Does Stoicism make you Happier?
by Tim LeBon
We might well envy the Romans for being able to attend Epictetus’ lectures and having a ruler as wise as Marcus Aurelius. But we have at least one advantage over them – the internet. Modern technology enables the Stoicism Today project to connect thousands of people and carry out large-scale research on Stoicism and its effectiveness. In November 2015 over two and a half thousand participants filled in questionnaires at the start of Stoic Week asking them 31 questions relating to their level of Stoicism and 25 questions about their well-being. By using statistical analysis (another innovation not available to the ancients) we can infer whether being Stoic is associated with well-being – or not. Furthermore we can start to tell which Stoic attitudes and behaviours appear to be the most “active ingredients”
You can read the full report here. Here are some headlines:
- The vast majority of Stoic attitudes and behaviours are strongly associated with well-being. This is true however you measure well-being – whether as satisfaction with life, flourishing, or the balance of positive over negative emotions
- The Stoic attitudes and behaviours most strongly associated with well-being include the cardinal virtues (self-control, practical wisdom, courage and justice), Stoic mindfulness and cognitive distancing. You can see how each of the 31 items fared here.
- Some (but not all) plausible anti-Stoic attitudes turn out to be negatively associated with well-being.
- We asked some experts on Stoicism for their predictions as to which items would be the most “active ingredients”. Although their predictions were generally good, the connection between well-being and the cardinal virtues was significantly under-estimated.
These findings need to be qualified in a number of ways. Participants were self-selecting, correlation does not imply causation, and the questionnaire we have developed to measure levels of Stoicism (the SABS scale) requires further psychometric validation. Further research is clearly needed, yet taken with the other findings from Stoic Week – including the fact that doing Stoic Week increases well-being for most participants– the indications all point towards Stoicism making you happier.
The fourth and final report from Stoic Week will appear on this site in a few weeks time.
Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT psychoptherapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach and integrative counsellor. He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder Teach Yourself Books, 2014). You can read more about Tim’s work on his blog, Socrates Satisfied, and his website.
Thank you for that excellent report. Intriguing finding about the cardinal virtues. (I think the surviving remnants of the lectures of Musonius Rufus make a nice little primer that brings them to life.)
Stoics are ” inner-directed ” ( David Riesmann) ,whereas the internet addicts are ” other-directed “. And never the twin shall meet…
The Encheiridion is certainly a handy book to have around when the world seems to be closing in on you!
Thank you Tim, very interesting. I’m new to this view of life and the world and find it fascinating.
I was wondering if anyone knows of a group in the San Francisco bay area?
Yes, there’s a small but great community here in the Bay Area. Here is the link to our event this Saturday: https://www.meetup.com/the-Redwood-Stoa/events/243658854/ We hope to see you there!
I’d be happy to check your scale for construct validity, discriminant validity and reliability? You just need data with a sample of at least 300 respondents.
I’ve grown quite interested in stoicism recently. Yet, the more I learn about it the more I find that it aligns with my natural coping mechanisms and beliefs. To this extent, I wonder how much of stoic philosophy was developed to fit the mild (highly self-controlled) temperament of people like myself, and how much of it was developed with other temperaments in-mind….
And if stoicism comes naturally or easier to some people (like myself), what basis could Stoics possibly rely on in order to convince people who are equally happy, yet possess different temperaments?
Moreover, in order to gain real scientific traction, stoicism will need to demonstrate that without stoic beliefs, the risk of living an unhappy life is greater. I suspect it will be easy to demonstrate this with regard to the beliefs that are mutually exclusive (opposite) to stoic beliefs. I believe it will be difficult to demonstrate this with regard to beliefs that are merely different to stoic beliefs (e.g., beliefs of people who are educated in modern psychology and its teachings).
For example, stoic teachings concerning the recognition of things beyond our control are directly implicated in a well-renowned psychological construct named ‘Locus of Control’. They’re nearly synonymous.
Due to such a lack of research on this, perhaps stoic beliefs do not excel above espoused modern psychology beliefs? or perhaps they do, only slightly?
One thing is for certain. The more scientific your inquiries become, the more scrutiny you will naturally attract – especially from those well-educated in modern psychology approaches.
Hi Dr Ved
It is good to hear others say that for some Stoicism comes naturally and is little more than a collection of common sense ideas. Of course, usually it is easy to be a Stoic if one is not really being tested – and today in the West few of us are ever put on the rack.
I am aware that many who show an interest in Stoicism do so because they have difficulty in controlling aspects of their nature, especially when it comes to anger. Seneca said that to be a Stoic you needed to be of sound mind, and it is to achieving such a sound mind that much of the Stoic training is aimed – basically the Stoic mind training comes down to guidance for those already inclined to such ways and instruction for those who struggle with their hang-ups and the like.
Looking back to the Greek interest in philosophy (the love of wisdom) there was probably a high incidence of mental disorders such as chronic depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome due to the uncertain nature of life within the city states and also the number of battles so many will have been involved in. The interest amongst many was therefore to look to nature, the more resilient and to the wisdom of the ages in order to learn as to how to achieve a sound mind and so be able to live a contented life.
But Stoicism is successful because it offers much more than mere mind training. It offers a context in which to see one’s life in relation to the whole and it offers a basis on which to develop one’s own code of conduct.
As it is, the Stoicism Today team are trying to assess as to if Stoicism has anything to offer to CBT and other such therapies. It does. It offers a moral perspective. It is not just about getting over some mental state and so living a ‘normal life’. Stoicism offers the idea that any ‘therapy’ needs to offer an end purpose that will ensure that a person is less likely to need to undergo yet more ‘therapy’ in the future.
Stoicism takes a person’s mind away from what is beneficial for their own state and opens a person’s life to the realisation that directing one’s interest outwards leads to a more stable and contented lifestyle. Stoicism leads a person from being an individual to being a member of society and a citizen of the Cosmos – a selfless state rather than a selfish state.
As to convincing others, we have no need to. Either Stoicism as a way of life makes sense to a person or it does not.
I appreciate your thoughtful response Nigel.
I can understand that stoicism is more than a bundle of beliefs that determine happiness, and that it is a way of life, with a theoretical framework, epistemological grounding and a life-long ‘end’ to pursue.
However, attempts to quantify it and study it scientifically – as is being done by Tim et al. – demands that it be reduced to its core concepts and that the surrounding ‘fluff’ if you will, is stripped away. For therapy purposes on the other hand, its historical grounding may indeed be beneficial in keeping people interested, beyond just momentary interest in dealing with a bout of depression or anxiety.
Granted this, there are competing bundles of beliefs, with their own historical grounding, such as Buddhism, that can also help people be happy and altruistic. We can’t deny that others live happy lives, without stoicism, so we must be weary to avoid putting it on a pedestal, until it is further developed. I would start by distancing stoicism from modern-day notions of ‘happiness’ and making it more distinct, but these things are not for me to decide.
The reason I bring up ‘convincing others’ is because I view it to be largely synonymous with ‘raising awareness’. Indeed, it is the pursued ‘end’ of raising awareness, to phrase it as Aristotle might. People, like me, who are not easily swayed to adopt entire bundles of beliefs at once, may never come into contact with Stoicism and its usefulness. I discovered it by discovering myself in a way; and knowing more about myself. What of those whose temperaments are different and who may never search to begin with?
If it is truly therapeutic and can help people, then there is a sense of moral obligation to spread awareness of it? No? Espousing its potential therapeutic benefits while simultaneously having little care for raising awareness is a bit like discovering penicillin, but failing to notify your neighbours. Perhaps there may be a more parsimonious approach or outlook to this?
In any case, I only aim to offer whatever critical feedback I can, and however narrow it may be. I hope I am not mistaken for the Devil’s advocate, or some type of troll.
Dr Ved, I certainly do not see you as a troll or the like. You raise insightful points.
You say, “If it is truly therapeutic and can help people, then there is a sense of moral obligation to spread awareness of it? No?”
Seneca said that to *be* a Stoic one needs to be of sound mind. That is, one needs to have moved beyond the need for therapy. However, in order to help people arrive at a sound mind, people such as Epictetus taught a system of ideas that is a method of training the mind to see life in a more balanced manner whereby the emotions do not overrule the rational. This is little more than CBT. (I understand that Epictetus’ school was called ‘the school for sick souls’.)
If CBT was all that it was cracked up to be and was a once-and-for-all ‘cure’ people would not be looking for the next step, namely how to offer a system of correct thought that will stay with a person long term.
The ideas in CBT are to be found in one form or another in many of the traditional faith based ‘bundles’ of belief to be found in the market place.
Stoicism stands out because there is no ‘priest class’ telling people what to do and how to do it. Stoicism simply offers a world view, a belief in ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’ and a belief that if we recognise our oneness with the living conscious Cosmos then, being of sound mind, we will see for ourselves the need to live in a morally responsible manner that is at one with the rest of the Cosmos.
We do not live by some fixed moral code but we live a morally aware life, where how we live is dictated moment by moment by whatever circumstances we encounter and is based on our own wisdom and on our individual understanding of our place in the world and in the Cosmos (the Cosmos being seen as a living rational ‘entity’).
It is the ‘belief’ aspect of Stoicism that ensures that it is more beneficial than and more effective at achieving the contented life than CBT.
For the purposes of improving on CBT, which I understand is the aim of the Stoicism Today team, at the very least two points need to be added to the basic mind training of CBT – the teaching that we are all part of whole and the teaching that we have a responsibility to fulfil our roles in society as best we can.
CBT is all about healing one’s self. This is a selfish aim with no end purpose as to what a person is going to do with their life once they have a clear and sound mind.
It is all well and good honing a chisel, but where is the point if you are never going to use the chisel for the purpose for which it was made.
Stoicism teaches us that we are social animals and that means that once we are of sound mind it is rational that we stop looking inwards and start to look outwards and look to how we may best benefit the whole. Even a totally disabled person can make life pleasant for their carers just by being the better patient that lets the carers know that they are appreciated. From little things to big things we can make life better for the whole, and in doing so, in looking out instead of inwards, a person will gain great satisfaction and contentment.
How am I doing in my moral responsibility to spread awareness of Stoicism and its benefits? 🙂
I thank you for the opportunity (excuse), in responding to your comments, to repeat my attempts to bring the true nature of Stoicism out into the open.
With much appreciation, Nigel
Thanks again for your comprehensive response here.
My contention, throughout, has been to discuss the possibility of developing Stoicism into a serious line of scientific inquiry. In the modern day, there is no better way to raise awareness, than through science. In fact, the younger generations are far more scientifically educated and inclined than ever before, and the word of scientists is trusted among most circles; certainly more than the word of politicians or business-men. I don’t see this trend toward scientific societies stopping, or even slowing down, any time soon.
This is a great sign of advancement, but moreover, an opportunity for useful schools of thought – about life – to flourish. Perhaps stoics choose not to raise awareness through avenues such as science, or perhaps they do. If they do, my supplementary contention is that they will likely face fierce criticism from multiple schools of thought within psychology. From what I understand of stoicism so far, it is rather similar to Buddhism, and I believe both have tremendous opportunity to revolutionize thinking patterns and coping mechanisms worldwide.
I just hope there’s capable and scientific people with the motivation to raise awareness and tackle the criticisms that lie ahead. For this reason, I find the research of Tim et al. quite interesting, but I also believe it has potential for improvement; specifically, to distance the core tenets of stoicism away from ‘happiness’, and toward something more distinct, and under-studied in psychology. Happiness is important, sure, but not as important as having a broader perspective. Much like pleasure is important, but not as important as having the perspective to delineate between just and unjust pleasure.
Ah, Dr Ved, you highlight some of the issues that Stoicism has in today’s world.
Much that is talked about when it comes to Stoicism these days uses words that professors of philosophy use as technical terms and the issue is that even the professors tend to be misled by their own use of words – so what hope for their students.
Stoicism has little or nothing to do with ‘happiness’ much as this word is used as a translation of the Greek ‘eudaimonia’ which is literally ‘good spirits’ and which Zeno explained as being more ‘the good flow of life’ in his use of the word.
‘Happiness’ is related to the ‘hap’ in ‘haphazard’ and denotes an accidental or unplanned occurrence – hardly something a person can plan for, let alone train for.
What the Stoics are actually aiming for in their mind training is a contentment with life as it is, but also a striving for moving towards the better. Stoicism is not passive contentment.
As to science, there is much common ground between Stoic ‘science’ and modern science – the Stoic will not deny reality or progressing knowledge. But while I have respect for scientists I do recognise that many scientists are as human as the rest of us and often colour what they say and how they interpret their own observational and experimental science in accordance with their own beliefs. We certainly ought not to accept what the scientists have to say without question – especially some theoretical scientists and some of their modern myths about the nature of the universe.
Stoicism is often misunderstood because too many are only interested in the therapy aspect of its training and reject its science and faith so missing much that will help in making the training more effective.