“Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
This lyric from American rap artist Nas would ring just as true to the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers 2,000 years ago as it does today.
Life is very difficult.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca went as far as to say: “Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage.”
But it doesn’t have to be something you view negatively.
Stoic philosophy can adjust your mindset, increase your happiness, and give you more control over your life. You can still be content even when things don’t go the way you want them.
While we can’t always have control over the events in our lives, we can control how we approach them.
In this article, I’ll teach you a bit about what the Stoics believed. Then I’ll show you how you can apply stoicism to modern 21st-century life.
The 4 Core Virtues of Stoicism
The ancient Stoics had four core virtues that they held above all else.
Temperance – Another word for this is self-discipline. This means exercising self-restraint and moderation in all areas of your life.
Some Stoics believed that food was the best way to test your self-control and temperance. Food gets presented to us every day. It’s necessary for life, but not for pleasure.
Stoics believed in eating to live, not living to eat.
Practical wisdom – This means having the ability to navigate complicated situations in a logical, informed, and calm manner.
Rather than try to imagine an ideal society, Stoics choose to deal with the world as it actually is.
They also focused on the small things and avoided vanity.
Justice – Treating others with fairness, even when they have done wrong.
Courage – Stoics refer to this as fortitude. They didn’t just believe in courage in extraordinary circumstances. They believed in facing your daily challenges with clarity and integrity.
Stoics believed that failure is natural, but that regret is foolish. They also encouraged people to live each day as if it were their last.
4 Exercises To Get You Thinking Like A Stoic
1. Practice misfortune or negative visualization
Sometimes you can build things up in your head much worse than they would actually be in reality.
Seneca believed in taking time each month to practice poverty. He would put on his worst clothes, leave the comfort of his home, and eat very little food.
That’s a pretty extreme example.
Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss shares some stoic exercises that are a bit more tame. But they will definitely still accomplish the goal of making you uncomfortable. Getting a little uncomfortable might be exactly what you need to grow outside of your current comfort zone.
If you’re finding it difficult to even last from lunch to dinner without a snack, you could try fasting for 24 hours once a month.
If you have social anxiety, try asking for a 10% discount the next time you order a coffee at Starbucks. Or for an even tougher challenge, lay down on the floor in public for a minute or two.
I prefer to keep the exercise a purely mental one, as opposed to forcing myself to actually go through the physical suffering and cringe associated with actually acting it out. For most people, this alone is a very powerful exercise.
All it takes it imagining things in your life going wrong or getting taken away from you.
If you mentally prepare for all of the negative outcomes that could happen in your life, you’ll be better prepared for when things do go wrong. On the bright side, situations almost never go as badly as you imagine.
When faced with stress or anxiety about a situation, I like to ask myself three questions:
- What are the worst possible outcomes?
- What can I do to prevent these outcomes from happening?
- If all these outcomes were to occur, how would I recover?
2. Ask “Is This Within My Control?”
Maybe the most important stoic practice we can use is to differentiate between what we can change and what we can’t.
There’s no point getting upset about a traffic jam. No amount of anger or yelling will get the traffic moving any faster. In fact, trying to guide things outside of your control can often make the situation worse for you.
Some people waste hours each day complaining on Facebook about things they can’t control. But what does that change for themselves, or for the world?
Focus on picking battles that you can actually win, and things that you have control over.
Stoics took this to the extreme of Amor Fati, which means “love of fate.”
Changing an event is hard.
Changing your opinion about an event is much easier.
Another well-known Stoic philosopher named Epictetus once said “seek not for events to happen as you wish. But rather, wish for events to happen as they do, and your life will go smoothly.”
Stoics called this the art of acquiescence. That means accepting things as they happen, rather than trying to fight them.
Nonjudgement: Don’t judge events that happen. Just accept them for what they are.
Nonattachment: People and things can come and go. Don’t get too attached to them.
Nonresistance: Reality is what it is. Don’t wish for it to be any other way.
Stoics had a metaphor for this involving a dog that was leashed to a moving cart.
Either the dog can happily run alongside the cart and keep up with it. Or it can struggle against the leash, but it will find itself dragged behind the cart despite its best efforts.
3. Memento Mori
In Latin, this literally means “remember that you have to die.”
Why would you want to stop and think about death?
You might think that pondering your own mortality sounds depressing. But a Stoic would believe that someone with those sentiments is severely missing the point. To a Stoic, the concept of “memento mori” is something that would motivate them, not make them feel sad or hopeless.
It’s a tool to re-adjust your perspective. To give meaning and priority to your life again.
When you take time to remember that you’re going to die one day, you gain perspective on the bigger picture of your life.
Suddenly every moment becomes important.
You don’t have infinite time to waste on petty arguments or watching Netflix.
You have a lot of stuff to get done, and not that much time left to do it. Live your life to the fullest and don’t waste a second.
4. Zoom Out to Gain Perspective
Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius called this taking a view from above.
Imagine yourself in the third person. Now, start zooming out. Keep yourself at the center, but keep visualizing yourself rising to a higher and higher perspective.
Visualize the roof of your house. Then your street. Then your city, your country, the world, and so on. Stretch as far as you can visualize the entire universe.
Before long we’re just a tiny speck. Or not visible at all.
This gives us perspective on how insignificant our day-to-day problems really are.
When we look at the scale and timeframe of the entire universe, our problems suddenly become very trivial or non-existent.
How much does asking a girl out and getting rejected really matter in the grand scheme of things? In a couple of hundred years at most, it’s unlikely that anyone will even remember that you existed.
It’s easier to overcome apprehension and any emotional hurdles we might face when we see things from this extreme perspective.
We can sum up the basics of stoicism like this:
Life is hard. Sometimes bad stuff happens to us.
This causes negative emotions like anxiety and anger. Negative emotions make our life worse.
We can’t stop bad things from happening to us, but we can control how we react to them. And we can admit that life is finite and too valuable to let bad stuff ruin it.
Controlling our reactions to bad stuff happening in our lives lets us more efficiently use the little time we have alive. We don’t have to squander it on petty stuff or feeling bad for ourselves.
This sense of urgency has a number of positive effects. It increases our work ethic, self-awareness, generosity, and more.
Ultimately it lets us be happy on the inside regardless of our external circumstances or how bad life gets.
Really? Is this dude asking me to think about my own death and embarrass myself by laying on the floor in Starbucks once a month?
On the surface, it’s easy to think that stoicism is all about not feeling emotions and embracing suffering. But, it can actually be the opposite.
Stoicism puts an emphasis on the power we have to control our own minds. It shows us that we have free will. Despite all the seemingly unfair and unjust things we see and face in the world, it gives us a way to rise above.
Life is hard, but that doesn’t have to get us down. By just adjusting our mindset and the perspective from which we view the world, we can become happier.
In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but by your estimate of it. And this you have the power to revoke at any moment .”
If you’re interested in learning about stoicism more in-depth, I’d recommend a few books:
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – My favorite on the topic. It’s the personal journal and ponderings of the world’s most powerful man at the time, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He wrote many of the musings in this work from his tent after a long day on the battlefield.
- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca – Another stoicism OG. Seneca took his own life at the request of emperor Nero, even though he likely wasn’t guilty of the crime that he was accused of. That’s stoicism for you.
- The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday – This one is by a contemporary author and is a bit easier to read. It’s also broken down with the intention of you only reading a couple of paragraphs per day. I like how it devotes a whole month to different topics. For example, January talks about clarity, February about passion and emotions, March about awareness, and so on.