Philosophy gets a bad rap. That or people don't really get it. I think it's a bit of both. Either way, this is unfortunate because the fact is: Philosophy can change your life.
What do we learn in school?
For the most part, we learn how to pass tests and how to be good at and finish school. Without going down the rabbit hole that is the education system, I think we can both agree that school is meant to give you credentials and (supposedly) skills that you can use to apply for more education or to get a job.
And no where in this system, which consumes the first half, third, or quarter of our lives, is the subject of happiness and how to get it. Happiness just isn't part of the curriculum. Even philosophy, which is the subject best posed to tackle the happiness, is usually taught in a way that is based on memorization of dates, names, and concepts and with little coverage, if any, of real-world application.
In a perfect world (or in a slightly better one), schools would offer classes like: "Being Happy 101" or "Advanced Happiness For Happy People That Want More" or "Finding Work That Makes You Happy." And so on.
Think about it, what does understanding history, math, vocab, statistics, random facts, science (the kind taught in schools), geography, or biology have to do with teaching us to be happy--which for many of us, is our primary goal in life?
Sure, each of these subjects could maybe help you find happiness if you had even the slightest clue how to go about it. Subjects like psychology and sociology can help us better understand people and ourselves, which in turn might increase our happiness levels due to a reduction of misery dealing with each. History teaches us lessons about people and society that, again, might provide an upward tick on our happy meter due to a better understanding of this game we call "life." But no matter how you skin it, the way you and I were taught growing up in the standardized school system has NOTHING TO DO WITH FINDING HAPPINESS.
I'm not blaming the education system...
I think it's more of a societal fault than the school's. As a whole, Americans don't talk about philosophy. We don't really talk about much other than complaining about something or who the final contestants on American Idol are. And while that's depressing to consider, I think the prevalence of religion has had a lot to do with the lack of philosophy in our culture. If you look to Asian cultures, even within the form of organized religion, you find many practical philosophical teachings from the likes of Buddha and Confucius (two of the greatest philosophers to have ever lived). Certain Asian philosophy seems far more practical than the type of religion we find in this country. And again, I'm not bashing religion, I'm just going on what I've seen (and experienced myself growing up Episcopalian).
Most people don't know this, and it's not highlighted enough in Christian teachings in my opinion, but Jesus was quite the philosopher. If you look to some of the many surviving quotes and teachings of the man (and not just the Bible), you'll find a plethora of practical philosophy that tends to mirror much ancient Greek philosophy. In fact, the foundation of Christianity was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.
Jesus Quotes: "Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day.
"So I say to you, Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you."
“What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I'd assume that there's plenty of practical philosophy in most organized religion if you dig enough, but from what I've seen, too much Western religion is based on judgement and 'don't do this or you are bad' type of teachings. Personally, I don't think this helps people much. What happens is the devoted types will live a restricted life built on rules, regulations and shame that keep them repressing their natural human urges. The rest will try it out for awhile but eventually quit as they start making their humanly mistakes and the shame becomes too much to bear. I'm not here to talk about religion... in fact, for obvious reasons, I rarely talk about it. If you are religious, maybe this will inspire you seek out some of the philosophical underpinnings of your chosen faith. Or maybe you can learn some practical Greek philosophy--like Stoicism we are going to cover below--to add to the practical side of your life. Or both?
I do think it's possible to converge religion and philosophy into a cohesive operating system for life, but as it stands nowadays, I see too little time spent teaching people practical ways of finding happiness as a fallible, human being that suffers from all the things that humans do like jealousy, fear, anger, perception, judgement, status, etc.
This is why we must pursue philosophy!
Philosophy aims to tackle the many problems associated with being human and everything that comes as a result of living in a society with other people. What people need is real-world, practical, implementable, actionable, and step-by-stepable (that's probably not a word) ways to lead better, happier lives other than the standard get a job, make $75,000 a year, raise a family and fully fund your 401k.
Enter Philosophy... Specifically, Stoicism
This will probably end up as a series on Stoicism and philosophy because far too much to cover in one sitting. My goal with this is to get you started on philosophy. Through philosophy, you'll most likely find yourself becoming interested in various topics that might lead you down different paths of study. My advice for you is to embrace this! Real education, in my not-so-humble opinion, is the pursuit of knowledge that excites and intrigues you and that you seek on your own without a boss, teacher or professor making you. This is what I hope to elicit in you. I encourage you to embrace this as a "finding yourself" type of self-awareness journey. Your goal is to learn things about people, life, psychology, and philosophy as a means to be a happier, more effective, and healthier person.
You don't know where this could take you (that's part of the fun), but if you trust in the journey, you'll have a great time. Follow what interests you. Start with a book or two and keep pulling at the threads.
Before we begin, you should know that with every recommendation comes the expectation that you will do further study—no single lecture, book, article, or person can teach you everything. It’s like starting a new fitness program—it'll take time and consistent effort. Philosophy is a broad topic that will open your mind to an entirely new world, but it requires constant study. Let it lead you to other topics, like psychology, meditation, and mindfulness. Let it lead you to becoming a more aware, and educated, person.
Start developing a passion for the pursuit of knowledge. Aim to learn a little bit every day. Never become complacent or think you know it all. To stay on top of your mental development, you should read daily, ask questions, and learn from life, experiences and people every chance you get.
Where To Start?
The most influential philosophy in my life—and one that I use every day—is Stoicism. You can start here or wherever you like, but make sure learn eventually learn the basics of Stoicism as it’s one of the most practical philosophies out there. What's neat about philosophy is it tends to beget more philosophy and the seeking of knowledge. Through this pursuit of knowledge, you’ll stumble on other writers and thinkers that spark your interest.
The Philosophy That Changed my Life: Stoicism
Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in early 3rd century BC. The Stoics believed that one should live their philosophy and showcase it through their actions. A Stoic lives his philosophy through his actions (and not just through talk or lecture like many philosophers of the day). The foundation of Stoicism is based on individual responsibility. You figure this out by asking yourself, "What can you control and what is out of your control?" The Stoics believed that emotions based on anything one cannot control—anything “external”—would results in errors in judgement.
To the Stoics, thinking logically is the only way to approach life.
If you can control something, then you know what you need to do… so you do it. If you can’t control something, then you don’t waste time being “upset” about it… you accept it as is. Stoicism is pragmatic and logical. For this reason, it has far-sweeping implications for people living in today's modern world.
Stoics utilized logic to formulate their thoughts and actions.
The basis of Stoic logic is the understanding that all things are meant to be, and the only things one can control is his own thoughts and actions. Because of this simple—yet powerfully effective—mindset, I have found it to be life changing. It just works.
Examples: Someone wronged you. What’s done is done. Accept it and don't associate with this person again if the situation deems it unwise to.
You lost money. It’s gone forever and being upset about it won't bring it back. Learn how to prevent loss the next time and use it as motivation for working harder.
Someone speaks badly of you. You cannot change other people's mind about you but you can change if you are upset about their opinion. As Epictetus said, “If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, "He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.”
Life is “unfair.” There is no "fair" or "unfair" in life; there is only opinion. Change your opinion, and miraculously, life changes with it. Instead of being upset and feeling "unlucky" that you lost (insert thing), be fortunate that you are alive and have your health (or your spouse, kids, family, etc.)
Modern society has many of the same problems that the ancient Greeks did. Humans still deal with many of the same things, just in different flavors. There is still killing, rape, famine, stress, financial problems, political issues, drought, slavery, injustice, etc. Of course, most Western societies have become relatively “safe" since the times of Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, but the thing about humans is, regardless of the time period, we have a knack for creating all kinds of “problems” for ourselves.
There will always be pain, death, suffering, and much agony in the human experience, but there will also always be the stress we create for ourselves like gossip, drama, fear, and so on. And because of this, we will always and forever need a philosophy rooted in logic.
When you understand the laws of nature and mankind, and you accept them, you develop a kind of wisdom about it all. You don’t try to fight or stress over every little thing that doesn’t go your way. You calm the %*$& down. Life is easier and wayyyy more enjoyable. And that is the fundamental benefit to Stoicism (and philosophy).
The goal of Philosophy is to live better
By learning the hard way, through life's way, I've come to understand the difference wisdom and knowledge, happiness and indulgence. I was lucky to find Stoicism because it gave me a means to better explain the ideas I had learned by surviving through some of life’s trials. It allowed me to further my understanding of life and myself.
Stoicism isn't a fancy—I’m Stoic and you aren’t—type of philosophy that sounds good on paper. It has practical purposes that are applicable to your everyday life. You can literally live a better life by adopting a Stoic mindset.
The Stoics used psychological techniques to keep one’s mind and ego in check and to avoid slipping into the traps of externals (which now more than ever, our society is addicted to). A couple of these techniques that I use often are called “negative visualization” and “voluntary discomfort.” We will cover those a bit later.
The Stoics believed that all men are equal and that we are all citizens of the world. Thus, a Stoic should readily help his neighbor (this further drew me to the philosophy). They believed in being objective to anything that happens in life. The Stoic view of an unfortunate event is that it was meant to happen as nature intended, and if something was meant to be, why choose a negative emotion in response when you can just as easily choose a positive one—or a neutral one? Logically ironclad.
The Stoics asserted that emotion and feeling is always a choice. You choose how you respond to the world. If there is one thing you take away from this book—and that can change your entire life—it is this concept:
You decide how you respond to the world. IT IS YOUR CHOICE AND YOURS ALONE! Always ask yourself: What can I control? Then, when you find the answer, focus your thoughts and actions based on it.
You can’t change the past but you can change your thoughts about it (which is kind of like actually changing it). You can’t change other people but you can accept them for who they are. You can’t predict the future but you can change how you think about it, prepare for it, and live in the present to better unravel the future you want--and regardless of what happens in the future, you will accept it because that is what nature intended.
The Problem With Logic
A logical mindset is in stark contrast to the the emotional mindset we live with as humans. It takes a ton of practice to be able default to logic instead of emotion. This brings me to the most common misconception of Stoicism. You might wonder, “If I’m always logical, won’t I become a heartless, non-feeling shell of a person?”
No you won’t.
Being “Stoic” isn’t about not feeling. It’s about curbing the highs and lows enough so you can focus on what you can control instead fo being swept away by blind grief or joy. This helps you accept personal responsibility and avoid falling into the trap of chasing externals for fulfillment. Maybe you give up a bit of joy, but would that not be worth it to reduce, or nearly eliminate, your suffering? If you asked me that, it would be an easy "yes," and I'm a pretty positive person by nature.
When you operate from the mindset of choice no matter what life throws your way, you have the powerful to be eternally happy and content instead of being held hostage to the whims of other people, things or occurrences. Do you see how logic can be powerful? It can grant you total control of your existence. Nothing can phase you unless you allow it.
When life doesn't go your way, you make the choice to focus on the positive or to wallow in a corner feeling sorry for yourself. I don't know about you, but I will always choose the former.
A key tenant of Stoicism is to recognize when something else has control over your thoughts and emotions so you can take back control. When you put happiness in externals, you become a slave to them. Your happiness is no longer in your control, it is decided by something or someone else.
By taking back control you are able to better accept that whatever happens, happens. This helps eliminate fear of loss (which is how so many people live every day of their lives). What’s ironic about this way of thinking is you end up appreciating the things you have even more so because you don’t “expect” them to always be there. By understanding that what you have can be taken away, you appreciate it more. In fact, the Stoics have a technique for promoting appreciation called Negative Visualization.
I think about death often; my death, my family’s death, friends. This isn't because I’m morbid or morose, it's because I'm the opposite. I think about death often to “trick” my mind into seeing life for what it really is: fickle, transient, soon-to-end, not determined, not guaranteed, etc. This helps me better appreciate what I have.
In negative visualization, as the Stoics recommend, you visualize your death, or the death of a loved one, or losing something else you value greatly like your house or bank account. You picture losing said object so you can contemplate how you will feel should it happen. You try to visualize the loss clearly so you can feel the emotion.
This practice does two things. First, it makes you appreciate what you have even more. It refocuses your attention on the object that you had probably been taking for granted. Try this the next time you hang out with a specific family member. You’ll invariably be more in the now and feel more appreciation and connection to the person.
The second benefit of negative visualization is it helps you realize how fickle life is and how often you take it for granted. Most of us “expect” life to always go our way. We assume we will live to old age and have a family and accomplish all of our goals. By reminding ourselves of what life is really like, we become more grounded in our thoughts. We learn to be in the present and appreciate what we have instead of being distracted and upset by the many things that vie for our attention.
This technique is so powerful that I think it’s a disservice to those you care about to not use it for them. (I hope it’s your loved ones you think about and not just “stuff” like your car or house. If stuff is the first, or only, thing that comes to mind then that might be a sign to take a hard look at your priorities in life.)
Negative visualization can also help you in everyday situations when something doesn’t go your way, like a car accident or dropping a plate on the floor. Anytime an unfortunate situation happens to you, think: It could always be worse. Most of the things in your life that you give importance to are laughable after visualizing the loss of your spouse or child.
Negative visualization helps you better appreciate what matters to you while also reminding you of the things that don’t matter at all.
Consider: How inconsequential would the things in your life become if you had to deal with the death of a loved one? Or, if you were diagnosed with cancer and had a year to live? These questions are necessary, and to ignore them because they are “inconvenient” would be a grave mistake.
Consider: You get in a car accident and your car is totaled but you walk away. Would you be grateful that you are alive? Would you be thankful that you survived with your life or maybe that your child in the backseat was unscathed? Sounds obvious, right? Well, how often do people come out of car accidents yelling, screaming, and throwing a fit? Pretty often from what I have seen. Get some freaking perspective!
It’s time to get some perspective. The next time you want to cry over spilt milk, wake up and realize it could be much, much (much) worse.
Negative Visualization Technique:
Imagine losing something important to you. Visualize how this hypothetical loss happens. Be vivid and specific in your mind. Let emotion enter your being as if it did happen. Take this as far as you like, this is personal preference.
After the practice, rejoice in the fact that you haven't lost said object. Go hug them and tell them you love them or write them a letter.
The next time you spend time with them, appreciate them more. Give them your full attention, tell them you love them, forgive them, let go of resentment, etc.
Revisit this practice when you find yourself drifting in your priorities. It will realign you. I know this is a lot to take in, especially if philosophy is new to you. Give it time and consider buying a book or two one something that interests you from this article. Like I said above, let your curiosity lead you down the path to knowledge.
You don't have to only study Stoicism or only philosophy. Go where your interests are. Just pursue knowledge and try to find the solutions to the problems and questions that you have in your life. Maybe you have relationship issues you would like to better understand. Buy a book and learn about it. Maybe you need more confidence. Buy a book and learn techniques for becoming more confident. And so on.