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Stoicism: 7 Practical Lessons for Living a Joyful Life

By Sam Thomas Davies,
Author of
A Tiny, Powerful Idea

Many of us have trouble naming our big goal in life.

Sure, we want a loving partner, a good job and a nice house, but really these are just some of the things we want.

What we really want, is a philosophy of life, a strategy for attaining our big goal…

That strategy is Stoicism.

Founded in Anthems by Zeno of Citium, Stoicism was one of the most popular and successful schools of philosophy, particularly in ancient Rome.

But Stoicism is more than analysis of arguments; it’s a way of life. In fact, its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable today, and entrepreneurs including Ryan Holiday, Phil Libin and Tim Ferriss, are strong proponents of the philosophy (Ferriss even calls Stoicism a “personal operating system” for anyone who wants high performance under high stress).

So, with that said, let’s discuss seven, practical techniques for attaining tranquility and living a better life.

1. Live a Joyful, Virtuous Life

When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind. – Marcus Aurelius

“Stoic virtue has very little in common with what people today mean by the word”, writes William Irvin in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. “It is instead a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions – in particular, joy”.

To live a virtuous life, then, is to realise your full potential and, as Irvine writes, “perform the function for which [you] were designed”. In other words, you must strive to become the best version of yourself in every aspect of your life, and enjoy whatever good things happen to be available…

But be prepared to give up those things.

2. Use “Negative Visualisation”

We should love all of our dear ones … but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever – nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long. – Seneca

The Stoics, if alive today, would advise us to periodically consider the bad things that can happen to us. Not to prevent them from happening, but to make us value the things we worked so hard to get – our partner, our house, our job, etc. By consciously meditating on what we stand to lose, we regain our appreciation what matters most.

Similarly, we can use “retrospective negative visualisation”. This is when we imagine never having had something that we have lost. When grieving, for example, rather than mourning the loss of a loved one, we should be thankful they lived at all. This replaces negative emotions like regret, with positive emotions like gratitude.

3. Focus on Things Over Which You Have Complete Control

Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. – Epictetus

There are only three things over which we have complete control:

  1. Our decisions about what to focus on
  2. Our decisions about what things mean
  3. Our decisions about what actions to take

Epictetus suggests it’s foolish to spend time complaining about things that are not up to us because it’s pointless. As Jack Canfield says, “Complaining is an ineffective response to an event that does not produce a better outcome”.

Concern yourself, instead, with things that are up to you – the thoughts your think, the pictures you visualise, the action you take. You can take steps to bring these about.

4. Turn Your Obstacles Into Opportunities

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. – Marcus Aurelius

In his book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs, Ryan Holiday writes:

Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps. It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach [perception]; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities [action]; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty [will].

The truth is we’re not driven by reality; we’re driven by our perception of reality. We decide what things mean. We decide what stories to tell ourselves. We decide what to do to create the results we want. When encountering an obstacle, ask yourself, “What’s good about this? What can I learn from this?” Take action and keep changing your approach until you get what you want. Persistence is everything.

5. Practice “Voluntary Discomfort”

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ” Is this the condition that I feared? – Seneca

Some Stoics recommend we periodically cause ourselves discomfort. In modern times, this might mean asking a stranger out for coffee, disagreeing with a colleague or saying no to an activity or effort that doesn’t make the highest contribution towards the things that really matter. This isn’t to punish ourselves; on the contrary, it’s to inoculate ourselves against what we dread most.

By purposely causing ourselves discomfort, we appreciate whatever comfort we experience, and train ourselves to be courageous. You don’t need to leap into your fear to build self-confidence; you merely need to lean into it.

6. Eliminate The Sting of Criticism

Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but the judgment that these things are insulting. So when someone irritates you, realize that it is your own opinion that has irritated you. – Epictetus

Seneca advises when contemplating whether to criticise someone, we should consider not only whether our criticism is constructive, but also whether the person can accept it. The more irrational the person is, the less likely they are to take it on board.

But what about when we are criticised? How do we prevent criticism from upsetting us? One strategy is to perceive our critic, not as a foe, but as a friend, and consider whether their criticism is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset and if it isn’t, we must pause and reflect on how informed they are.

If your critic is uninformed and doesn’t approve of what you’re doing, take heart: you’re probably doing the right thing.

7. Forgive Difficult People

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. – Marcus Aurelius

Many of us have to associate with people who annoy us, who plot against us, who ridicule us. And while we don’t always get to choose who we associate with, we do get to choose how we deal with them.

A Tiny Powerful IdeaWhen interacting with difficult people, we should keep in mind that there are people who find us to be annoying. And by pausing to reflect on our own shortcomings, we become more empathic and tolerant of our tormentor’s faults.


Every day we’re faced with perceptibly “impossible” situations. But by applying these timeless principles, we can better identify the sources of our dissatisfaction and worry, and attain a truly joyful life.


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Related Article: The Weird Benefits of Negative Visualization



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