How becoming a Stoic can make you happy

Over at, I reviewed a terrific book called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine.
201009201645 Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, writes that Stoicism was one of many competing philosophies (such as the Cynics and the Epicureans) that ran schools to teach a "philosophy of life" to students in ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoics were interested in leading a life of "tranquility," meaning a life free of "anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy." To achieve such a life the Stoics developed, in the words of historian Paul Veyne, a "paradoxical recipe for happiness," that included the practice of "negative visualization." By frequently and vividly imagining worst-case scenarios -- the death of a child, financial catastrophe, ruined health -- the Stoics believed you would learn to appreciate what you have, and curb your insatiable appetite for more material goods, social status, and other objects of desire.

Reading the book, I had no trouble understanding how negative visualization could be an effective antidote against "hedonic adaptation." By imagining ourselves to be homeless, for instance, we can reset our desire for a more luxurious home and once again appreciate the roof over our head that we started taking for granted shortly after moving in.

My review was edited down at because it was too lengthy. Here's a part that was cut out:

I had a harder time buying into the idea that imagining the death of one of my children was good for my mental well being. The Stoic teacher Epictetus advised his students that, "In the very act of kissing a child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow." Why would anyone want to do that? Irvine answers the question by offering the example of two fathers, one who practices negative visualization and one who pushes such thoughts out of his head. The second father assumes his daughter will outlive him and will "always be around for him to enjoy." The first father assumes that every moment he spends with his daughter might be the last. Which father, asks Irvine is more attentive to and appreciative of his daughter, and which father is more likely to put off spending quality time with his daughter, believing that he'll have plenty of opportunities in the future? By thinking of our kids as precious gifts that could be taken from us at any moment we will come to treasure the time we spend with them. I've been trying this kind of negative visualization for the past week or so, and it really works. (But it packs a quite an emotional wallop.)
Read the rest of the review at


  1. As Ven. Robina Cortin once said; “We don’t get angry because the glass is broken, we get angry because we thought the glass would never break”.

  2. While not medical advice, I must personally observe that Wellbutrin, Zoloft, and other anti-depressant / anti-anxiety medications are — for me — far more effective than two decades of stoic attitude and practice. I reflexively planned out all possible adverse contingencies as a matter of course. It allowed for tranquility and contentment when my life was going well, but there’s a considerable backlash when one’s nightmares actually occur. The constant “It could be worse” refrain caused me to stay in abusive relationships and led some people to take advantage of me.

    For those who undertake a stoic philosophy, a strong sense of healthy boundaries are essential if one is going to live in society.

    1. I must be a stoic because everytime my wife leaves the house with the Mercedes and calls my cell phone, I anticipate that she’ll tell me she wrecked the car. So far, I’ve been right three times.

    2. I do agree! Being aware of what bad can happen is at least for me a recipe for my anxiety to go running wild, I just started my anxiety medication after spiralling way down into panic attacks. And thinking about losing my child… not a good place for me to go, seriously!

      I’m a realist, I like to know what is the worst thing that can happen, what is the best, and what is the realistic thing. But always being aware of what is the worst will at least for me lead to axiety. I rather like to concentrate on the good things _now_, and be content in what I have _now_. Not dwell on “oh, if I had x I would be happy”, that so many seem to do. If there is something that really is in the way of me being happy in the now, then fix that (the reason I’m now on axiety medication), but my philosophy is that true happiness is found in finding a way to be content in who you are and what you have now. Oh, and believing that everything will work out, somehow.

  3. I can’t possibly entertain the shortest, tiniest, imagination of anything happening to my kids. I’ve become ultra sensitive to anything depicting cruelty or harm to children in the media, and I’ve had to work a little to enjoy some of my favorite movies.

    I’m acutely conscious of the precious time I have with them as young children, and it’s morbid enough being aware of that, I don’t think clutching them to your chest and holding them like there’s no tomorrow is good for either of us.

    There’s a transcendent path I’m striving for, where you can live in the moment and appreciate it exquisitely, without constant awareness of the abyss.

    It’s a work in progress.

  4. I’ve been practicing Stoicism (or at least attempting to do so) for many years now; and I have to say that it has both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, it really does help you become more patient, more tolerant, and less angry; and it helps you to be mentally prepared for the worst case scenario so that bad things rarely take you by surprise, and you can remain reasonably calm and composed while the whole world is crashing all around you. But that comes with a price. Practicing Stoicism also makes you a bit more prone to anxiety, depression, and general moodiness, because you’re always focusing on the negatives and not the positives; so Stoicism does tend to take some of the joy out of life. Nonetheless, I find that, on balance, Stoicism does more good than harm. I know I never would have gotten through the long-term illness and death of my father if it weren’t for my Stoicism. By mentally preparing myself for the worst, I was able to endure it far better than I otherwise would have. In fact, I was actually surprised at how well I got through it. It was a horrible experience; but it was less horrible than I imagined it would be. There is an advantage to pessimism. Optimists are often disappointed. Pessimists rarely are; and are often pleasantly surprised.

    1. I would like to clarify my earlier statement, because I’m afraid I might have left the wrong impression. Stoicism is not the complete rejection of optimism in favor of pessimism. Rather, Stoicism is the rejection of naïve optimism in favor of enlightened pessimism. Naïve optimism is the attitude that everything is always going to be perfect (“We’ll be greeted as liberators!”). Enlightened pessimism is the attitude that things could always go wrong, so you’d better be prepared (“Do you have an exit strategy?”). Naïve optimism sets you up for inevitable disappointment and frustration, because nothing is ever perfect. Enlightened pessimism inoculates you against disappointment and frustration, because you’re always ready to deal with the inevitable problems and setbacks as they arise. Enlightened pessimism embraces the MythBusters motto: “Failure is always an option.”

      But, while Stoicism advocates enlightened pessimism, it rejects naïve pessimism almost as strongly as it rejects naïve optimism. Naïve pessimism is the attitude that everything that could possibly go wrong will go wrong, and there’s nothing that can be done about it, and therefore you are basically screwed. Paranoia, histrionics, cynicism, and nihilism are all basically forms of naïve pessimism. Stoicism doesn’t advocate this at all. In fact, the goal of Stoicism is to help people live a good, happy life; and someone who is paranoid, histrionic, cynical, or nihilistic is unlikely to be very happy. (Note, however, that for Stoics “happiness” refers to a person’s long-term wellbeing, not just how good he or she happens to feel at any given moment.) I should also point out that, while Stoicism rejects naïve optimism, it advocates enlightened optimism — i.e. the attitude that you can be happy even when things don’t turn out perfect, if you cultivate the proper attitude.

      The drawbacks of Stoicism that I pointed out in my earlier comment are not problems with Stoicism itself; but rather are the nasty side-effects of imperfectly realized Stoicism. A perfect Stoic would not experience depression, anxiety, or moodiness; but would face life with a good attitude all the time. But it’s hard to be a perfect Stoic. When you first start to practice Stoicism, you almost certainly WILL experience more depression, anxiety, and moodiness than before; and it may take you years of mental discipline before you can push through that and achieve the inner peace that Stoicism has to offer. But, at least in my opinion, it’s worth it. Even imperfect Stoicism will help you better cope with difficulties, disappointments, and sorrows, help you better manage your anger and frustration, help you become more patient, more tolerant, more forgiving, more self-disciplined, less selfish, less impulsive, less hedonistic, and less demanding. It will make the bad times seem less bad. But, unfortunately, at least in the beginning, it will also make the good times seem less good. However, with practice, you’ll eventually learn how to better appreciate the good times as well, without constantly brooding over all the things that could possibly go wrong.

  5. Do you realize
    that everyone you know
    will die?
    But instead of saying all of your goodbyes,
    let them know you:
    realize that life goes fast;
    it’s hard to make the good things last;
    realize the sun doesn’t go down,
    it’s just an illusion caused by the world
    spinning round.

    1. I’m glad you quoted the Flaming Lips after this article. That has to be not only one of my favorite songs, I really like the simplicity of the ideas being sung about and how we overlook so many obvious things in life… I don’t believe we NEED to have a guiding philosophy of life (stoicism, epicureanism, solipsism…) as long as we just don’t take things for granted.

    2. do you realise, flaming lips, cracking quote, always thought that song has some unexpected wisdom in it

  6. In Epictetus’s time, children dying was rather more common than it is now. When people asked after each others’ health it was not an idle pleasantry.

    1. “How are you?” in the State just means hello.
      It has become fairly meaningless.
      In Germany it is actually still considered a more serios question, like you are really inquiring about the person.
      I can imagine that in times when people were dying like flies, most people were fairly serious when they said “How are you?”

  7. I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not necessary to actually visualise the loss of loved ones. All that is needed is a mindfulness of the possibility.

    The cracked glass analogy is a good one – too many people see Stoicism as focusing on negative things. Instead, it simply brings focus to the inevitable. Prepare yourself for the inevitable, and treat every day of sentience as you should – as an honour and a blessing.

  8. I prefer Epicureanism. Contentment is easily achieved. It does not require the emotional investment of constantly dwelling on the worst-case scenarios. The worst rarely happens, that’s why we call it “the worst.” While one needs a certain amount of humility in the face of death – Against which, “we all live in a city without walls” – there’s no point in spending mental energy preparing for every possible thing that could happen.

    To quote Titus Lucretius:

    For just as children are afraid of the dark,
    their elders, as often as not, are afraid in the light
    of things which really there is just as little cause to fear
    as those with which children contrive to frighten themselves.
    These grown-up terrors are also no more than shadows
    and yet they are nothing that sunlight can dissipate:
    What is needed is the rational study of nature.

    1. I admire this kind of inspiration to mind over matter, and to allow reason to control our emotions. But I’m also mindful of insights from work like Lehrer’s How We Decide. That shows that decisions rely not on reason overcoming emotion but rather our instinct becoming all the more informed by a wise and experienced use of emotion. Lehrer gives examples ranging from the quarterback who can’t possibly know how we made so almost instantenous a decision to the lieutenant shooting down a target who could not have known it was an enemy inbound missile and not a friendly jet. Our judgements often rely on instinctual cues that take scientifically accountable data into account, but do so (as Gladwell’s Blink showed too) too quickly for rational processes to spell out or understand. Bottom line: We need both reason and emotion, and sometimes I’d imagine more of one and not the other, but alternating between them both.

    2. I agree. Stoicism sounds very dark from a modern perspective.
      I think the Stoics should listen more to the Epicureans. Life for many of us isn’t that hard anymore, compared to ancient times. Loved ones die, we die, bad things inevitably happen to all of us. But we also all want to enjoy the time we have and live a good life.

  9. Wow, I find this to be one of the most heartfelt and powerful postings on Boing Boing. But that’s probably because I’m a father of a two year old girl. With her, I too find that practicing gratitude and specifically visualizing that all this goodness might disappear tomorrow, really does make me appreciate it all the more. As I’m reading several different books on “subjective well being” (i.e. happiness; that’s what Frauenfelder’s “hedonic adaptation” refers to) I’m amazed too at how many common themes they have in common. In particular, with books like Happier (the fastest read), The How of Happiness (the most scientific of them), and The Happiness Hypothesis (possibly the most comprehensive, spanning east-west thought, from the most speculative spiritual philosophy to the hardest psych research), they all share this activity of savoring what’s good in life. (“Conan, what is good in life?” notwithstanding) What’s more, other acts that make us happier, like enjoying flow experiences at work and home, similarly get strengthened the more we practice gratitude: when we specifically name what is working, what has gone well, what are we lucky to have, we train our dopomine cells to remember what got them firing, and we’re more likely to experience still more joy. Not that it’s easy. I fall off the wagon constantly. That’s what I want to figure out: How to remember the darned lessons learned.

  10. This has been my father’s philosophy for as long as I’ve known him.

    “Oh, your friends are late coming over? Maybe they had a car accident.”

    He ALWAYS anticipates the worst. The absolute worst. It’s like every time I call him, I can hear him thinking, “What happened this time?”

    And while, yes, he’s rarely disappointed because he’s always anticipating the worst, he’s also the biggest ball of nerves I’ve ever seen. That, combined with a cigarette habit, led to a heart attack at 42.

    I guess I’d rather be disappointed or sad sometimes than completely and totally freaked out that I’m going to get mugged walking home, or that my train will derail or that an airplane will crash into my floor at work.

  11. I don’t think Stoicism is assuming the worst and feeling pain and anxiety, but it is instead being aware of the worst in order to feel deeply the present– there is a great difference.

    Patti Smith, the visual artist, not the musician , said something to the extent of: no matter how much we have, we usually imagine those who have more than us, when we should be imagining those who have less. In other words: no matter how rich you get, you keep thinking about that .001% who have a bigger car, house, etc, instead of being aware of the 99.9% who have so much less. Within this ‘Stoicism” I believe lies the path to accurately evaluating worth, being grateful, and showing humility. It should lead to less anxiety, stress, pettiness, and provide a realistic kind of ‘resolution’ to evaluate decision making.

    Mark, thank you for pointing out this book, I’ll be sure to give it a read.

  12. I consider the words of Epictetus every time I go to the movie theater, and it does help:

    “When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, ‘I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.’ And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, ‘It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.’”

  13. There is no need to visualize negative things in order to appreciate what you have in the present. Just endeavor to always be appreciative, it is not rocket science. As far working to always visualize the worst possible things happening at any given time…sounds like a great way to live an unhappy life. Just sayin’.

  14. Things which are terrifying – or joyous – in anticipation, as when one contemplates one’s future, are never so evil – or good – when finally experienced.
    Stoics cleave to the middle ground. Never too sad, never too joyful.
    It is a philosophy of self-control, and of not relying upon things external to oneself to condition or determine one’s emotional state.
    Like the man down by the tracks in this song says: “look here junior, don’t you be so happy…and for heaven’s sake, don’t you be so sad”:

    PS: IIRC, The Stoic Epictetus was a slave, lamed by his master after an escape attempt, who owned nothing – but perhaps a single lamp – his whole life through. But yet content – more content than many Emperors of Rome, the Masters of the World, were ever able to be.

    1. I still want to know if Mark is secretly a Canadian *L*

      Especially after the CBC had a podcast about this book and its author just a few weeks ago and I read the updated article from that cbc conversation, dated today!

      Spill it Frauenfelder! ;)

      Do you watch hockey? Do you know what a poutine is? ARE YOU INFACT A DOUBLE AGENT FOR CANADA IN THE U.S.?!?!

      I await your reply

  15. Maybe the trick is to imagine all the things that could have gone wrong in the past (but didn’t), instead of all the things that could go wrong in the future (but almost certainly won’t). When I broke my jaw in a bike accident, I intentionally focused on all the really awful things that I somehow managed to avoid, instead of the one unpleasant thing I had to endure. Surgery and liquid diet and not being able to kiss for awhile are damn near heaven compared to a broken neck and paralysis and never having sex again.

    I like to remind myself that on every level, including the cosmic, our present condition was not inevitable. The universe has had infinite opportunities to fizzle instead of develop into a largely conscious, compassionate, connected civilization. But for some reason, it did anyway.

    “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

  16. As someone who came from little, and experienced quite a bit of loss, i can say that being keenly aware of how quickly things can fall apart and disappear does make me very very appreciative of the good fortune i’ve had and the family I hold dear, to the point that I’m nearly reduced to tears on an almost daily basis.

    i’m often asked if i find my work morose and even morbid, which admittedly I do, but I think being intimately familiar with the darkness makes me appreciate the light that much more.


  17. Here’s the thing: The Greeks didn’t know everything.

    The basic idea here is that constant negative conditioning is going to lower your expectations to the point where reality is going to pleasantly surprise you.

    The problem is that cognition just doesn’t work that way. The brain is plastic and if you keep expecting the worst, it’s going to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    I had a friend way back in high school who was a through and through stoicist, before I even knew what stoicism was. I was 16 and I used to say “Rick is such a pessimist because he wants things to turn out better then he expects”. The thing was that he was such a downer to hang out with that I eventually stopped speaking with him, and surprise surprise, he didn’t have a lot of other friends either. So tell me how well stoicism worked out for Rick.

    I’d want to argue with the father vs father example too. Philosophers love taking this examples of an out of context event. First of all, valuing time with your children isn’t a phenomenon that’s motivated exclusively by fear. I spend lots of time with my daughter and it’s because I’m excited that she’s at the beginning of what I expect to be a fulfilling life for her, not because I’m concerned about how *my* life will be without her. So the example is implicitly selfish to start with.

    Stoicism assumes a statically (interpreted) universe, so you might as well under-bid it. But it’s not, it’s what you make of it.

    1. I think you are right. Stoicism sounds very pessimistic and joyless. It shouldn’t be. Perhaps if they’d pick up more ideas from the Epicureans it would help. The Stoic Seneca wrote about the happy life and took many ideas from the Epicureans, who he thought the Stoics misunderstood.

  18. “PS: IIRC, The Stoic Epictetus was a slave, lamed by his master after an escape attempt, who owned nothing – but perhaps a single lamp – his whole life through. But yet content – more content than many Emperors of Rome, the Masters of the World, were ever able to be.”

    Marcus Aurelius is considered to be one of the greatest Stoic philosophers. Being Emperor didn’t get in the way of his philosophy. He even got to be deified after his death. His son and heir, Commodus, would have done better to take after his father.

    1. Indeed Marcus was as you say, but I said many Emperors – not all.
      For our edification and further contemplation, some quotes from Epictetus:

      …and from Marcus:

      A system of philosophical thought, which counts both Emperors and slaves amongst its adherents, may perhaps have something in it which we of the middling ranks could use.

      1. Oh I see that Epictetus flourished in the century before Marcus: perhaps the Emperor learned something by reading what the slave had written. Indeed, perhaps Marcus gained some instruction from Epictetus himself, as they were for contemporaries for the first 14 years of Marcus’ life..

  19. I apologize, I used the term “Stoicism” and “negative visualization” interchangeably. I know I know, totally not what it’s all about.

  20. CBC did an interview with this writer couple of months back and it was interesting to listen to. If you are interested, I think you can download the podcast from there.

    1. I call it my “Sicilian strategy”: always expect the worse – and if anything but that is the actual outcome, you will be happy.

    1. Yes, it is in a way. The catholics took many Stoic ideas but gave them a different foundation.
      Stoics were virtuous to have a good life. Catholics are virtuous to get to heaven. As a Catholic you are doing many of the same things but for a different reason.

  21. I have a kid who survived leukemia several years ago, so I’m acutely aware of the idea that our kids may be taken from us by Death at any moment. (I just attended a ceremony honoring those children an hour ago.) I’m quite the Stoic in that regard.

    But I also am grateful to all the people who don’t take their current condition as acceptable – they are the ones who figured out the cure for leukemia in the first place, and to them my family owes a huge debt.

  22. I had “weird” parents so I grew up reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, among others. I will break out in a large grin when I overhear talk in a coffee shop that equates Stoicism more with Zen than with undertaking.

    I think this book would be a good read for a whole lot of people. The perception that it is defensive pessimism or constantly dwelling on every bad thing that can happen is the modern definition of the word. From the quick read I had, the book is an attempt to restore the Classical definition of the word.

    It’s about assigning appropriate value to both the good and bad that happen. It’s not about being solemn, joyless, or moping. It’s about enjoying that morning cup of coffee on the back porch instead of dismissing it outright.

  23. My favorite flavor of Stoicism is the pragmatic kind. Like that Cicero imagined for Cato the Elder in “De Senectute”, not the sort of Cato the Younger or the Empire’s philosophers.

  24. “I thought he said pessimists can only be pleasantly surprised.”
    “I don’t think it works if that’s the reason you’re a pessimist.”
    (From Nukees)

  25. I agree. Epicureanism isn’t the “eat, drink, and be merry” strawman philosophy that it is often parodied by its Stoic (and later Christian) critics, as but as its foremost proponent Lucretius demonstrated in “On the Nature of Things”, the precursor to rational scientific thought.

    1. This is in response to Ernunnos, btw. An annoying feature of comments system here is that if you try to reply, and then log in as requested, the system forgets you are replying to a message and treats your response as a new message — basically replying only works if you are *already* logged in.

  26. As a kid, we used to all take ice cold showers and then jump into the swimming pool. The water felt so warm, so enveloping. In a nutshell, that is stoicism–resetting the set points for joy and agony.

  27. On a completely different note, I noticed the cover of the book and thought, “I KNOW that statue, where have I seen it before?” It took me a moment to remember and then a few more minutes to track it down. It’s Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, modeled by Randolph Rogers. It’s in the collection of the Art Institute in Chicago (biggest art museum in the city). Apparently it’s Rogers’ most famous piece.

    I fell in love with it the first time I saw it, so I was sure to take a few shots the next time I went to the museum.

    1. I too was curious as to the source of the book’s cover art. Thanks for taking the time to inform us. (And, yes, it is a wonderful sculpture.)

  28. Hate to interrupt the flow of the convo, but I gotta point out is a lot different from

  29. There is a whole lot of space between “assume everything will turn out for the best” and “visualize disaster.” I have a tendency for visualizing disaster — I named it daymares as a child, little mini-visions of bad things happening while I was wide awake. I get full visuals, and it usually lasts a fraction of a second, but can induce panic. It’s not a good way to live. I’ve mostly trained myself out of it as an adult, but I still get little flashes of panic, for example when I hear an ambulance near my house, while my kids are at the park.

    Appreciating what you have, and not taking it for granted is a wonderful thing. Always worrying about the worst thing happening sucks.

  30. “Negative visualization” is only one of a number of mental exercises practiced by stoics. William B. Irvine’s book is very good, but he puts more emphasis on the exercise of “negative visualization” than many other stoics, and the review concentrates on that element even more.

    Some of the comments seem to assume that stoicism is negative visualization, but it’s just one exercise, and not all stoics find it very useful.

    Jan Garret’s quick 6-point summary of stoicism is pretty good if you’re in a hurry.

    The most important element is that we should only attach importance to the things that are in our power: our attitudes and our decisions. There’s no point in being angry or upset about things you have no power over.

    The death of a child is a bit of an extreme example, and so I think it’s a bit misleading. A perfect stoic, or sage, would not experience unhappiness even at this; but stoics accept that there’s no such person in reality.

    A better example might be: if you’re driving towards a busy car park, you might want to think in advance “it’s going to be tricky getting a space, and even when I’ve found one someone might beat me to it”. Then if someone does grab the space from under your nose, you won’t be angry or upset. That’s something that a real human being can achieve.

    While Stoicism and Epicureanism were rival schools at the time, they actually had a lot in common, and from a modern perspective can seem fairly similar. They both emphasize that we should live in the moment and enjoy the present. They both think we should strive to diminish violent/negative emotions (“pathos”). They both think we should avoid being trapped by a desire for luxuries and material wealth.

  31. One of the best things that happened to me recently was when I, along with all the employees at my company, was on mandatory unpaid leave for 6 weeks last year. I had a few months to prepare, so I saved up enough money to cover the necessary major expenses (rent, food). Rather than feeling deprived because I had to economize and stop spending money on optional things, I felt the most relaxed and happy I had in a long time. I got to be a stay-home mom for 6 weeks, and spent the time doing all the things I couldn’t do with my daughter while I was working. We went to parks, the town swimming pool, the library, and to drop-in activity centers. I was almost disappointed to have to go back to work when it was over.

    That said, it can also backfire. For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with thoughts of death and loss of loved ones. That makes it hard to leave/let go of people, especially my family, who live far away from me. Every time I visit them, I am reminded that I might never see them again.

    When my daughter was born, I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to take good enough care of her and I would lose her, either through death, or by having her taken away from me. I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy as a parent.

    I also have a tendency to get overwhelmed with guilt for feeling bad when I know things could be much worse. When visits with my family don’t go well, when I’m not as patient or involved with my daughter as I feel I should be, when I have everything I really need but want more, I feel selfish and guilty.

    I guess I haven’t found the balance between being aware of the negative and appreciating what I have.

  32. I’ve embraced my tendency to visualize negative outcomes as a survival mechanism, I never knew it was a philosophy. These thoughts bubble up unbidden especially when witnessing a close call-whether it is my own children or a stranger wandering vaguely near danger. If you can see where a dangerous or painful situation could go, you can make plans or connections that may come in handy at some point. Knowledge of fragility and impermanence also come up in happy times; I give myself a reminder to savor the present good and store up some gratitude to get through bad times.

  33. THIS VIDEO from philosopher Alain de Botton gives a pretty good brief overview of the Stoic attitude towards life, as expressed through the life and writings of the great Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca.

  34. I’m like the many other commenters here who instinctively engages in negative visualization and obsesses over mortality. As many others have said, this is a very bad thing and it is also not stoicism. For those suffer from naive optimism, this may be a useful exercise to help change their frame of mind. For those of us who are constantly anxious about imagined dangers, the exercise should instead be to take whatever scenario you dreamed up that is frightening you and try to focus on what that would *really* be like. Real pain and suffering are rarely as bad as we are capable of imagining that they will be.

    That being said I am certainly not a stoic and I’m not sure I see the value in being one. I don’t doubt the efficacy of stoicism (though if I wanted to be happy I’d be going the mindfulness and meditation route as taught by Buddhists because I think they have a more fleshed out explanation of what I need to do to get there as opposed to just a description of the end state) and many of the roads to happiness developed in ancient times still work pretty well today. But the stoics were convinced that finding that kind of contentment was actually the purpose of life, or at the very least the best way to live.

    I’ve lived with a lot of different emotions, and at different times I’ve tried to feel one way or another. At some point, though, I’ve had to ask myself what the purpose of trying to feel any particular way is. I think most people take it for granted that it is better to be happy than sad, or that it is better to be content than worried. I struggle with this idea because I’m not sure how I could make that judgement.

    Ultimately any philosophy that strives for contentment can only be effective if you want to be content. Of course if you’ve never really been content then trying this sort of thing out to at least get an idea of what that’s like will help you make an informed decision about whether contentment is for you.

  35. After taking an intro to philosophy course a few years back, I realized that stoicism is the proper ism for me. I didn’t know about the negative visualization bit though.

    I remember being in 8th grade and getting so pissed at my parents or so “overwhelmingly depressed” at school(read: dramatic and temperamental 13-year-old) that I would write suicide letters. I never seriously considered suicide but I wanted to articulate why I felt so horrible. I would then sob, toss the letter in the garbage and feel better afterword because I would realize how much I loved my family and wanted to be with them.

    Crazy to think that as a tweenager I was already ahead of the curve.

  36. If it be now,’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

    Hamlet, V.ii

    Horatio shouldn’t need to be told this, since Hamlet knows that he’s a Stoic:

    thou hast been
    As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
    A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
    Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
    Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
    That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
    To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
    That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
    In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
    As I do thee.


  37. whenever im down i always think about how many people would trade places with me in an instant. i imagine there are a couple billion of them – im healthy, half good looking, in shape, and i have family and friends who love me very much. and a job. and a dirt bike. how can i say FML when so many have none of those things??

  38. Wow. I didn’t know there was a term to how I think. I wasn’t always like this though. Over the past several years I have had so many disappointments it has made me really appreciate the good things in my like and to not take things for granted. Things can always be worse.

  39. Hi,

    If you’re interested in Stoicism as a way of life you might want to take a look at my new book,

    The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy
    Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

    You can read lots of articles, excerpts, reviews, and also view a video clip of an interview with me about Stoicism and CBT on our Philosophy of CBT website/blog,

    There are links to a Google Books preview of the book which you can also browse free of charge online.

    Let me know what you think. Hope it’s useful.


    Donald Robertson

  40. The post talks about how the Stoics ran schools to teach the “philosophy of life”. This actually exists, in London: I wish I’d gone here instead of university.

    Alain de Botton, who may have played a role in establishing London’s School of Life, has written about the application of this and other philosophies to everyday life in “The Consolations of Philosophy”. A short, digestible paperback that’s good to take to dinner (and likely one of the few philosophy books with pictures!). I highly recommend it.

  41. The psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote a piece for Scientific American (reproduced here) reporting on studies that recommend an alternative technique: visualising how positive events might never have happened.

    Researchers asked participants to write about their relationships, either how they met their partner or speculating on how they might never have met. “The biggest increase in satisfaction with the relationship occurred not in the group that pondered the sunny beginnings of their union but in the “mental subtraction” (or “How I might never have met Peter”) group.”

  42. An alternate perspective on “negative visualization”:

    “Exposure treatments are usually known as either flooding or graduated exposure:

    * Flooding exposes the person to the anxiety-producing stimulus for as long as 1 – 2 hours.
    * Graduated exposure gives the patient a greater degree of control over the length and frequency of exposures.

    In both cases, the patient experiences the anxiety over and over until the stimulating event eventually loses its effect. Combining exposure with standard cognitive therapy may be particularly beneficial. This approach has helped certain patients in most anxiety disorder categories, including post-traumatic stress disorder.”

  43. Guess I am already a stoic then. But today we call that severe anxiety and it’s not fun when you can’t leave your house because your too busy imagining everything bad that could possibly happen to you or when you have to drop out of school because every time there is an assignment you flip or when you don’t even bother asking people out because every scenario has been played out in your head.

    But yeah, they are right, when bad shit happens – totally cool.

  44. I read this book a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. I have been interested in Stoicism since “Meditations” (Marcus Aurelius) helped me get through being deployed.

  45. “In the very act of kissing a child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow.”
    “Why would anyone want to do that?”

    I’ll tell you why. I lost my two precious children 2 years ago. Every day I live without them makes me wish I had thought of them this way.

    “By thinking of our kids as precious gifts that could be taken from us at any moment we will come to treasure the time we spend with them.”

  46. There are a lot of things I like about Stoicism, but I the Teleological element is always a sticking point for me. Key to innerserenity of an Epictetus or a Marcus Aurelius is a belief that Zeus is good and things happen for a reason. I’ve read too much Russian literature to accept that. Still, I’d much rather hang out with Seneca than Job.

    1. I don’t really think that sort of teleology is essential to Stoicism. After all, Seneca’s Stoicism was based, in part, on the idea that Fortuna was arbitrary and cruel. His Stoicism seemed to be based not on the idea that it will all work out for the best in the end, but instead on the idea that life sucks, but there’s nothing you can do about it so you might as well just get used to it.

      And even if you choose to embrace Stoic teleology, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to accept the notion that it will all work out for the best in the end. All you really have to accept is that things happen the way they do because that’s just how nature works.

  47. Uh yeah…things aren’t so very bad if you think of something worse. So let’s overlay every experience with its darker shadow in order to heighten empathy?

    Why stop there… I suggest daily ice baths & whipping yourself with willow bows as fortification against life’s miseries… or cut off your foot and rejoice in the distance traveled.
    Just what we need… another odd, self-manipulating practice (read: mind f#*king cult) to fill people’s heads with necrophilic passion while kissing their wives & lovers.

    Get off!

  48. It’s an interesting book, but his history is amateurish (Seriously. You can’t take Tacitus at face value), and everything he has to say about religion is… questionable at best. He falls back on the oversimplifications and facile assumptions of academics dealing with a field they have no actual experience in (like that xkcd comic about the physicist and the…biologist, I think it was).

  49. I’m not saying bad history is excusable, but I don’t think his history of Stoicism is vital to what he’s proposing. He seems to feel he needs an apologia for a historical misinterpretation of Stoicism, but I don’t think that he does in fact need one, since he is using the Stoics more as base for a modern philosophy than espousing strict application of their beliefs.

    #77, I don’t know what kind of mind and body you suppose we are stuck with, but if you have any values at all it requires some form of self-manipulation in order to adhere to them.

    I think one of the problems with modern mankind is its aversion to and fear of all suffering. Affliction can teach us things and make us into better people if only we use it as a tool for those ends. Unfortunately, most of us are not so privileged as to need to practice affliction, there being enough for us in daily life.

  50. I was searching our local library catalogue for this book because I had heard the interview with the author and have been groping for some way to cope with my overwhelming constant anxiety. Already take prozac which helps the depression but thought maybe it’s time to learn about and practice a philosophy. From everything you all have said it looks like I want to go more a buddhist route. thanks for all the insights. this is cool, and while reading I felt absorbed and less anxious. perhaps this is the clue – be absorbed in something outside yourself and your brain/stomach will relax. I wonder if any of you have read about the “second brain” – all the dopamine receptors in our gut – and know anything about how its activities might affect our consciousness.

  51. I’ve been stoic my entire life. I’m utterly depressed. Don’t listen to this shit. When bad things happen it still hurts like hell no matter how “prepared” you are.

  52. When my mother became fatally ill, my (then) fiance, who fancies himself a stoic, told me I was having “an ego-based reaction to a natural part of life.” He also said I wasn’t doing a good job making the difficult decisions I had to make ASAP (hospice to let her go or hospital for treatment to help her stay? resuscitate or let die?. I said the staff at my mom’s nursing home said I was doing an excellent job in a difficult situation. His reply? “It figures they would say that. I would disagree.” I’m fine with his being a stoic. I’m not fine with his being unkind to me during one of the most difficult times of my life. Was he being a stoic in that moment or was he lacking in compassion?

  53. Was he being a stoic in that moment or was he lacking in compassion?

    Regardless of whether or not he was being a stoic in that moment, he was definitely being a jerk. Being a stoic and being a jerk are not the same thing; but they’re not mutually exclusive, either. Stoics can be jerks in the same way that hedonists, existentialists, pragmatists, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, communists, progressives, liberals, libertarians, and conservatives can all be jerks – or not – depending on their individual personalities. No belief system per se can make someone act like a jerk or prevent them from acting like a jerk. The belief system is simply used as a convenient justification for patterns of behavior that one is inclined to engage in by dint of one’s own character and personality. It’s simply a way of shirking individual responsibility for one’s own actions: Don’t blame me for my behavior, blame my religion/ideology/philosophy of life, which compels me to behave this way. It’s a copout, pure and simple. Jerks are jerks because they are jerks, not because of the belief system they subscribe to.

    In my view, as a stoic, if someone can’t be a stoic without being a jerk, they shouldn’t even try to be a stoic at all. Stoicism, like any other religion, ideology, or philosophy of life, must be tempered with compassion or it becomes counterproductive and potentially destructive. Compassion must come first; stoicism second. It wasn’t his stoicism that was making him behave like a jerk toward you, it was his lack of compassion – which is a personality problem.

    But I have to question whether he really was being a stoic at that moment. He was certainly not being a perfect stoic (of course, none of us is ever a perfect stoic, or a perfect anything else, for that matter). A perfect stoic would accept your natural reaction to this personal tragedy with the same equanimity that he accepted the tragedy itself. The fact that he was able to accept the tragedy but not your reaction to it demonstrates that he was not really thinking like a stoic in that moment. It seems to me that he was having trouble dealing with your emotions. The point of stoicism is not to berate people for having emotions; it’s to help people deal with their emotions in a positive way.

    Stoicism teaches, first and foremost, that we must draw a line of distinction between those things that are under our control and those things that are not under our control: We must take personal responsibility for those things that are under our control; but we must learn to accept those things that are not under our control so that we don’t become angry or frustrated when things don’t turn out as we had hoped, and aren’t paralyzed by fear and anxiety over the prospect that things will turn out badly. The stoic ideal is one of clear-headed calmness in the face of danger and difficulty; not one of utter emotional detachment from the people you supposedly love. Your ex-fiancé sounds more like a sociopath than a stoic.

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