Does Stoicism Work? Stoicism & Positive Psychology
Introduction: Stoicism isn’t just a theory, it is also a set of practices aimed at helping people to lead better lives. A key question is whether Stoic practices work – does practising Stoicism actually help people? Psychology and its scientific methods is the obvious place to turn to help answer this question. In this article, I will describe the work of the Stoicism Today team to use the methods of psychology to begin to answer the “Does Stoicism work?” question and suggest directions for future research. The last fifteen years have seen the growth of positive psychology, a branch of psychology aimed at providing a scientific understanding of what goes well in life and how to enhance it. I will argue that Positive Psychology can become more complete and wiser if it incorporates ideas from Stoicism.
Since its inception in 1998, Positive Psychology has spawned many experiments, articles, books and conferences. Whilst philosophers and self-help authors have long theorised about what we should do, Positive Psychology now proposes planned activities (“interventions”) and tests them scientifically. One way is to ask people to carry out an intervention, measuring their well-being before and after to see its effect. Positive Psychology has already delivered substantial findings, including the following:
- Happiness and positive emotions such as joy, pride, love and awe don’t just feel good, they also have positive consequences such as improved health and increased longevity, creativity and altruism.
- An important component of well-being is flow, which means being totally absorbed in what you are doing. Flow is distinct from pleasure because when you are absorbed in an activity you don’t really feel anything.
- It is possible to cultivate a number of beneficial positive attitudes. These include hope, optimism, gratitude and a “growth mindset” (i.e. a belief that one’s abilities are not fixed). These attitudes have been shown to lead to improved health, better work and academic performance, better self-esteem and greater resilience.
- A number of beneficial positive behaviours have been identified, including identifying and using your strengths and performing acts of kindness.
- A number of simple interventions have been shown to bring about increases in well-being in both the short term and at six-month follow up. Conversely some plausible interventions have been shown not to bring about lasting positive change.
There is now good evidence that studying Positive Psychology and applying its findings to oneself, to organisations and in education can lead to increased well-being. For a fuller review of Positive Psychology, the interested reader is referred to my new book, Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014).
Philosophy and Positive Psychology
Whilst these developments are very much to be welcomed, there are some important philosophical questions to ask Positive Psychology, including:
- What precisely is well-being and what is the difference between well-being and related terms such as subjective well-being, flourishing, pleasure, enjoyment and happiness?
- Positive Psychology emphasises feeling good and doing good. What is the place in Positive Psychology for virtue (i.e. being good)?
- Can positive attitudes and behaviours actually cause harm if they are carried out by someone who lacks virtue? For example, would you want a terrorist to use their strengths?
- Is, as many ancients thought, wisdom a particularly important virtue?Isn’t it important not just to be hopeful and optimistic but to use these qualities wisely?
- Can practical ideas proposed by philosophers – such as the Stoics and Epicureans – be tested?
- Could empirically tested philosophical strategies help individuals be virtuous and wiser as well as feeling better and so strengthen Positive Psychology?
The remainder of this article will focus on the last two questions.
Stoicism Today and Putting Stoicism to the Test
Stoicism is a good candidate for inclusion in Positive Psychology both because of its broadly therapeutic intent and the plethora of specific, testable strategies to be found in the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and, particularly, Epictetus. Under the leadership of Professor Christopher Gill based at the University of Exeter, the Stoicism Today team, including the current author, has made a start at putting Stoicism to the test. In this section, I will briefly summarise our findings. For a more detailed account, see LeBon (2014a)
In the latest 2013 study, participants, recruited from the general public as well as Stoic interest groups, were provided with a free downloadable booklet featuring Stoic readings and exercises, many of which were available as audio recordings. In addition a blog was maintained and participants were encouraged to communicate with each other using social media. Central to the empirical study was the suggested programme of meditations and exercises for “Stoic week”. Each day had a specific Stoic theme, and an early morning and late evening meditation connected the daily theme with more general Stoic ideas.
Amongst the suggested exercises were:
- An early morning meditation, focussing on a Stoic principle such as “focussing only on things under our control”, or “rehearsing dealing with possible challenges in the day ahead in a Stoic way”.
- A late evening meditation, reviewing the day in terms of how well one has dealt with challenges in a Stoic way, learning what one has done well but also cultivating the intention to do better the next day.
- Daily exercises on the following themes: What is in our power?; Stoic self-discipline and simplicity; the Stoic reserve clause; Stoic mindfulness; Emotions and adversity; philanthropy and the View from Above.
- A Stoic monitoring sheet, helping to cultivate an awareness of what is and what is not in our power.
Participants were asked to take various questionnaires assessing well-being and their levels of Stoicism both before and after taking part in Stoic week.
Stoicism Today’s Testing of Stoicism: The Results
Our findings supported the view that Stoicism is helpful – Stoicism passed its initial test. Participants reported a 14% improvement in life satisfaction, a 9% increase in positive emotions and an 11% decrease in negative emotions.
These findings suggest a significant positive effect of practising Stoicism, and also go some way to dispelling some of the more frequent criticisms of Stoicism, such as that it is a joyless philosophy (joy increased the most of all emotions) or that it is too pessimistic (optimism increased by 18%). In addition the study confirmed some positive expectations of Stoicism. Stoicism does indeed seem to increase contentment and reduce anger. The findings also supported the view that Stoicism not only increases well-being but also enhances virtue – 56% of participants gave themselves a mark of 80% or more when asked whether it had made them a better person and made them wiser.
As well as measuring changes in well-being, the Stoicism Today project has also attempted to measure the relationship between well-being and Stoic attitudes and behaviours. In order to do this, a scale, The Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scales (SABS) has been developed and piloted. By giving participants the SABS questionnaire along with other well-being scales, it is possible to determine the relationship between elements of Stoicism and well-being, and thereby, potentially to identify Stoicism’s “active ingredients”. Most Stoic behaviours have proved to be positively associated with well-being. Many Stoic attitudes are also positively associated with well-being, but less so than behaviours. Some non-Stoic behaviours attitudes, such as doing what is enjoyable and comfortable rather than the right thing, proved to be negatively associated with well-being.
The elements of Stoicism that proved the most beneficial were:
- Stoic mindfulness – making an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions.
- Stoic disputation of thoughts – reminding oneself that an upsetting thought is just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
- Affinity with others – thinking of oneself as part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body.
- Stoic Premeditation – trying to anticipate future misfortunes and rehearse rising above them.
Whilst these findings are certainly encouraging, more research is required for it to reach the most rigorous scientific standards. Priorities include:
- Performing more rigorous controlled experiments. The findings would be strengthened if follow-ups were performed (e.g. at 3 or 6 months) and if control groups were established.
- Further Development of the Stoic attitudes and behaviours scale (SABS). The SABS scale is a promising instrument both to measure adherence to Stoicism and its association with well-being. The scale would benefit from refinement, including simplification of the language used and a further round of feedback from those who identify themselves as Stoic.
- Longitudinal testing of SABS findings. The SABS findings are correlational i.e., they show a relationship between well-being and Stoicism. They do not prove that being more Stoic brings about the changes in well-being. One way to address this would be to compare changes in well-being between participants instructed to develop very specific Stoic attitudes and behaviours. For instance it could compare instructing one set of participants to engage in Stoic mindfulness with another instructed to do just a Stoic premeditation.
- Further refinement of materials and programmes. There is a close analogy between the idea of developing Stoic-inspired programmes from Stoicism with developing mindfulness programmes from Buddhism. Mindfulness-based programmes have been shown to reduce the recurrence of depression and are now very popular; they are even available in the NHS. Researchers have based these programmes on a subset of Buddhist practices, and geared them to specific groups. In the same way programmes could be refined for particular problems most likely to benefit from Stoicism e.g. anger management and those suffering long-term conditions such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Stoicism as a part of Positive Psychology
Whilst further research is desirable, I believe enough evidence has been collected to justify including Stoic exercises in the arsenal of evidence-based techniques to enhance well-being. In this final section I will make some brief remarks to suggest that Stoicism may have particular value in helping Positive Psychology address helping people to be virtuous and wise as well as feeling good and doing good.
Positive Psychologists engaged in a literature search on virtues and came up with six virtues including the four cardinal virtues of ancient Greece (wisdom, courage, self-control and justice). However, whilst Stoics and other Greek and Roman thinkers mostly thought that all of these virtues were required to lead the good life, positive psychologists instead encourage people to identify their strengths and use their top strengths more. Strengths are more specific, operationalised versions of virtues – for instance the virtue of wisdom has been broken down into strengths of creativity, curiosity, judgement, love of learning and perspective. There is good evidence that using one’s strengths in new ways increases one’s own sense of well-being. It is not clear though whether it is the best way of making one more virtuous. There is a strong argument to suggest that virtue may require the opposite – focussing more on the moral qualities one lacks. For example, if a man is courageous but lacks self-control, should he perform more acts of courage or try to develop his self-control? More questionable still is whether they can perform true acts of courage or self-control without possessing wisdom. As Socrates argued in the Laches, retreating can show more courage than attacking, depending on the circumstances. Wisdom is required to decide which acts are virtuous.
Being a virtue-based philosophy, Stoicism is well-placed to fill in this gap in Positive Psychology. Stoics require individuals to develop virtues, even if they are not their strengths and provides exercises to enable them to do so. In encouraging people to control only what they can control and consider the welfare of others, Stoicism can also help people develop wisdom. Stoicism offers Positive Psychology and the individual the opportunity to develop their character as well as increase their well-being.
LeBon, T., Report on Exeter University “Stoic week” 2013:
LeBon, T., Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. Hodder: 2014b.
The Stoicism Today Team. Stoic Week Booklet:
NB. The Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale, and other questionnaires mentioned, can be found in Tim LeBon’s Report on Exeter University “Stoic Week” 2013.
Tim LeBon is a UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) registered therapist and works in the NHS in IAPT (the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies scheme) using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which he combines with a private practice as a counsellor and life coach in Central London. He is the founding editor of the journal Practical Philosophy and author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001), and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014). His website is www.timlebon.com.
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This is a very interesting article. It is moving towards a better understanding of Stoicism, however it does raise the question as to why we need ‘positive psychology’ or CBT etc. when Stoicism has been ahead of the game all along and provides a more complete understanding of how to live life and what it is all about.
All that is needed is Stoicism. Not other disciplines picking and mixing various Stoic ideas with their own incomplete theories. As the Stoics of old stated, Stoicism is a philosophy in the round. It is complete. All of its components offer a complete ‘operators manual’ for life.
Much of what is in the article is about finding optimism, looking for opportunities to improve one’s situation and feeling good about one’s self. As Professor Gilbert Murray suggested, this is all well and good when one lives in times where such is possible, but as he also says, Stoicism offers a way forward when reality offers no reason for optimism.
Being a good life philosophy, Stoicism offers a means to deal with stark reality when there are no alternatives and no amount of ‘positiveness’ is going to lead to a better outcome. It is not just a ‘fair weather friend’.
It is for this reason that the individual is not only encouraged to see themselves as a ‘citizen of the Cosmos’ being one with all the other citizens, but to see themselves as ‘a spark of the Divine Fire’ – that is, they are an individualised part of the whole living Cosmos. It is to this end that Stoicism recognises a level of consciousness greater than the individual to which we are encouraged to harmonise ourselves.
Stoicism encourages us to see that there is a bigger picture than our own self-interests whereby things may not always work out for the individual. It is not a case of winning the game, but rather how one plays the game. It is not a question only of what role the actor has, but how they accept the role the playwright has given them and how they contribute to the play. And often how they play their last scene and then ‘exit stage left’.
Stoicism offers a way to live and a way to die. And all this is made easier by the recognition of the Divine Fire, by whatever name one wants to give it. After all, one aspect of the science of wellbeing not mentioned in this article is the fact that having a faith in a higher state of being, that is following a world religion or faith, also helps improve one’s state of mind.
So for any of the other disciplines such as positive psychology and CBT to progress they need to encourage the individual to have a faith.