though clothes are at hand).
Benefits of voluntary discomfort:
- Harden ourselves against misfortune that might happen in the future.
- Grow confident that we can withstand major discomfort.
- Help us appreciate what we have.
Besides practicing voluntary discomfort, we should sometimes forgo opportunities to experience pleasure, choose not to do things that make us feel good (eating carb and sugar).
Willpower is like muscle power: the more exercise, the stronger they are; the more will power we have, the more self-control and courage we have.
On the events of daily living at bedtime:
- Did something disrupt our tranquility?
- Did we experience anger/envy/lust?
- Is there something that I could avoid?
On our Stoic progress:
- Do we periodically engage in negative visualization?
- Do we take time to distinguish between these things over which we have control, less and no control?
- Are we careful to initialize our goals?
- Have we refrained from dwelling on the past and instead focused our attention on the future?
- Have we consciously practiced acts of self-denial?
Advice on daily living
How to think about social duty
We were designed to live among other people and interact with them in a manner that is advantageous. To fulfill this social duty, we must feel a concern for all humankind, to do good and bear with them.
How to preserve tranquility while interacting with other people
We can’t be selective in doing our social duty (dealing with annoying, misguided people) though we can be selective about whom we befriend, ones that share our values. When dealing with annoying people, keep in mind that there are people that find us annoying as well so that we can also reflect on our shortcomings and become more empathetic to others’ faults. Due to fatalism, we should operate on the assumption that annoying people are fated to behave that way and it’s expectable (though they can be changed of course). The risk in dealing with annoying people is that they will make us hate them, though that only makes us more like them. The best revenge is to refuse to do so.
How to deal with insult
What upsets us is not things themselves but our judgments about these things.
When insulted, pause and consider if what the insulter said is true, how well-inform the insulter is, or if we respect him.
- If it’s true or we respect the insulter, we should reflect on ourselves and strive to be better.
- If not, we should feel relived because it’s the right thing to do as we don’t need their approval. For example, if a dog barks us, we don’t be upset by the fact that he might dislike us.
One of the best way to respond to insult is with humor, especially self-deprecating jokes. Another way is with no response. By not responding to the insulter, we are robbing him the pleasure of having upset us which is likely to make him upset as a result. Also, no one wants to be ignored and the insulter is likely to feel humiliated then.
How to respond to the death
It’s not possible to eliminate grief but possible to minimize the amount of grief we experience in our life. One strategy that is mentioned above is negative visualization. Also, remember that the person whose death that we’re grieving wouldn’t want us to be tortured with tears.
How to overcome anger/anti-joy
We should fight our tendency to believe the worst about other and our tendency to jump to conclusion about their motivations. Things that anger us generally don’t do us any real harm. Sometimes things that we think are important are actually are not that important.
Humor can help if we choose to think that bad things happening to us is funny and amusing.
When angry, force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, slow our pace of walking and so on.
How to think about fame
If we seek social status, we give other people power over us in a sense that we have to do things that make them admire us. In other words, we will have enslaved ourselves. That said, we should be confident about ourselves and our values and ignore what people think of us.
How to think about wealth/luxurious living
There’s a danger that if we’re exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, we will lose our ability to take delight in simple things.
- We become harder to please.
- Our standards are constantly getting higher as we want nothing but the best.
- Once it starts, it’s difficult to stop.
Luxurious lifestyle is harder to maintain and keep up with.
People who achieve luxurious lifestyle are rarely satisfied or happy since they will only learn that they crave even more luxury.
Even though a Stoic doesn’t pursue wealth, they nevertheless acquire it. It’s acceptable for them to enjoy wealth, as long as they are careful not to cling to it. Also, by the practice of negative visualization, they should be prepared as their wealth can be taken away from them anytime.
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