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In A Guide to the Good Life, William B. Irvine shares how the ideas of stoic philosophy can help us lead more meaningful lives. Here are four life-changing ideas from his book.
1. Most people are unhappy because they’re never-ending want machines.
“We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”
Many people live in a constant cycle:
Want something > Chase that thing > Acquire that thing > Become bored of that thing > Want a new, slightly better thing
This cycle has no end. Since humans adapt quickly to new things and everything becomes normal over time, it’s impossible for that next home upgrade, job title change, promotion, car, iPhone, or anything else to permanently make you happier.
Recognize that this cycle exists so that you can exit it.
2. To live for the approval of others is to make yourself a slave.
“If we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor.”
Many people make decisions about home purchases, career paths, and lifestyles with the following thoughts in the back of their mind:
“How will this make me look on Instagram?”
“What will my parents think of this career choice?”
“Will this car make me look successful?”
“Will this house make my friends jealous?”
It’s natural to think like this. Humans are social creatures and we have a tendency to make decisions based on how those decisions will be perceived by others Unfortunately, we tend to forget that we’re not as important as we think and that most people don’t give a shit about the car we drive.
To seek social status and approval is to make yourself a slave to the opinions of others. Recognize that most people don’t care as much as you think about your life and you suddenly gain freedom to spend both your time and money in ways that align with your values and interests.
3. Learn to want what you already have.
“The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.”
Most of us are surrounded by luxuries that we have turned into expectations. Our cars, microwaves, iPhones, TVs, refrigerators, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and washing machines were all luxuries at one time. Nowadays most of us spend zero minutes per day thinking about how incredibly lucky we are to have these things. Instead, we spend much of our time dwelling on the things we don’t have.
Instead of looking outwards at things you don’t have, look inwards and take stock of the things you do have. This isn’t limited to material products. Take note of the relationships you have, your family, friends, and your health. The easiest way to gain happiness is to crave things that are already present in your life.
4. Your thoughts towards your circumstances determine your happiness.
“If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take.”
Many of us think that changing our environment – our city, our neighbors, our coworkers, our housing situation – is the key to improving our well-being. While external circumstances do play a role in our happiness, they play a much smaller role than most people think.
Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky is famous for stating that happiness is 50% genetics, 40% internal thoughts, and 10% external circumstances. This means that your thoughts towards your circumstances influence your happiness far more than the circumstances themselves.
Every day our external circumstances will be filled with some obstacles – annoying neighbors, shitty bosses, traffic jams, unexpected power outages. These things happen. It’s unlikely that moving to a new town, buying a new home, or switching jobs will eliminate these problems entirely.
The Stoics believed that our job is not to avoid these obstacles, but rather to become professionals at navigating around them and reframing the way we think about them. In a nutshell, change what you can and let the rest go.
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