This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Guide to the Good Life" by William B. Irvine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Would you like to be happier, calmer, and more fulfilled? What if you lived life as a Stoic?
A good life could be yours. In A Guide to the Good Life, philosophy professor William B. Irvine walks you through a set of Stoic techniques that promise happiness through counterintuitive methods such as imagining losing everything you love or deliberately exposing yourself to discomfort.
Read more to learn how to practice Stoicism by following six basic techniques Irvine derives from ancient philosophy. We’ve also included an exercise to help you design your own Stoic practice.
How to Practice Stoicism
In his practical guide on how to practice Stoicism, Irvine recommends adopting one technique at a time, adding a new technique only when you’re comfortable with the previous one. You can learn these practices in any order you like, though Irvine recommends that new Stoics begin with Practice #1 (learn to want what you already have) before moving on to Practice #2 (focus on what you can control).
Practice #1: Learn to Want What You Have Using Negative Visualization
Because one of the main goals of Stoicism is to tame desire, one key skill to learn is how not to want things you don’t have. According to Irvine, one of the best ways to do so is to learn to want the things you already have by taking time each day to imagine losing them. Irvine says that this practice, known as negative visualization, teaches you to appreciate what you already have and helps you deal with actual loss when it happens. The point isn’t to dwell on negative thoughts or generate anxiety about what could go wrong—it’s to remind yourself to pay attention to and enjoy the life you already have.
Negative visualization makes you happier in several ways. First, negative visualization makes you appreciate what you have instead of wanting something more. For example, maybe you’d rather be driving a swanky new sports car than a 15-year-old SUV. But if you take a moment to imagine crashing and destroying the SUV, you might find yourself suddenly grateful to have a vehicle at all (and grateful not to be enduring the trauma and probable injury of a major auto accident).
Second, anticipating calamities prepares you to deal with them when they do occur. Irvine says it’s helpful to remember that sooner or later, you’ll lose everything you have—your possessions, your loved ones, and eventually, your life. Realizing this in advance means you won’t be surprised when it happens, and you’ll even have had some mental practice in dealing with the associated emotions. For instance, if you do get in a car accident, your visualization will have prepared you for at least some of the consequences, and you might even find yourself relieved if, say, your SUV is totaled but you’re unhurt.
Third, Irvine argues that you can ease your grief after a loss with a variation on this technique—think about what your life would have been like if you’d never had the person or thing that you’ve lost. For example, if a loved one dies, Irvine suggests that you can temper your grief by imagining what it would have been like if you’d never known that person in the first place. By realizing what you could have missed out on, your sadness will give way to gratitude for what you did experience. Note that the ancient Stoics considered grief to be normal and natural—they didn’t seek to eliminate it, but rather to minimize its intensity and duration.
Practice #2: Focus on What You Can Control
Irvine points out that one of the reasons to get rid of desire is that, often, we lack the power to actually get the things we want. Therefore, he says, the ancient Stoics recommended that you worry about only the things that you can actually control. Otherwise, if you base your happiness on factors or outcomes that you don’t fully control, you effectively give up control of your happiness. For example, if you think you’ll only be happy if you get a promotion at work—an outcome you can’t actually control—you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and unhappiness if you don’t get it.
This recommendation might seem strange at first—if you should only focus on the things you can control, wouldn’t that mean disconnecting from life and giving up your attempts to accomplish anything since you’re never fully in control of your results? Not at all—in fact, far from withdrawing into themselves, the ancient Stoics were quite active in public life in teaching, advisory, and political leadership roles. Irvine explains that the key is to recognize that you have degrees of control over different aspects of your life:
- There are things you have total control over, such as your goal to get promoted and the effort you put into your job.
- There are things you have no control over, such as whether another company merges with yours and lays you off as a result.
- There are things you have partial control over, such as whether you get the promotion you’re hoping for (which in turn depends on other partial-control factors such as your boss’s opinion of you).
Irvine says the important lesson is that it’s fine to care about and work toward things you have partial control over, but he suggests that as you do so, you should be careful to set goals based only on things that are fully under your control. For example, don’t set a goal of getting the promotion—set a goal, say, to work at the highest efficiency and quality you’re capable of. The latter goal is in your control whereas the former goal isn’t. The latter might lead to the former, but you shouldn’t focus on the former because a) you’ll be disappointed if you don’t get it and b) focusing on it could cause anxiety that affects your efforts to do your best work.
Similarly, Irvine recommends keeping in mind that the past and the present are beyond your control: You can’t do anything to change what’s already happened, and because the present itself is determined by the past, you can’t change it either. He recommends that you accept the past and present as they are, and instead worry about the future, which you can still influence.
Practice #3: Don’t Let Other People Bring You Down
As you learn to focus on only the things you can control, you’ll gradually realize that one thing you can’t control is other people. For that reason, Irvine suggests being careful about how you relate to others—specifically, he says you should be careful about the company you keep and learn how to handle negative interactions productively.
According to Irvine, the ancient Stoics argued that you should avoid people who put an unnecessary strain on your Stoic practices, such as overly negative people and people who value the wrong things in life. For example, if you’re trying to follow the Stoic practice of making the best of bad situations, you’ll find it harder to do so if you associate with someone who always sees the worst side of things and seems to seek out misfortune. Similarly, if you’re trying to adopt a Stoic disregard for material goods, you may find it harder to do so if your friends are constantly concerned with things like the latest fashions and electronics.
At the same time, Irvine explains, the ancient Stoics believed that you have a duty to other people, so you should be patient and forgiving. This sense of duty stemmed from the ancient Stoic belief that we should live in accordance with nature—because humans are naturally social creatures, being virtuous means interacting and cooperating with others no matter what you think of them. If we find someone annoying, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics would point out that other people didn’t choose their flaws any more than we chose our own—and moreover, there are certainly other people who find us annoying. Therefore, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics suggested simply not worrying about what other people do or say.
All the same, Irvine cautions, as a Stoic, you must learn to shrug off insults. As you go about your life, you’re bound to be insulted from time to time either when people are openly rude to you or when you feel you’re not being treated in the way you deserve. When this happens, Irvine suggests that you consider your opinion of the other person—do you even care what she thinks? Remember that you can only control your own thoughts and that you can only be hurt if you let yourself be. Instead of fighting back against the insult, Irvine recommends that you disarm the situation by responding either with humor or not at all. Either option will potentially signal to the other person that his comments or behaviors missed their mark.
Above all, Irvine points out, the ancient Stoics recommended that you avoid anger at all costs—speaking or acting in anger ultimately gives other people control over you and your behavior. Ideally, if your Stoic practice is strong and you follow the other advice in this section, other people won’t anger you much in the first place. But if you do find yourself getting angry, don’t act on that feeling. Instead, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics suggested remembering that life is short and that most things don’t matter as much as we think they do in the moment.
Practice #4: Ignore Things That Don’t Matter
As you practice focusing on only what you can control and ignoring what other people think of you, you’ll eventually realize that many of the things we think are important—such as fame, luxury, and wealth—actually aren’t. In fact, Irvine says that pursuing these things tends to make us unhappy.
For instance, the ancient Stoics argued that you shouldn’t seek fame or approval. To begin with, both of these depend on how other people react to you, which means you have at best limited control over them (and as we saw earlier, you should avoid setting goals for things you can’t control). Besides, people’s opinions are fickle, so even if you gain esteem, you’ll likely lose it again anyway. Therefore, if you find yourself craving approval, Irvine suggests asking yourself the same question you might ask when insulted: Why do you care what anyone else thinks—why give them that power over you?
Likewise, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics suggested that you should avoid luxury (meaning unnecessarily fine, expensive, or high-quality things). Irvine explains that the ancient Stoics weren’t opposed to pleasure in and of itself, but they were cautious about luxury because they feared it would destroy their capacity to enjoy simple things. For example, it’s fine to enjoy a morning cup of coffee, but Stoics would warn that if you start drinking fancy espresso drinks from a boutique cafe, you’ll eventually stop enjoying the basic coffee you make at home. As you become pickier and pickier, the logic goes, you’ll enjoy life less and less.
That said, according to Irvine, if you happen to achieve fame or wealth, enjoy them—just don’t cling to them. The ancient Stoics didn’t believe you should immediately renounce any good fortune that comes your way, but they would remind you that fame and money are as temporary as anything else in life, so you should be prepared to lose them at any time.
Practice #5: Seek Out Discomfort
One way to avoid clinging to wealth and status is to deliberately seek out discomfort. Doing so builds up your tolerance for unpleasant experiences and makes them less of a big deal for you. Irvine notes that this voluntary discomfort can be physical or emotional. For example, you could choose not to use your car’s air conditioner on a hot summer day, or you could volunteer to give a presentation even though you fear public speaking. If you follow this practice regularly, Irvine says, you’ll worry less about bad things that might befall you in the future because you’ll already know you can handle any situation.
Another way you can practice voluntary discomfort is to willingly forgo pleasure. According to Irvine, pleasure is addictive—but whenever you pass it up, you weaken its grasp on you and instead increase your self-control. In doing so, you learn that you don’t have to follow your desires, and you free yourself from any dependency on wealth, status, and luxury.
Practice #6: Monitor Your Progress
Finally, as you gradually incorporate the other practices, Irvine recommends that you keep track of your growth as a Stoic by analyzing your day-to-day progress and noting ongoing changes in your emotions and behaviors. To do so, Irvine recommends that you take time each night to reflect on the day’s events and evaluate your responses to challenges you faced. Did you let other people upset you? Did you give in to a temptation? Did you successfully let go of your worry about something you couldn’t control?
The answers to questions like these give you immediate feedback about what you’re doing well and where you might improve your efforts. You can also use this reflection to check whether you’re actually using the Stoic techniques you’ve learned. Irvine explains that some techniques—especially negative visualization—are easy to forget about when life is going well, but your nightly reflection can remind you to apply them.
What Progress Looks Like
In your nightly reflections—and throughout your life—Irvine says that you can evaluate your Stoic progress by looking for certain trends in your emotions and actions. Specifically, Irvine says you’ll experience the following as you strengthen your Stoic skills:
You’ll feel fewer and less intense negative emotions and more joy. Emotions like anger and sadness won’t disturb your calm as much as they used to, and you’ll be less driven by temptation and desire. At the same time, you’ll find yourself delighting in the way your life already is and in the things you already have.
You’ll be less perturbed by others. It’ll be easier to brush off insults, be patient, and avoid frustration.
You’ll take more responsibility for your behavior instead of blaming other people, circumstances, or luck when things go wrong for you.
Exercise: Plan Your Own Stoic Practice
Irvine describes Stoicism as a hands-on, practical philosophy. In this exercise, reflect on what it would be like to develop your own Stoic practice.
- How might a Stoic practice benefit you? What specific problems or challenges do you think Stoicism could help you with?
- Which Stoic practices interest you the most? Which do you anticipate being the most beneficial for you? Why?
- Which Stoic practices do you anticipate being the most difficult for you? Why?
- What’s the biggest life change you’d have to make to adopt a Stoic practice? Why would you need to make this change? How would you accomplish it? For example, if your current social group is overly concerned with material wealth, you might need to cut some of your ties in order to focus on Stoic values.
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