How to be happy? Be tricky.

October 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

Three mental exercises of Stoic philosophy you can use to enjoy life.

How am I supposed to live?

No one ever teaches you that in school, right?

It’s too confrontational, too wide of a subject maybe — too hard. Our teachers probably didn’t have a clue either.

While actually, thought schools like Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism in the 3rd century BC were founded to ask and research just that:

what’s a good way to live your life?

Their aim: reach a state of eudaimonia — or ‘human flourishing’, ‘happiness’, ‘joy’.

So basically these guys were trying to find the recipe to be happy — some even wrote what you could call a blueprint on how to live a good life.

One of the findings of the Stoics was that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia.

Ataraxia means ‘freedom from anxiety’, a state of equilibrium: the art of not getting too carried away when things go well, and not plunging into despair when things go bad. Not too up, not too down.

So in short, the first prerequisite is that you need to have control over your emotions; your emotions shouldn’t control you.

Their second finding was that one of the human weaknesses, that keeps us from enjoying life, is our ability to pay attention to the present.

Similar to Zen Buddhism, the Stoics emphasized the importance of ‘living in the now’.

The key here is to cultivate prosoche: the art of attention. Or mindfulness as we talk about it now.

As Seneca wrote:

“Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, can never be bored with life.”

Thus, these are the two findings of the Stoics for enjoying your life:

  • Learn to control your emotions
  • Prosoche: develop the art of attention

As always: Simple recipe. Not easy to execute.

That’s why the Stoics made a game out of it: they developed Mental Exercises or tricks to help you enjoy life more.

Here are three Mental Tricks that you can use in everyday life on your path towards eudaimonia:

1. Imagine you’re going to die

Imagine that today is the last day of your life.
Are you ready to face death?
Imagine, even, that this very instant — right now! — is the last moment of your existence.
What are you feeling?
Do you have regrets about not having done something?
Are there things you wish you had done differently?
Are you really alive right now? Or are you consumed with anxiety, panic, regret?

This type of mental exercise opens your eyes to what really matters to you and reminds you of how little time you actually have in this life, how much time is constantly slipping away.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his personal notebooks:

Think of yourself as dead.
You have lived your life.
Now take what’s left
and live it

I wrote a longer piece about people who actually did this here.

2. Practice Amor Fati: Love what happens to you, even if it sucks

You should be able to accept everything that happens to you as it happens to you — without always giving in to the useless desire to change the situation.

So instead of battling whatever happens to you, make it a habit of saying Yes to it. To move on, stronger.

Turn obstacles upside down so that setbacks are always expected, but never permanent. In this way what hinders you, empowers you.

Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish,
but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen,
and your life will be serene.
– Epictetus

3. Use the side-stepping technique: drop what’s bothering you and just look the other way

When Renaissance nobleman Michel de Montaigne felt afraid about dying in his later years, he knew he could not help Nature — but he also had a hard time facing reality.

That’s why he decided to just look the other way — literally. He calmed himself by looking back with pleasure over his childhood:

If I cannot combat it,
I escape it;
and in fleeing I dodge,
I am tricky.

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