A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
Updated: May 24
I share A Guide to the Good Life on its merits alone and also to honor my new friend Scott who is about to embark on a trip to tow a snow sled across Greenland. That is his version of fun.
A tough and amazingly fit former special forces soldier from Australia with a philosophical spirit and authentically kind and gentle heart, he strikes me as pretty darn close to the ideal human. I met Scott and his partner Ali this fall in Lake Bohinj, Slovenia. They were my airbnb hosts who I now count as special friends–perfect people coming into my life at the perfect time. Want an amazing experience in Slovenia? Check out their website at Sublime Escapes.
As an undercover Stoic, Scott recommended A Guide to the Good Life, and I found it super helpful and replete with relevant wisdom for my life journey. It inspired and challenged me, and I am seeking to employ many of its principles. Below are excerpts cut and pasted from the book that I hope represent a compelling compendium.
It is a bit of a long summary, so to make it more readable/digestible I broke it down into the following sections: Stoicism Summary, Philosophy of Life, Negative Visualization, Desire/Pleasure, What Can We Control?, Voluntary Discomfort, Meditation, Other People, Money/Wealth, and Old Age.
Enjoy, and should you have any thoughts and/or a must-read recommendation, I do hope you will share!
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
Sometimes this period of philosophical speculation triggers what, in our culture, we call a midlife crisis. The person experiencing the crisis might sensibly conclude that his unhappiness is the result of wanting the wrong things. In all too many cases, though, he doesn’t draw this conclusion; instead, he concludes that he is unhappy as the result of making certain short-term sacrifices to attain various long-term goals. He therefore decides to stop making these short-term sacrifices: He buys a new car, or abandons his wife and takes on a lover. After a time, though, it becomes apparent to him that this strategy for gaining happiness is no better and is in many ways worse than his previous strategy. He might, at this point, turn his attention back to meaning-of-life questions. And if this isn’t sufficient to make him take up such questions, the aging process—and along with it, the prospect of death drawing ever nearer—probably will. As a result of contemplating these questions, he might find that Stoicism, which held no appeal whatsoever for him when he was young, now seems plausible as a philosophy of life.
The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions.
Stoics were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and self-disciplined…They also thought it important for us to fulfill our obligations and to help our fellow humans.
Although Stoicism is a philosophy, it has a significant psychological component. The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life. They therefore became acute observers of the workings of the human mind and as a result became some of the most insightful psychologists of the ancient world.
Stoicism and Zen have certain things in common. They both, for example, stress the importance of contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us and the importance of mastering desire, to the extent that it is possible to do so. They also advise us to pursue tranquility and give us advice on how to attain and maintain it.
Stoics become more thoughtful observers of their own lives.
Stoics’ desire to attain tranquility is what Christians might call it peace.
Stoicism is not so much an ethic as it is a paradoxical recipe for happiness.
A Stoic sage, according to Diogenes Laertius, is “free from vanity; for he is indifferent to good or evil report.” He never feels grief, since he realizes that grief is an “irrational contraction of the soul.” His conduct is exemplary. He doesn’t let anything stop him from doing his duty. Although he drinks wine, he doesn’t do so in order to get drunk. The Stoic sage is, in short, “godlike.”
The sage, in other words, is to Stoicism as Buddha is to Buddhism. Most Buddhists can never hope to become as enlightened as Buddha, but nevertheless, reflecting on Buddha’s perfection can help them gain a degree of enlightenment.
Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.
Stoics think periodic episodes of grief are part of the human condition.
Other signs of progress, says Epictetus, are the following: We will stop blaming, censuring, and praising others; we will stop boasting about ourselves and how much we know; and we will blame ourselves, not external circumstances, when our desires are thwarted.
The most important sign that we are making progress as Stoics, though, is a change in our emotional life. We will find ourselves experiencing fewer negative emotions. We will also find that we are spending less time than we used to wishing things could be different and more time enjoying things as they are. We will find, more generally, that we are experiencing a degree of tranquility that our life previously lacked. We might also discover, perhaps to our amazement, that our practice of Stoicism has made us susceptible to little outbursts of joy: We will, out of the blue, feel delighted to be the person we are, living the life we are living, in the universe we happen to inhabit.
The Stoics counsel us not to seek fame and fortune, since doing so will likely disrupt our tranquility. They warn us to be careful in choosing our associates; other people, after all, have the power to shatter our tranquility—if we let them.
The Stoics counsel us to pursue tranquility.
Philosophy of Life
WHAT DO YOU WANT out of life? You might answer this question by saying that you want a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice house, but these are really just some of the things you want in life. In asking what you want out of life, I am asking the question in its broadest sense. I am asking not for the goals you form as you go about your daily activities but for your grand goal in living… Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade by decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living…But a grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.
Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive— that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life…There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living.
Whatever philosophy of life a person ends up adopting, she will probably have a better life than if she tried to live —as many people do—without a coherent philosophy of life.
Many people go through life repeatedly making the same mistakes and are no closer to happiness in their eighties than they were in their twenties. These individuals, rather than enjoying their life, will have been embittered by it, and now, near the end of their life, they live to complain—about their circumstances, their relatives, the food, the weather, in short, about absolutely everything.
The downside of failing to develop an effective philosophy of life: You end up wasting the one life you have.
Practice of Negative Visualization
One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get…that the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have. This advice is easy to state and is doubtless true; the trick is in putting it into practice in our life.
THE STOICS THOUGHT they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.
Thus, Epictetus counsels that when we say good-bye to a friend, we should silently remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. If we do this, we will be less likely to take our friends for granted, and as a result, we will probably derive far more pleasure from friendships than we otherwise would.
We struggle to be satisfied with our lives. Negative visualization can help us avoid this fate.
The regular practice of negative visualization has the effect of transforming Stoics into full-blown optimists.
Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them. Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.
Because negative visualization can be done repeatedly, its beneficial effects, unlike those of a catastrophe, can last indefinitely. Negative visualization is therefore a wonderful way to regain our appreciation of life and with it our capacity for joy.
To be able to be satisfied with little is not a failing, it is a blessing—if, at any rate, what you seek is satisfaction. And if you seek something other than satisfaction, I would inquire (with astonishment) into what it is that you find more desirable than satisfaction.
Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.
This in turn means that by practicing negative visualization, we cannot only increase our chances of experiencing joy but increase the chance that the joy we experience will be durable, that it will survive changes in our circumstances.
Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves—more precisely, by changing our desires… And he is not alone in giving this advice; indeed, it is the advice offered by virtually every philosopher and religious thinker who has reflected on human desire and the causes of human dissatisfaction. They agree that if what you seek is contentment, it is better and easier to change yourself and what you want than it is to change the world around you.
A Stoic sage would explain the difference between the Stoic take on pleasure and that of the ordinary person: Whereas the ordinary person embraces pleasure, the sage enchains it; whereas the ordinary person thinks pleasure is the highest good, the sage doesn’t think it is even a good; and whereas the ordinary person does everything for the sake of pleasure, the sage does nothing.
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; it’s a hedonic adaptation.
We also experience hedonic adaptation in our relationships. We meet the man or woman of our dreams, and after a tumultuous courtship succeed in marrying this person. We start out in a state of wedded bliss, but before long we find ourselves contemplating our spouse’s flaws and, not long after that, fantasizing about starting a relationship with someone new.
What Can We Control?
There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control. Each of the “things” we encounter in life will fall into one and only one of these three categories.
Epictetus suggests, quite sensibly, that we are behaving foolishly if we spend time worrying about things that are not up to us; because they are not up to us, worrying about them is futile. We should instead concern ourselves with things that are up to us, since we can take steps either to bring them about or prevent them from happening.
REMEMBER THAT AMONG the things over which we have complete control are the goals we set for ourselves.
In saying that we shouldn’t dwell on the past, the Stoics are not suggesting that we should never think about it. We sometimes should think about the past to learn lessons that can help us in our efforts to shape the future.
Practice of Voluntary Discomfort
What the Stoics were advocating, then, is more appropriately described as a program of voluntary discomfort than as a program of self-inflicted discomfort.
Musonius would point to three benefits to be derived from acts of voluntary discomfort. To begin with, by undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort—by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed—we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future.
A second benefit of undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort comes not in the future but immediately. A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well.
A third benefit of undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort is that it helps us appreciate what we already have. In particular, by purposely causing ourselves discomfort, we will better appreciate whatever comfort we experience.
Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.
TO HELP US ADVANCE our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.
The bedtime meditation Seneca is recommending is, of course, utterly unlike the meditations of, say, a Zen Buddhist. During his meditations, a Zen Buddhist might sit for hours with his mind as empty as he can make it. A Stoic’s mind, in contrast, will be quite active during a bedtime meditation. He will think about the events of the day. Did something disrupt his tranquility? Did he experience anger? Envy? Lust? Why did the day’s events upset him? Is there something he could have done to avoid getting upset?
Reason is our best weapon against grief, he maintains, because “unless reason puts an end to our tears, fortune will not do so.” More generally, Seneca thinks that although reason might not be able to extinguish our grief, it has the power to remove from it “whatever is excessive and superfluous.”
Along similar lines, Marcus advises us to examine each thing we do, determine our motives for doing it, and consider the value of whatever it was we were trying to accomplish. We should continually ask whether we are being governed by our reason or by something else. And when we determine that we are not being governed by our reason, we should ask what it is that governs us. Is it the soul of a child? A tyrant? A dumb ox? A wild beast?
We can and should be selective about whom we befriend.
Seneca advises us to avoid people who are simply whiny, “who are melancholy and bewail everything, who find pleasure in every opportunity for complaint.”
Marcus recommends that when we interact with an annoying person, we keep in mind that there are doubtless people who find us to be annoying. More generally, when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him.
People, Marcus reminds us, do not choose to have the faults they do.
Suppose that even though we follow the above advice, someone succeeds in annoying us. In such cases, Marcus says, we should remind ourselves that “this mortal life endures but a moment,” meaning that we soon will be dead. Putting annoying incidents into their cosmic context, he thinks, will make their triviality apparent and will therefore alleviate our annoyance.
One of Stoic’s sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset.
As we make progress in our practice of Stoicism, we will become increasingly indifferent to other people’s opinions of us. We will not go through our life with the goal of gaining their approval or avoiding their disapproval, and because we are indifferent to their opinions, we will feel no sting when they insult us.
Stoics advise: “If people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.”
What we will discover is that we were designed to live among other people and interact with them in a manner that is mutually advantageous; we will discover, says Musonius, that “human nature is very much like that of bees. A bee is not able to live alone: it perishes when isolated.” We will likewise discover that, as Marcus puts it, “fellowship is the purpose behind our creation.” Thus, a person who performs well the function of man will be both rational and social.
Therefore, in all I do, I must have as my goal “the service and harmony of all.” More precisely, “I am bound to do good to my fellow-creatures and bear with them.”
SENECA OFFERS lots of specific advice on how to prevent anger. We should, he says, fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and our tendency to jump to conclusions about their motivations.
You would have been much better off, Epictetus thinks, if you had been indifferent to social status.
If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us.
Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval.
Before we try to win the admiration of these other people, we should stop to ask whether their notion of success is compatible with ours.
Our goal should therefore be to become indifferent to other people’s opinions of us.
In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability.
Take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing.
The Stoics thought it entirely possible for someone to have a bad life despite making a very good living.
It is folly “to think that it is the amount of money and not the state of mind that matters!”
More generally, Stoics argue that not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself is.
Wealth has the power to make people miserable. Indeed, if you wanted to make someone truly miserable, you might consider showering him with wealth.
When, as the result of being exposed to luxurious living, people become hard to please, a curious thing happens. Rather than mourning the loss of their ability to enjoy simple things, they take pride in their newly gained inability to enjoy anything but “the best.” The Stoics work hard to avoid falling victim to this kind of connoisseurship.
According to the Stoics, in the same way that we should favor a simple diet, we should favor simple clothing, housing, and furnishings.
People who achieve luxurious lifestyles are rarely satisfied: Experiencing luxury only whets their appetite for even more luxury.
If we take to heart the advice of the Stoics and forgo luxurious living, we will find that our needs are easily met, for as Seneca reminds us, life’s necessities are cheap and easily obtainable. Those who crave luxury typically have to spend considerable time and energy to attain it; those who eschew luxury can devote this same time and energy to other, more worthwhile undertakings.
The lifestyle of a Stoic, he adds, should be somewhere in between that of a sage and that of an ordinary person.
Stoicism does not require her to renounce wealth; it allows her to enjoy it and use it to the benefit of herself and those around her.
Stoic philosophy “calls for plain living, but not for penance.”
It is perfectly acceptable, says Seneca, for a Stoic to acquire wealth, as long as he does not harm others to obtain it. It is also acceptable for a Stoic to enjoy wealth, as long as he is careful not to cling to it.
OLD AGE, Seneca argues, has its benefits: “Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it.” Indeed, he claims that the most delightful time of life is “when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.”
Sophocles offered another viewpoint. When he had grown old and someone asked whether, despite his years, he could still make love to a woman, he replied, “I am very glad to have escaped from this, like a slave who has escaped from a mad and cruel master.”
Think about how foolish it is to want to be remembered after we die.
Stoics thought the prospect of death, rather than depressing us, could make our days far more enjoyable than would otherwise be the case.
In our youth, it takes effort to contemplate our own death; in our later years, it takes effort to avoid contemplating it. Old age therefore has a way of making us do something that, according to the Stoics, we should have been doing all along.
It is entirely possible for an octogenarian to be more joyful than her twenty-year-old grandchild, particularly if the octogenarian, in part because of her failing health, takes nothing for granted, while the grandchild, in part because of her perfect health, takes everything for granted and has therefore decided that life is a bore.
A young person might find it baffling that someone would be willing to settle for “mere tranquility”; an octogenarian will probably not only appreciate how precious a thing tranquility is but will realize how few people manage, over the course of a lifetime, to attain it.