“For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is independent, elevated, fearless, and unshakeable, a mind that exists beyond the reach of fear and of desire, that regards honour as the only good and infamy as the only evil, and everything else as a trivial collection of things, which come and go, neither subtracting anything from the happy life nor adding anything to it, and do not increase or diminish the highest good? It is inevitable that a man with such a grounding, whether he wills it or not, will be accompanied by continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness that comes from deep inside him, since he is one who takes pleasure in his own resources and wishes for no joys greater than those of his own heart.”
– Seneca, On the Happy Life 4. (translated J. Davie)
“‘I wonder if I might draw your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? [Jeeves] said. “Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.’”
I breathed a bit stertorously. ‘He said that, did he?’
‘Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.’”
– P.G. Wodehouse The Mating Season
Are Stoics happy? When reading Seneca, you may become convinced that a profound happiness must accompany anyone who has developed the independent, elevated and fearless mind of a Stoic. The novelist P.G Wodehouse provides a different perspective. Who is right? Armchair philosophising cannot provide the answer. It is an empirical matter and in the twenty-first century we have access to methods of investigation that were not available to the Roman Stoics. For several years the Stoicism Today project has been working on this question – this article provides an update on some of the latest findings.
The focus in this article is what we can learn from the results of the questionnaires given to participants at the start of the Stoic Week that took place between Oct 17th and 23rd, 2016. Stoic Week has become an annual event in which anyone with access to the internet is invited to “live like a Stoic” for a week. To do this participants download and read a free booklet and audio materials carry out Stoic exercises daily and, if they are kind, help us with our research by filling in questionnaires at the start and end of the week.
This year participants completed the SABS scale (the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours scale v3.0), a measure designed by the Stoicism Today team to measure someone’s level of Stoicism and three validated well-being scales which measure Satisfaction with Life, Flourishing and Positive and Negative emotions respectively. In this way it is possible, by using the statistical method of correlation, to ascertain whether Stoic attitudes and behaviours go with happiness, as Seneca would have us believe – or perhaps not, as P.G. Wodehouse implies.
Your questions answered
This year the main findings are being presented as answers to questions people have asked in past years. Detailed facts and figures can be found in the appendices at the end.
Q: Are Stoics happy?
A: Our analysis suggests that in general the more Stoic one is the happier one is too.
Taking an average of the 3 well-being scales, there is a correlation coefficient of .4 between Stoicism and well-being. Given the size of the sample (nearly two thousand), the chances of this association being accidental is less than one in a million.
Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. It could be that the association exists because the happier one is, the more Stoic one is, or possibly something else (such as income) could be driving both higher levels of happiness and Stoicism. However, once this strong correlation between well-being and Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week and a significant increase in well-being during Stoic Week (which has been found to be the case in previous years, this years findings will be reported in part 3 of this report) , it would not be unreasonable to infer some causation going in the direction of practising Stoicism and being somewhat happier. This seems to be true however we define happiness, though we should also note that the association is stronger for flourishing (happiness in the round) than for life satisfaction.
Seneca 1 P.G Wodehouse 0?
Q: Hold on, Isn’t Stoicism all about being virtuous and not about happiness? Don’t Stoics go so far as to say that happiness is a “preferred indifferent”. So why are you bothering to do this research?
A: It’s true, the convinced Stoic would say that this finding itself is a preferred indifferent. They would doubtless be pleased that Stoicism goes with happiness, but would argue that this isn’t the main reason you should be Stoic.
However this is not the whole story. We have the testament of Seneca (quoted above) as well as Epictetus who often pointed out that Stoicism leads to greater happiness and more tranquillity. They realised that many of their audience were not convinced Stoics. Practical wisdom necessitated pointing to Stoicism’s positive side-effects (happiness and tranquillity) to win over converts. I would argue that today we are in much the same situation as the Roman Stoics. Most of our audience are not convinced Stoics either. But their interest may be piqued when by learning that Stoicism may make you happier. Certainly they will also be reassured by learning that Stoicism is unlikely to make you miserable or emotionless. If we would like Stoicism to be promoted in companies, government and within the NHS, these findings about the relationship between Stoicism and well-being become all the more important.
Q: I can believe that Stoics are less unhappy, but you’re not claiming that Stoicism actually goes with positive emotions too, are you?
A: Actually our analysis suggests that Stoicism does go with positive emotions as much as with the reduction of negative emotions.
The SPANE scale allows us to measure the relationship of Stoicism with various emotions, positive and negative. Table 1 shows the correlation coefficient[i] between emotions and Stoicism.
|Emotion||Correlation with Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours|
Table 1 : Correlation of SABS 3.0 scores and SPANE items
So perhaps Seneca is exaggerating only a little when he says that Stoicism leads to “continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness”
Seneca 2 P.G Wodehouse 0?
Q: Are those who know a lot about Stoicism (without practising it) happier?
A: No. There is only a weak association between stated knowledge of Stoicism and average well-being (a correlation co-efficient of about .1) , whereas it’s nearly four times higher for people who practise Stoicism.
Q: Which has more impact on happiness, Stoic behaviours or attitudes?
A: Behaviours are significantly more impactful – a coefficient of .38 as opposed to.29 for attitudes.
Q: You previously published a report on the demographics of Stoic Week 2016. Can you now tell us anything about which groups are most and least Stoic?
A: Yes, absolutely, what would you like to know?
Q: Do you get more or less Stoic as you get older?
A: Interestingly, there seems to be quite a strong relationship between age and Stoicism. The under 18s (admittedly a very small group) were by far the least Stoic. The over 55s were the most Stoic and in general the older people are, the more Stoic they are. The average SABS scores for each age group are as follows:
|Age||Average SABS score|
Table 2: Relationship between Age and degree of Stoicism
Q: Which area of the world is most Stoic?
A: The Americas win . The UK (stiff upper lip notwithstanding) trails the field.
|Region||Average SABS score|
Table 3: Relationship between geographic region and degree of Stoicism
Q: Are men or women more Stoic?
A: Our data suggests that men are marginally more Stoic, averaging 164.5 on the SABS scale as opposed to 161.5 for women.
Q: In what ways are people most Stoic?
A: The items which score highest are given in table 4 below.
|No.||SABS Item||Average score (0-7)|
|5||Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control.||5.97|
|8||The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions||5.78|
|2||It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing||5.65|
|10||Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom||5.59|
Table 4: The ways in which participants are most Stoic
Q: If you had to ask one question to find out if someone was Stoic that didn’t mention the word “Stoic” what should it be?
A: Surprisingly, I should ask them whether they believe that “Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death” (item 26). This has a correlation coefficient of .6 with the SABS scale as a whole, higher than any other SABS item.
Q: Surely PG. Wodehouse was right about something? You have to agree that there are some parts of Stoicism which seem pretty implausible these days – like destiny and “the great web”. Does your research shed any light on this?
A: It is indeed possible to dig deeper and find the associations between specific elements of Stoicism and well-being. Table 5 below shows the items most associated with well-being.
(non-Stoic items in italics, these are reverse scored)
|Correlation with average well-being|
|22||I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future||Non-Stoic Rumination and worry (reverse scored)||0.47|
|27||I do the right thing even when I feel afraid||Stoic Courage||0.31|
|24||When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent||Cognitive Distancing||0.29|
|31||When making a significant decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” and then look for the option that a good and wise person would choose||Stoic Practical Wisdom||0.26|
|19||I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life||Ideal Stoic Advisor||0.24|
|13||I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare||Stoic Humanity Connected||0.24|
|25||Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brotherhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling anger and resentment||Stoic Brotherhood on Humankind||0.24|
|11||I think about my life as an ongoing project in ethical development||Stoic Ethical Development||0.23|
|28||I care about the suffering of others and take active steps to reduce this (||Stoic Compassion||0.23|
|23||I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions||Stoic Mindfulness||0.22|
|17||If I was honest I’d have to admit that I often do what is enjoyable and comfortable rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing||Non-Stoic Short- term hedonism (reverse scored)||0.22|
|26||Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death||Stoic coping with death||0.21|
|32||I sometimes have thoughts or urges it would be unwise to act on, but I usually realise this and do not act on them||Stoic Self Control||0.20|
|6||If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel upset||Non-Stoic Upset is Inevitable (reverse scored)||0.20|
|21||I treat everybody fairly even those I don’t like or don’t know very well||Stoic Fairness||0.20|
Table 5: SABS 3.0 Items most associated with well-being
As in previous years, the SABS with by far the strongest association with well-being (however it is measured) item 22 , asking about ruminating and worrying. Stoic virtues also do very well, with courage, practical wisdom , compassion, self-control and fairness all scoring highly. Cognitive distancing (item 24) scores well, as does using the Stoic Ideal Advisor and items to do with seeing humanity as connected and Stoic Cosmopolitanism.
(non-Stoic items in italics, these are reverse scored)
|Theme||Correlation with average well-being|
|16||I often contemplate the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time||View from Above||0.09|
|10||Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom||Virtue is Wisdom||0.10|
|8||The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions||What we can control||0.11|
|5||Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control||Focussing on what we can control||0.13|
|14||The cosmos is a single, wise, living thing||Wise Cosmos||0.13|
Table 6: SABS 3.0 Items least associated with well-being
The above 5 items all have a positive association with well-being, but it is fairly weak relationship. Contemplating the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time (item 16) as in the View from Above is not especially associated with well-being, despite the popularity of the View from Above meditation. Item 14, “The Cosmos is a single, wise living thing” most closely resembles the Stoic idea satirised by PG. Wodehouse. To be fair to Wodehouse it is one of the least strong predictors of well-being, although it is still a positive association. Perhaps on this one point, we should concede a tie.
The final score – Seneca 3 PG. Wodehouse 1
[i] A correlation coefficient of 1 would indicate a perfect relationship, 0 no relationship at all – a negative number indicates an inverse relationship
For a PDF file of the full report, including appendices, click here.