Couple of days ago I saw two videos (1, 2) that made me go through the topic of living a happy life again. Actually, not really a happy life but rather a meaningful life (eudaimonia), because the happiness is somehow attached to pleasure (hedonia) and can be a misleading word if not used within the specific context. I should admit that it is not very easy to pinpoint specific checklist or features of a meaningful life, but stoics have defined a meaningful life as:
- living in harmony with nature
- practicing virtue whatever the cost
- being rational to the best of their ability
- exercising control and calm indifference towards outside events.
Stoicism suggests that we should master our passions and emotions and reach a state of apatheia in order to reach to the eudaimonia – well-being of the individual. As Epictetus put it, we should be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Tough call. When reading or writing on these topics, theoretically and intuitively all of the stoic view makes perfect sense and the outcome should be happiness. Why is it so hard then to resist our emotions, such as fear, worry, anger, disgust, or pleasure, which we turned into non-biological human-exclusive concepts such as anxiety, depression, kin, happiness and so on?
“You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore, before you decide to be happy.”Nightbirdie
We are really having a difficulty in admitting that nothing external is inherently good or bad, because in nature there is no good or bad as an absolute character. We are labeling things based on our judgement and our judgment has been mutated countless times from the environmental factors, mostly coming from our evolution history.
“Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them. We should always be asking ourselves: Is this something that is, or is not, in my control? The essence of philosophy is that we should live so that our happiness depends as little as possible on external causes.”Epictetus
Survival and procreation are two evolutionary imperatives that drive most of the living creatures’ lives. Humans, exclusively, are able to create consciousness around the biological reactions we give to the environment, such as contemplating the elusive prospect of happiness. Interestingly, humans did not evolve to be consistently happy. I mean we just needed to feel a short-term satisfaction as a reward to our efforts of reproduction. On the other hand, evolution made depression more vital emotion, since we needed to engage less in risky and hopeless situations and put safety first in order to survive. Thus we can see danger quickly and assume the worse will happen all the time. We may see this negative mindset making life hard, and the happiness gurus usually tell us to think positively, assume the best of all situations and avoid thinking negatives. Again going back to our evolution history, it seems like being such a depressive person helped us to detect possible dangers, which thankfully resulted in me being alive and writing about it.
There are couple of contemporary “irrational” sticky emotions that we could not eliminate from our genetic transcript. For instance we usually do not forget hurtful memories, even the ones that happened ages ago. Back in the time, not forgetting past perils likely helped them avoid future danger, therefore the reflecting and memorising improved the survival rate of our ancestors. Another instance is our worry about what people think about us. It most likely comes from again our ancestors trying to survive. Back in time, to survive we needed to be positioned in a group of people, since we were quite vulnerable on our own.
The thing is, we do not have those issues nowadays. We have mostly eliminated the perils that had previously threatened our safety, belonging and survival. Nonetheless, our genetic structure has not yet caught up with the development of our environment, hence our brain deals with an ancient problem and it is not easy to change it. We will probably always think about what might go wrong or always want more and never be satisfied, unless we train ourselves to defy that actively.
“All men, brother Gallio, wish to live happily, but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy.”Seneca
Repeating again, happiness is a human construct and has no biological basis, thankfully. Only the feeling of pleasure and pain can transmit electric signals among neurons in our brain. However, we like the idea that there is an ultimate happiness that is real and can be achieved, ergo we should pursue it. This craving for happiness – the ultimate reward- is the main source of bad judgement that gives a chance to our emotions to hijack our frontal lobe and use its ancient rules to make decisions, I mean irrational decisions.
“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”Mark Manson
I found somewhere on the internet 7 Stoic strategies for meaningful life:
- Recognize what is under your control
- Let go of all that you do not control
- Focus on the process of your action
- Accept the result, whatever it is
- Do not react overtly to criticism
- Feel grateful for all good you own
- Be fully aware of the present moment
There is probably more than just these seven suggestions, but each of these deserve an exclusive reflection at least. As a last word, most of our issues are probably very trivial in its nature, but the way we react to it makes it heavy, either in positive or negative meaning. How do we react?! How should we react?! Should we even at all react?! Let’s not take things as given and reflect through them.