Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we will publish a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”. Interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today. And now, Meredith’s post!
I’m sitting outside under the shade of a 200-year-old live oak. It’s a warm summer day. I’m watching my two daughters swim as I think about Stoicism and happiness. I hear their laughter and splashing, the leaves rustling, the whizzing of cars passing.
I look around and know that I have much to be thankful for—my family, home, job, physical wellbeing, among other things. But before I began a Stoic practice I never really saw it that way. I only saw what was missing or lacking or not good enough.
I attribute the fact that I can stop and experience joy in this present moment—with the clear knowledge that it will pass like all others—to Stoic ideas.
It’s a hard-earned moment. Over the years, I have felt encumbered by anxieties and insecurities. Growing up, I was brainy and intellectual, which made me different from most other kids. I was driven to show my worth by being recognized as the best in academics. To motivate myself, I drew on the power of negative thinking. I worried about failure. A voice inside my head used harsh language to discipline me and drive me forward.
It worked. I studied hard and proved I was capable. I kept achieving academically and earned degrees from top universities.
Did that achievement make me contented and satisfied—in other words, happy? Not exactly. I still felt worried and uncertain—about my choices and my inability to control many things in life that I thought I should be able to manage. These attitudes didn’t change until I began to study Stoic philosophy.
The knowledge I gained from Stoicism that I can never control other people’s thoughts, emotions, or actions was immensely liberating. I no longer feel pressure to manage or manipulate these things, which greatly lessened a range of anxieties.
It affects me less when others judge me or behave in ways I dislike. People have their own agendas and issues. As Marcus Aurelius points out, many are separated from their faculty of reason and don’t know the difference between good and bad.
I rely on my own “ruling center” as much as I can to make decisions these days. I do what I think is right, and I try not to dwell on others’ judgments or to compare myself with everyone else. Most importantly, I don’t use other people’s praise (or criticism) as the wellspring of my own self-worth as a human being. And I experience much more contentment as a result.
“Will it make any difference to me if someone else criticizes me for actions which were just and right? It will make no difference at all,” Marcus reminds us. (Meditations 10, 13.)
I teach this approach to my children. I’ve made them aware of the “dichotomy of control.” I share ideas on making wise and courageous choices. I seek to demonstrate that humor and happiness can be found even in challenging circumstances.
Our existence in this vast universe is short. Stoic thinkers often remind us of that, too. Yet by drawing on the key principles of Stoicism, we can experience joy in this fleeting moment.
Meredith A. Kunz writes The Stoic Mom, a blog that focuses on how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent’s—or anyone’s—life. She is working on a longer project about women and Stoicism. You can follow her on Twitter @thestoicwoman.