Happiness: A Stoic Perspective – by Ben Shehadi

Anxiety and depression can be very difficult subjects to discuss, let alone experience. Life is full of events which inflict untold psychological pain: illness, financial insecurity, the death of a loved one. The list goes on and on. “Sometimes, it is an act of bravery even to live,” the great Seneca once acknowledged (Letter 78.2). Since suffering is so essential to the human experience, it is no mystery that the ancient Stoic philosophers had plenty to say about it.

The Stoics were deeply interested in the secrets of happiness—defined more precisely as “tranquility” or “peace of mind.” These philosophers penned entire books about what we would now call positive psychology. Zeno of Citium wrote two such books: Of Emotions and Of Impulse, or Human Nature (Diogenes Laertius, VII.4). So did Cleanthes, who wrote Of Pleasure (Diogenes Laertius, VII.175). Emotions were painstakingly categorized in Stoic writings. But the Greek philosophers did this for a very practical reason: to learn how to elevate one’s mood. In his book On Passions, Zeno argued that irrational desires were the cause of unhappiness (Diogenes Laertius VII.110).

Many people imagine the Stoics as harsh or cold, but the reality was much different. One Stoic thinker, Chrysippus, literally died of laughter! Diogenes Laertius, an ancient biographer of antiquity’s best philosophers, recounted a very colorful scene of the Greek Stoic’s death: “His death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, ‘Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.’ And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died” (VII.185).

For the Stoics, happiness was not just a feeling; it was an entire attitude toward life. It means being satisfied with your life, even when the chips are down. Nobody likes pain, but the Stoics urge us to take heart even in these uncomfortable situations. Plenty of examples can be given, such as social anxiety or fear of the future. Take the loss of one’s friends. Just like anybody, the Stoics loved their friends. But even the loss of one’s friends should not disturb a person’s peace of mind. “The wise man is self-sufficient [in] that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them,” Seneca explained (Letter 9.5). Beyond one’s friends, anxiety can be caused by one’s enemies. Fear of humiliation can be one of life’s worst psychological pains. But the Stoics again urge us not to be alarmed by the negative opinions of others. “Clothe yourself with a hero’s courage,” Seneca boldly exhorts us, “and withdraw for a little space from the opinions of the common man” (Letter 67.12). Beyond social ostracism, there is also the crippling anxiety of future events. As Seneca saw it, many minds are needlessly disturbed by unrealistic expectations about the future. In his thirteenth letter, titled “On Groundless Fears,” the Roman philosopher wrote these timeless and life-changing words: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality” (Letter 13.4): nine words which encapsulate the entire Stoic secret to happiness.

The Stoics held different opinions about how to be happy. For example, they disagreed whether virtue alone was sufficient for happiness. A few philosophers, such as Diogenes of Babylon (Cicero, On Moral Ends, III), Zeno and Chrysippus (Laertius, VII.127) took a hardline approach: the Stoic sage must be completely satisfied by virtue alone, and is totally indifferent to external circumstances. “[If] the final aim is to live in agreement with nature,” Cicero has Cato explain, “it necessarily follows that all wise men at all times enjoy a happy, perfect, and fortunate life, free from all hindrance, interference or want” (On Moral Ends, 3.26). For someone like Diogenes, as Cicero tells us, external goods such as pleasure and health were necessary for a rich life, but not necessarily a virtuous one. The issue of ‘indifferents’ such as health and wealth was, and remains, complex and even controversial, as reported in our ancient Stoic sources.

The Stoics themselves were not always consistent regarding the passions, as Diogenes Laertius tells us. “Now they say that the wise man is passionless, because he is not prone to fall into such infirmity,” the great biographer observed. “But they add that in another the term apathy is applied to the bad man, when, that is, it means that he is callous and relentless” (Laertius VII.117). In other words, being too careless or apathetic about life does not make you a good Stoic or a happy person.

When we feel down, the Stoics give us plenty of encouraging words of wisdom. Stoicism is a philosophy for life, because it teaches us how to cope with suffering. Through their brave and daring words, the Stoics instruct us how to overcome anxiety and depression. They coach us on how to enjoy life to the fullest, by adopting the right attitude. “Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life,” Seneca explained. “They are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die” (Letter 4.5). But to look at life’s suffering, and still say “Yes, I want to live!”—that is a good life. That is the only kind of life worthy of preserving. A strenuous life, a life of greatness. It is this lesson—and many, many others—which continue to shape and define my optimistic outlook on life.


Cicero. On Moral Ends. New Epicurean. https://newepicurean.com/projects/battle-for-the-goal-of-life/cicero-on- ends-book-3/ Accessed online on January 8, 2024.

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume I: Books 1-5. Translated by R. D. Hicks. Loeb Classical Library 184. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925. Perseus Digital Library (Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University). https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text? doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0004.tlg001.perseus-eng1:7.1 Accessed online on January 8, 2024.

Seneca. Moral Letters to Lucilius. Loeb Classical Library, 1917. Accessed on Wikisource on January 8, 2024. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_9

Ben Shehadi is a historian with a BA from Ohio State University. He has published books on Amazon, including The Arsenal of Democracy: The History of US Military Vehicles Since WWII (2023) and Napoleon: The Revolutionary Hero (2024). Currently, he runs a Substack newsletter called “Hot History,” https://hothistory.substack.com/.

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