Stoic Joy: Conquering Negative Emotions with Reason

In one of my past posts on happiness, I mentioned that I was having a midlife crisis at twenty five.  I periodically suffer sudden and severe episodes of depression that last for months.  What bothers me about my depression is that I have absolutely nothing to be depressed about!  I was born into a good family, living in one of the richest countries on earth.  I have friends and family that love me.  I’m young, healthy, well fed, well educated, and I have access to the luxuries of modern life.  All this in a time when humanity has been enjoying success like never before in history.  Few other humans have had it so good.  Why am I depressed?

Hedonic Adaptation: Living in Affluent Misery

I identified my problem as existential depression.  Despite how well I am doing, there seems to be a grinding meaningless to living.  No matter how well I do, how much money I make, or what goals I accomplish, it’s never enough to satisfy me.  After a brief period of enjoying my success, I invent even grander plans and goals.  I become accustomed to the things I have achieved, and take for granted the gifts given to me.  I am often angry about things beyond my control, such as the way the world is, or the behaviour of other people.  My awareness of this problem doesn’t seem to be enough to eliminate it, as if some hardwired part of my biology was determined to make me miserable in a wonderful world.

I feel responsible for solving the world’s problems, yet find that realistically I can accomplish very little.  In my career, my work is often shelved or discarded and never used.  I have spent months driving to the office, meeting people, designing and building software, only to have my work wasted in the end.  By my rough estimate, in the two years since I graduated, I’ve been unemployed 10 months, and about 3 of the other 14 months I worked on projects that were actually used, or will be used.  If I eventually do accomplish something I can be proud of, it seems like it will only be in the distant future when I am skilled and wealthy enough to fund my own projects, assuming I make it that far.

Seeking fulfillment in my personal life has similar problems.  I spend months getting to know a person, growing to love them, only to have them leave suddenly on a whim.  People are intimidated or jealous of my talents and accomplishments, yet if I was less successful they would be dismissive of my lack of ambition, or I would simply go unnoticed in the crowd.  I live in a culture where young women are conditioned to treat males with suspicion, distrust, and hostility.  Young people are even threatened by merely being approached.  My dentist surprised me when he said that about a third of young people don’t even say hello to him when he greets them to look at their teeth.  I suggested that maybe teens are intimidated by him as an authority figure, but he was convinced there was a deeper social problem.   What’s wrong with everybody?!

By now it should be obvious where existential depression comes from.  My career is mostly pointless. The money I get from it doesn’t allow me to purchase lasting happiness, and my work has little real value to anyone else since it is usually wasted.  Even when my work isn’t wasted, one wonders how the world would be impacted had it gone undone.   Without me, someone else would do my job. Perhaps no one would, but almost no one would notice either.  It’s hard to feel useful as just one person in billions.

My life could be more meaningful if I focussed on my personal life as my main source of happiness, but this is hard to accomplish as well.  Firstly, sleep and work consume the majority of my day. Including getting ready and commuting, work takes 11 hours on a normal day, and sleeping takes 7-8 hours to avoid being a grumpy disheveled mess.  This leaves roughly 5-6 hours per day for interacting with others outside of work.  Can the majority of your happiness realistically come from only a quarter of your life? When attempting to build relationships, my fellow humans are busy working like I am, sometimes on different schedules.  It is difficult to find and schedule mutually beneficial activities.  Additionally, many of my peers are emotionally erratic or hostile, especially when they view me as a threat, which is the default behaviour the current culture.

As I continue to research my condition, I’ve discovered the main malicious process affecting me is known as hedonic adaptation. As the name suggests, hedonism (pursuit of pleasure, or fulfilling desires) doesn’t lead to lasting happiness because we adapt to our environment.  After fulfilling a desire, there is a brief period of joy that quickly wears off, and you return to your previous level of happiness.  Furthermore, the fulfillment of desires sets higher expectations for new desires, so the law of diminishing returns applies.  Each new desire is more complex and difficult to attain.  This makes it is impossible to continually satisfy yourself; thus, your happiness steadily decreases over time, even while you should be enjoying your steadily improving life of abundance.

On the internet, this phenomenon is characterized as the first world problems.  The title highlights the paradoxical nature of the problem: people can be miserable while living an affluent life in a first world country.  The problems of people in first world countries aren’t really problems at all in comparison to people living in poorer countries.  There is a subtle implication that rich people (including the poor in first world countries, by world standards) are bad people for being dissatisfied with their amazing lives.

Stoicism: Life Philosophy for Analytical Minds

Remarkably, I found a short and well written guide for dealing with hedonic adaptation and other related problems. It is a book entitled A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine, a philosophy professor in Ohio.  Stoic philosophy was developed by Greek and Roman thinkers 2000 years ago.  It was a school of thought that competed with other philosophical schools like Skeptics, Epicureans, and Cynics.  Ancient philosophers thought they had a practical role to play in society. Just as a doctor heals the body and relieves physical suffering, a philosopher should heal the mind and relieve mental anguish.  Unfortunately, many stoic works have been lost over time, and no surviving document clearly expresses their philosophy as a whole.  Professor Irvine took it upon himself to assemble clues scattered in the remaining Stoic writings into a guidebook for the twenty-first century non-philosopher interested in adopting Stoicism as a life philosophy.

The term stoic in English has had its original meaning twisted. Today, the dictionary defines stoic as lacking both positive and negative emotions, which suggests the Stoics advocated a strategy of emotional repression.  This is not at all what the ancient Stoics were advocating. Perhaps this misconception can be blamed for the general disinterest in Stoic philosophy in modern times.

Stoics seek tranquility and peace in life by employing a strategy of minimizing negative emotions.  Stoic philosophy has close parallels with Zen Buddhism. Both advocate mastering desire, and contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us.  Buddhists were convinced the merits of their philosophy would be obvious, and required people to take a leap of faith in adopting their philosophy.  Coupled with translation problems and cultural differences, Buddhist philosophy seems exotic, mysterious, and difficult to understand for the Western reader like me.

Stoics and their rival philosophical schools in Europe were competing for students. Each school attempted to argue why their form of philosophy was superior to the others. Because these schools spent time justifying their beliefs relative to rival strategies, and because these schools evolved in Western culture, they are much more accessible and easily understood by the Western reader like me.  Professor Irvine recounts his own experiences trying Zen Buddhism and Stoicism as life philosophies:

I came to realize that Zen is incompatible with my personality. I am a relentlessly analytical person. For Zen to work for me, I would have to abandon my analytical nature.  Stoicism expects me to put my analytical nature to work. As a result, for me the cost of practicing Stoicism is considerably less than the cost of practicing Zen.  I would probably be miserable trying to solve koans or trying to sit for hours with an empty mind, but for other people, this won’t be the case.

Stoicism: An Overview

Stoics believe that the path to a good life involves living virtuously.  This does not mean the modern sense of the word virtue – that we should live like nuns.  Virtue means exemplary conduct or behaviour.  A virtuous hammer excels at driving nails into wood, for that is function of a hammer.  A virtuous human excels at performing the function of a human.  Humans are social creatures, naturally blessed with the most developed reasoning ability of all life in the observable universe.  Therefore, we can conclude that humans have two functions: to be rational, and social.

Unlike many life philosophies, stoicism allows for fame and fortune.  It is not hypocritical for a Stoic to be wealthy or famous, so long as they don’t cling to these things.  In fact, since stoicism encourages adherents to be rational and social, by participating in society to the best of their ability, Stoics often attain wealth and fame.  Stoics also tend to take principled stands on issues, make political enemies, and die interesting deaths.  Exciting lives for people who say they seek tranquility!

Stoics realized that hedonic adaptation, and negative emotions like anger, fear, and grief cause people to live miserable lives full of sadness and regret.  The ancient philosophers observed human behaviour to describe how these emotions are generated, and why they ruin our lives.  They developed strategies to combat hedonic adaptation, and to prevent negative emotions, or extinguish them quickly when they inevitably catch us off guard. This leaves us open to embrace positive emotions, and live joyful productive lives.

Stoics employ the following techniques to reduce mental anguish:

  1. Negative visualization: pause to contemplate how your life could be worse without special people or possessions, to develop a greater appreciation for things you already have.
  2. Mental triage: internalize your goals, and concern yourself with only things you can control.
  3. Fatalism regarding the past: refuse to waste time pondering how life could be different.
  4. Voluntary discomfort: on occasion, abstain from pleasure or seek discomfort to expand your comfort zone, and mentally toughen yourself against hardships you will inevitably experience.
  5. Meditation/Reflection: become self aware, assess your progress as a Stoic, and work to improve yourself throughout your life.

There is so much to say about Stoic philosophy, you could write a book about it. Professor Irvine did!  Even so, I felt compelled to comment on his book and how it applies to my life. This post is already long enough, so I will stop writing now. Like my financial strategy, I will discuss this idea further in future posts.


About Zeno

Zeno is an engineering graduate, currently working as software developer in Canada. The alias was adopted in honour of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy in ancient Greece.
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