A Guide to the Good Life
The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
Premise: A Good Life Is Desirable and Achievable
The Stoic philosophy of life gets a bad rap for being anti-emotion, anti-pleasure, and basically anti-everything. But that’s not what the Stoics really believed, nor is it how they lived. Far from being anti-everything, the Greek and Roman Stoics believed in a philosophy of life designed to reach a state of tranquility that allowed for an abundance of joy with a minimization, even elimination, of negativity.
In terms of philosophies, this may rank with Buddhism and Christianity in how it seeks to attain a peacefulness in life. Stoic philosophy had been popular thousands of years ago, but fell out of favor with the advances of opportunity and reductions in cost for hedonism, indulgence, and the like. Irvine reviews Stoic philosophies, explains how to apply them to a range of modern situations, and describes his own development as a Stoic.
This volume will help virtually anyone wishing to understand how, paradoxically, reducing desire improves joy; how visualizing losses before they occur minimizes their impact on life; and how to be emotionally resilient in the face of troubles.
You don’t have to be a Stoic to realize value from reading this book, but if you do wish to see at least one practical perspective on how to simplify and yet gain, A Guide to the Good Life should be on your short list.
And the interesting thing is, this application of Stoic principles can apply not only to a person’s individual life, but to a business as well. More on that at the end, after the usual structure.
What It Says – Five Essential Stoic Practices
Stoic philosophy was born in Greece, matured in Rome, and died with the expansion of the Roman civilization into an Empire. The essence of the philosophy is a set of mental techniques for minimizing negative emotions, with the purpose of a “tranquil life”. Irvine comes back to this point many times, expressing that the Stoics viewed negative emotions as detractors to tranquility. If you’re an absolute equalist, then, you might think that positive emotions, the “highs” of life, as it were, should also be considered distractions from tranquility.
That is also true for a Buddhist philosophy of life, but for the Stoics, joy is allowed and welcomed. Just not sought, for the seeking of joy inevitably leads to disappointment, a negative emotion which disrupts tranquility. Better, then, to pursue an absence of desire, and when positive experiences happen to relish them, in a one-way emotional flow.
The Stoics achieve this positive emotion-only state through five psychological techniques. They are (in Irvine’s words) Negative Visualization, the Dichotomy of Control, Fatalism, Self-Denial, and Meditation.
Negative Visualization is the process of viewing all situations as temporary, and considering how much could be lost. Then, if the situation changes and something is lost, the feeling has already been anticipated and its effect will often be much more muted than if it was unanticipated. If the situation does not change, then there is an opportunity for celebration that the loss has not happened. This is the first step towards the one-way (positive-only) emotional state.
The Dichotomy of Control is, actually, a Trichotomy. That is, after the practice of Negative Visualization, there must come a realization that some aspects of this world are out of our control (1). Some are partially in our control (2) and some are completely in our control (3). Out-of-our control elements are not just the physical (volcanic eruptions or floods). They also cover actions taken by foreign governments where we might have no influence, they might be activities in locations which have no relation to our individuality, etc.
Partially-in-control acts are those which we have some degree of influence on the outcome, but not all. The example here is a tennis match. I can not absolutely dictate the actions of the other player, the wind, or even whether or not there is a bad referee. What I can control, though, is whether I play to the best of my ability and how I view that experience, regardless of outcome.
Finally, the in-control actions are those things over which we have complete control, such as all our daily actions or the paths we pursue or activities we choose to engage in. Stoic philosophy is an enlightening view in this arena, pointing out that things that we have no control over should not worry us, since we have no control and could not have changed their outcome anyway. For elements over which we have some or complete control, again, what is out of our control should not concern us, only what we have access to.
Similarly, the practice of Fatalism is to accept that what has happened in the past has already happened, the future is uncertain, and the choices we make in the present are all we have access to. So we can stop beating ourselves up about past mistakes, stop worrying about the future because it is uncertain, and move forward making the best decisions we can at the time.
Self-Denial, the fourth practice, is the voluntary exposure of ourselves to situations which are uncomfortable, perhaps even painful, to allow us to experience those negative feelings in a sort of vaccination against even worse negative feelings later on.
Finally, Meditation is necessary to complete the practice of Stoicism. This is the periodic, regular reflection on the experiences of the day, week, or month past, and a comparison of how the activities, actions, and emotions unfolded against the Stoic ideal. This comparison is necessary, not only to continue to measure progress, but to uncover additional areas of one’s life (or business) in which the application of Stoic philosophy could improve the experience.
The larger portion of the book is the application of these techniques to various subjects of life: duty to others, social interactions, grief, anger, fame, wealth, aging, death, etc. Each of these sections includes wisdom from the Stoics themselves as well as Irvine’s commentary on how to deal with these issues in modern life, as different (or as similar, depending on your perspective) as that life may be from when the Stoics first wrote and lived.
Finally, the last section is a firsthand account of Irvine’s own practice of Stoicism, and how he has had to modify it for modern thinking. (We don’t still believe Zeus created the world and all humans, do we?) This is an excellent case study in the practical application of a philosophy which is rare to find in the world these days. Most of the living that is done is without a defined philosophy, despite the many proclamations of assistance in “finding your purpose” within the self-help industry.
Who It’s Appropriate For – Those Who Seek Peace or Tranquility
This is, ultimately, a book for two kinds of people. The first kind is simply the intellectual who wishes to know more about the world and how it works. She will read, will be informed, and will put it back on the shelf as she pursues her own philosophy of life, intentionally or unintentionally.
The second is the seeker for tranquility.
There are, admittedly, other philosophies of life which have a stated goal of tranquility. Irvine points out some similarities to Buddhism, Epicureanism, and quite a broad portion of the Christian church’s teachings about how to live a good life. Each of those has ancient and modern adherents. For one who seeks to be self-contained, eliminating negative emotions and exulting in positive ones, but not feeling beholden to the seeking of such (or of anything at all), Stoicism is the appropriate choice. Perhaps even with some individual modification (Irvine has done so). It’s allowed as an individual pursues his or her own life according to the internal philosophy that best suits the personality.
Who It’s Not Appropriate For – Hedonists and “Winners”
Irvine makes clear that this philosophy of life (and of business) is not for those who are simply driven by pleasure, profit, or power. They will have a different philosophy, and the pursuit of tranquility will not sit well with those people. Should they attempt to adopt a philosophy which is at odds with their personality, they will not be successful at either achieving their own goals, or those of the philosophy.
Thus, Stoicism is not a good choice for those who, in their pursuit of life, will always be seeking out an additional pleasurable experience or another “new thing” just because it’s new.
Nor will it be appropriate for those who are all about competition – “I’ve got to be the best around” is not likely to come out of a Stoic’s mouth, nor is “We want to dominate the market.” Those outcomes may develop as a natural result, and Stoics who find themselves at the top will naturally appreciate their standing, but they will not seek it out.
How to Use It – Apply Practices Gradually
- Determine whether or not you could adopt a philosophy of life (or business) that seeks tranquility. If not, ignore everything else. If so, move to step 2.
- Read it.
- Decide if your pursuit of tranquility will be better served by Stoicism than by one of the other philosophies touched on. If you don’t know, research those others philosophies and make an educated decision.
- If you choose to apply Stoicism, begin the practice and prepare for a long pursuit which may result in external mockery, questioning, and disbelief.
- Begin with Negative Visualization. Practice thinking, “What might it be like if [SOMETHING] were taken today? How could I appreciate the time I’ve already had with that, and how might I appreciate the future I could have with it?”
- Immediately add Meditation. Consider how your Negative Visualization his is a different order from Irvine’s presentation, but I believe it is necessary to add reflection as soon as possible in order to actually achieve the benefits of Visualization.
- Introduce the Trichotomy of Control to your decision-making process. At times of decision, ask where this decision falls, and do your best to set your goals only for those things which you can control.
- Practice Fatalism. Choose to see the past as the past and the future as unknown.
- Add Self-Denial. Purposefully go without some convenience, or purposefully put yourself in an uncomfortable or difficult situation, in order to build resilience for those times when such situations come about unexpectedly.
- Continue Meditation. Continue to reflect on all of the practices you are applying and how they are helping to achieve the tranquility which comes from one-directional emotional experiences (no negative effects, only positive joys).
How to Adapt for Business – Improve Resiliency
There are some specific adaptations which may be made for a business setting. Obviously nobody expects a multi-person business to force a philosophy of life upon all the individuals within. That’s ridiculous.
However, applying the techniques of Negative Visualization, the Trichotomy of Control, Fatalism, Denial, and Meditation can be powerful ways to approach business decisions and changes in the external environment. If, that is, your business principles could align well with “tranquility” and “resilience in the face of negativity”.
For example, Negative Visualization of “all the things that could go wrong with our product” or “what’s the worst that the regulators could do?” could give business owners and practitioners opportunity to review their own preparation for changing circumstances and help them to create plans to react to unexpected situations.
Denial may be a good thing, in that creating situations in which employees (such as sales professionals) must adapt to less-than-ideal situations and develop creative solutions to problems cultures a greater adaptability, flexibility, and surety in their own skills, rather than relying on tools which can be taken away at any moment.
Meditation, or reflection about the practice of Stoicism (or any other business philosophy) and the results achieved by it, would be valuable to any business as it grows, changes, and adapts to new situations.
Clearly, there could be a whole book written about this. Luckily for us, there is. If you’re interested in applying that subject to your own business, pick up A Guide to the Good Life and begin your own investigation.
Stephan is the author of It’s Not About The Data, an insightful eBook about how quantitative professionals (actuaries, engineers, and data scientists, to name a few) can learn to tell better stories. Get your copy here.
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