The literature promoting modern Stoicism is extensive; the literature aimed at understanding the impact of the movement is not. How, for example, does Stoicism help people interpret and give meaning to their daily lives? How does it affect their perceptions of themselves and their wider relationships? What are Stoics’ experiences of how their practice helps them link their values and beliefs to their actions? How is Stoicism evolving, not only in published texts, but as an embodied philosophy practiced in daily life?
Given the paucity of qualitative research into modern Stoicism, we don’t have detailed answers to these are questions apart from the occasional autobiographical accounts given at conferences and in blogs. We know something about the effect of Stoicism but very little about its affect.
There are, as readers of Stoicism Today will know, several quantitative studies on Stoicism. Tim LeBon and colleagues’ (2022) reports from ten years of Stoic Week show that participants who complete the week experience a significant improvement in wellbeing measures, including issues of life satisfaction, flourishing, an increase in positive emotions, and/or a decrease in negative emotions. LeBon and colleagues also found in their 2022 report that while there were no significant differences between genders, those in the 36-55 age group benefited slightly more than others.
Findings from the Modern Stoicism team are supported by a study by MacLellan and colleagues (2021) who investigated whether the practical application of Stoicism would provide cognitive improvement in a group of high worriers. Participants completed an online training course in which they read Stoic passages before summarising their thoughts on the text, and completing a series of practices, including premeditation malorum, a mindful examination of how they formed judgements, and journaling to assess the day’s actions. The results found that Stoic training improved participants’ sense of self efficacy, reduced their rumination and their usage of anxious and negatively valanced words.
Apart from these works, most other quantitative studies focus on ‘stoicism’, i.e. the denial of emotion and endurance of adversity without complaint. These studies often conflate stoicism with Stoicism and are underpinned by questionnaires such as the Liverpool stoicism scale and the Pathak-Wieten stoicism ideology scale which assesses stoic disposition towards pain – not Stoic-philosophy attitudes and behaviours. While these studies have been called out for misunderstanding the nature of Stoicism and the shallow, potentially damaging nature ‘stoic’ ideology has on well-being, they nonetheless continue to confuse a style of coping with a philosophy of flourishing.
What limited qualitative insights into Stoicism what we have derive from mixed-methods studies. Chrystie Watson (2020), in an unpublished PhD thesis at James Cook University in Australia, explored Stoicism in the workplace with a survey and follow-up reflective interviews with 19 professionals, mostly in North America and Europe. She found that the principles of Stoic philosophy helped individuals manage their responses to challenging circumstances, including reducing stress levels and building confidence, which in turn seemed to have contributed to improved decision-making capabilities and adaptability to change within the workplace.
A study by Brown and colleagues (2022) provides rare interview data, though again it is limited to a specific set of respondents. This research team provided third-year medical students with a package of online Stoic training and followed up with surveys and interviews. They found that the training positively influenced students’ resilience and empathy. The most interesting part of their study were the actual quotes from students who talked about the benefits of negative visualisation and Stoic reflection. Students reported that the training ‘helped them step back’ before entering the ward, to ‘think differently’, and to realise when they were ‘having judgements’. While the authors note the value of metacognition, the study provides few clues into the processes behind participants’ interpretation of their Stoic training or their emotional responses.
Stoic Week also provides some qualitative comments. Most of these offer gratitude to facilitators and contributors and compliment the quality of materials. They also implicitly suggest how more research would be beneficial. Respondents, for example, noted how Stoicism helped them to ‘get unstuck and make [a] positive contribution to the people I care about, the world and to be my best self’. Others noted that Stoic Week helped them deal with ‘recent difficult events’ and become a ‘better person’ with ‘better decision making’ and a ‘better understanding of what I want from life.’
These comments all suggest that Stoicism is doing something powerful in people’s lives. Yet what exactly? We know very little about how Stoics understand and experience the connections between emotion, interpretation, and agency. Qualitative research allows us to unpack these comments to better understand the context behind the claims of benefit. As I mentioned above, there appear to be no differences between genders in terms of well-being scores after Stoic Week. But does this also that men and women interpret and use Stoic resources in the same way? We just don’t know. We could ask the same questions about participants’ age and how, if it all, that impacts their reception of Stoicism or their experience of what it means to ‘be a better person’. Becoming a ‘best self’ is not necessarily a Stoic project. So how do we make sense of these comments in a way that furthers the Stoic revival?
In order to try and better understand the impact of modern Stoicism, I am undertaking one of the first – if not the first – qualitative study into the movement. Supported by Newcastle University in the UK, my project has three components. The first part provides a visual and textual analysis of online content and published material to get a sense of the diversity of the movement and to what extent Stoicism has/is changing today from its earlier formulations in Western philosophy.
The second part involves open ended, semi-structured interviews with members of the general public who have attended Stoic events and/or self-identify as Stoics. As I have done in previous research, this phase will employ thematic analysis, yielding the flexibility to identify and analyse patterns of meaning across participants’ views and lived experiences. While questions will be broad enough to gather views on a range of Stoic themes (e.g. virtue, happiness, emotion, nature), analysis will be inductive rather than theory-driven, to allow for the widest possible set of themes to emerge from the data.
The third part of the project will focus on a very small subset of interviewees. I will follow up with more in-depth discussions, using interpretative phenomenological analysis to better understand in detail the role Stoicism played in giving meaning to a significant life event (e.g., an illness, a loss, a relationship, a change in circumstances). Here the focus is idiographic. That is, I am not interested in generalisable patterns but in the sense-making experience of a particular individual in a particular context. And, crucially, the project will explore how an embodied Stoicism differs, if at all, from Stoic theory presented in texts, both ancient and modern.
At the end of his new book on Stoic ethics, Christopher Gill (2022) notes the advantages of Stoicism as form of life guidance, especially in comparison to Aristotelian ethical writings. Stoicism offers a path for adults, no matter their background, to progress their own development, in part through examining and changing the underlying beliefs and assumptions which shape their actions. It this way it serves as a potentially important resource for addressing the multiple stresses and crises facing the public today, not least in mental-health care. But only by speaking with Stoics can we gauge the full impact and potential of the popular movement. This first step will hopefully lead to follow on qualitative studies into Stoicism as a way of life.
If you are interested in potentially participating in this project, please contact Prof. Michael Barr for more information at here.
Michael Barr is professor in philosophy as a way of life at Newcastle University though his background is highly eclectic. Trained in politics, theology, and philosophy, he has he taught ESL in China, Egypt and the US and has published on the sociology of health and illness, Chinese politics, environmental politics, bioethics, biosecurity and pedagogical methods.
Brown, M., MacLellan, A., Laughey, W., Omer, U., Himmi, G., LeBon, T., and G. Finn, (2022). Can Stoic Training Develop Medical Student Empathy and Resilience? A Mixed‑methods Study. BMC Medical Education 22: 340-352. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-022-03391-x
Gill, C., (2022). Learning to Live Naturally: Stoic Ethics and its Modern Significance. Oxford: OUP.
LeBon, T. (2022) Report on Stoic Week 2022. Stoicism Today, 11 February.
MacLellan, A., and N. Derakshan (2021) The Effects of Stoic Training and Adaptive Working Memory Training on Emotional Vulnerability in High Worriers. Cognitive Therapy and Research 45:730–744. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-020-10183-4
Watson, C., (2020). Exploring the Application of the Principles of Stoic philosophy in the Workplace. PhD Thesis, James Cook University.