It’s International Stoic Week and we are all being encouraged to try living stoically and embrace stoicism. This is the second year of this experiment with the ancient doctrine and those who took part in 2012 reported small but significant (10%) improvements in well-being. One of the main benefits was a decrease in feelings of fear. Could stoicism be the answer to the search we are all on for a sense of deeper meaning and purpose to life? Is is the secret to happiness?
It could well be, according to Professor Christopher Gill from Exeter University, who, along with his students, is leading the interactive study. Contrary to what the word “stoic” has come to be accepted to mean – long-suffering, enduring, unfeeling – stoicism embraces concepts as valuable today as they were in Ancient Rome. Or further back, where it began, in Ancient Greece. It was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in 3rd century BC and followers would gather under the porch Stoa Poikile, from which they took their name. It flourished but it was in Imperial Rome that it grew in influence and permeated early Christianity.
It is not too wild a comparison to draw parallels between our times and those of 1st century Imperial Rome. It was a highly competitive society, the gap between haves and have-nots was enormous and status was defined by wealth and power. Life was stressful and Romans wanted a self-help system to help them deal with their anxieties. You could say that stoicism was designed for hard times.
At the core of the creed are simple and attainable truths. Respect for Nature is a very important tenet, as is a feeling of common humanity and the brotherhood of man. Prof Gill sets an exercise for reflecting on our own place in the scheme of things which he calls “concentric circles.” Start with your own inner circle of close family and friends, and expand into the next set of acquaintances and so forth, until everyone on the planet is included. Far from being “stiff upper lip” orientated, many of the methods are similarly meditative and all-embracing. Universal brotherhood, a philosophy we all know and understand, came from stoicism.
Some of the techniques will seem familiar to anyone who has been taught or tried Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), as it too springs from the roots of Stoical practice. The psychology of 2,000 years ago works in CBT so can it work for all of us in our everyday lives?
Let’s take a look. First of all we have to debunk the notion that attempting to live like a stoic for a week is to be cold, detached and unemotional. There are principles to follow that involve acceptance of fate and indifference to fortune which can run counter to our modern preoccupation with having it all. Rather, it leads us to reflect on what we already have, and what we may stand to lose.
Famed illusionist Derren Brown is a celebrity supporter of Stoic Week. In his recent epic televised stunt Apocalypse, where he hypnotised a selfish young man who woke in a dystopian world of pandemics, zombies and catastrophe, he used stoic philosophy.
Following Seneca’s advice to imagine your child dead as you kiss them goodnight, the idea is to visualise and therefore value what you love the most. When the young man in the experiment fears he has lost everything, he drops his front of cool disdain for his family and is more than ready to demonstrate his deep affections. This technique is called “negative visualisation.”
William Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy is a big fan of negative visualisation. He says it is one of the most important techniques we can adopt to increase personal happiness. So, thinking “what’s the worst that can happen?” far from being fatalistic, is in fact, according to Brown and Irvine, realistic and reassuring.
Unlike Derren Brown, we don’t have to stage a multi-cast, big budget mock-up of the end of the world as we know it to be led to these conclusions. Brown has written,”Stoic Hellenist philosophers advised us to rehearse regularly the loss of everything we love.” It may sound morbid, but it leads to an appreciation and true valuation of what we have in life, as opposed to fixating on what we aspire to have.
Other Stoical habits to be considered are also recognised by modern research. Embrace Stress, said Epicetus, a former slave, who was also lame. That’s exactly what Kelly McGonigal said in a TED talk in September this year. She is a Health Psychologist and her mission, echoing Epicetus’, is to help us all get happier and healthier. She has now identified that labelling stress as “The Enemy” was harmful to human health. The belief that stress is bad is killing us, she claims. Changing that belief can be enormously beneficial.
That’s what Epicetus thought too. He said our problems and the difficulties we encounter are there to make us great. He used the example of Hercules. Epicetus thought stress was such a good thing that we should pray for it, to prove ourselves by pitting against it.
The great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, totally agreed. He wrote,”for a human being to feel stress is normal – if he’s living a normal life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad?”
Epicetus used nose-wiping as a key to stress management. Some things, admittedly, would be outside our control, but we all have certain abilities to meet life’s challenges. If your nose runs, well then, use your hands and wipe it.
Dress Down Friday could be straight from the Stoic’s Handbook. Famous stoic, Cato, loved to go about in bare feet and unfashionable garb, so that he could show he was aloof from the opinions of others. His biographer, Plutarch, explained he would accustom himself to not needing to feel ashamed.
“The core principles of stoicism are in some ways very simple but very profound. A lot of people in the world today are looking for something deeper.
Professor Christopher Gill
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations could be credited as the definitive tome on stoicism, even though he never intended his personal musings to be published. Beloved over the centuries by many great thinkers, one of his most notable twenty-first century followers is former president Bill Clinton.
Keeping a journal, like Marcus Aurelius, is a daily recommendation on the Stoic Week. So is a daily reflection on why many worries are needless. Or as Epicetus would put it “We are not disturbed by events but by our opinions about events.” Or as less well-known advocates of stoicism, Timon and Pumbaa, (The Lion King) would have it “Hakuna matata.”
Those who have faced considerable adversity in their lives have often turned to stoic rituals to protect their psychological health. James Stockdale, shot down over Vietnam and imprisoned for 7 years, turned to Epicetus. Stoicism retains its strong association with the military mindset and courage, but the principles apply to all. The proven benefits to treatment of depression through CBT are further kudos to the theory that if you “think right” you can “live right.”
Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, believes this can be of special appeal to the young generation. They are so bound up with their online reputations they are vulnerable to abuse. By unhitching their sense of worth from that reputation they can learn that other people’s opinions are often wrong. Just as Cato did when he walked about barefoot.
Of course the young and the thrill-seeking may not be so impressed with stoicism’s ability to lower blood pressure. Accepting what you can’t change is difficult at any age. But who wouldn’t wish for a life where there is freedom from negative emotions, “good flow” and “beauty of soul”? If you fancy joining in the great Stoic Revival you can sign up for Live like a Stoic week on the University of Exeter website. http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/stoic-week-2013/stoic-week-2013-handbook/
If the secret to happiness is in being stoic then perhaps it is time it stopped being a secret.
By Kate Henderson