How to Be Happy Like a Stoic: Cultivate the Four Virtues
Are you happy?
If yes: How will you stay happy?
If no: How will you become happy?
Do you have an excellent job, a house, your basic needs covered? Are you healthy, and do you have good friends and a family? It seems like you have all the ingredients to live a long and happy life!
But what if things go wrong? What if life turns out to be crap? You lose your job, possessions, friends, or you fall ill. Are you guaranteed to be unhappy?
Stoics argue you can be happy whether you are rich or piss poor.
To be happy, you do not need anything external. You only need to ask yourself one question: “How is my character?”
According to Stoic wisdom, you only need a good character to be happy.
Everything that is outside of you is useless to achieve true happiness; it has no value of itself, and you can lose it any moment. The only thing that is always available to you and counts toward well-being is a good character. In other words: you need to be virtuous to live a good life.
In this article, I explain what the Stoic four virtues are. I also show why they are essential to be happy and how you can make a start at cultivating them.
We kick things off by defining the word virtue.
What Is Virtue?
Virtue is an old word with many meanings. I like to call it “life skill.” Stoic virtues are nothing more than knowledge about how to live well. But, this has significant implications as knowledge shapes our personality and life.
The ancient Stoics identified four chief virtues. They are wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
Apart from these virtues, there are many other virtues worth pursuing. The Stoics did not deny this but regarded the four virtues as fundamental; all others fall under one of these four.
Together, the four virtues map to the complete experience of human life. If lived well, they help us achieve happiness.
Let’s have a brief look at each virtue.
Practical Wisdom: Doing What Is Effective
Stoicism is a philosophy. Philosophers have a love for wisdom (the literal meaning of philosophy). That is why wisdom is the foundation of every Stoic virtue.
When we talk of the virtue wisdom in Stoicism, we mean practical knowledge, an understanding of how to act well in different situations.
Wisdom is the ability to see things for what they are. We often see things the way we want them to be, but this does not have to be in line with reality. Instead, we need to be aware of our biases, beliefs, and values. It is critical to understand this as our thoughts color the way we see the world.
The goal of wisdom in Stoicism is knowing what is right, wrong, and indifferent. We often believe we are unhappy because of what happens to us. The truth is that we suffer more in thought than in reality.
We label everything good or bad, which can lead to unhappiness. The fact of the matter is, we have very little control over what happens to us. Practical wisdom consists of concentrating only on what we can control.
So what can we control? According to Epictetus, only our thoughts, beliefs, and opinions (Handbook 1). Everything that’s outside of our mind is outside of our control. Even our bodies are not entirely under our control, let alone what happens in the world:
“Of all existing things, some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, an, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.”—Epictetus
Some shitty things can happen, so the wise person does not cling to external things to go her way. Instead, she only labels her thoughts and behavior as right (rational) or wrong (irrational). Everything else is indifferent.
You can achieve happiness if you cultivate enough awareness to tackle your biases and false beliefs, which will lead to healthy emotions and behavior.
Justice: Taking Care of Yourself and Others
No person is an island, and we need others to survive and thrive.
When you understand that you are part of a whole, you start to think about how to make things better for everyone. This is what it means to practice the Stoic virtue of justice.
Stoic justice concerns more than our modern notion of justice. It is not only that you do not screw over others. No, it means making an effort to do good, to help and treat people the best you can. Practicing Stoic justice means understanding your duty to fellow humans and society as a whole.
Marcus Aurelius wrote: “What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees.” In other words: if we damage our community, we harm ourselves. We need to find ways to benefit the hive.
According to Stoic insight, we cannot achieve happiness if what we do is bad for society.
As Stoics, we strive to be moral and practice awareness in everything we do. This way, we will be able to turn anger into kindness and hate into understanding. In due time you will see that nobody does wrong on purpose–sometimes we are simply misguided.
To be just and happy, you always need to ask yourself: “Am I kind, fair, respectful, understanding, and generous? Do I help others when they need it? Do I give back to society, or do I only take?”
Courage: Doing What is Wise and Right Despite Fear
Not acting on your impulses and taking a stand for what is right takes courage. To be courageous does not mean you act recklessly. It means acting despite fear, but with wisdom applied to every action.
Wisdom will guide you to act well in dangerous situations. When you know how to act, you can face what you fear. Wisdom is your weapon in the struggle against feelings that cause cowardice.
Even when you are not in immediate danger, you need courage. As humans, much of our distress comes from picturing possible disastrous events. We are masters at crafting irrational thoughts that never come to fruition. We often suffer mentally because of our own doing—the stories we tell ourselves can hurt us.
One trick the ancient Stoics used is the ”premeditatio malorum,” or premeditation of evils. This is a visualization exercise in which you dedicate time to picture possible unfortunate events. The goal is not to worry about what could happen, but to find ways to apply wisdom to these situations. This way, it will be easier to be courageous, as you have already decided how to act.
Moderation: Making Sure You Stay Balanced
Like we need practical wisdom to act right, we need moderation to know what to act on and to what extent.
One of the famous maxims by the Delphic Oracle was: “nothing in excess.”, the main idea behind the virtue of moderation (also called self-control or temperance).
To be happy, find balance in what you do. For example, eating is a pleasure until we overindulge and end up getting sick. Likewise, fasting is healthy, but only up to a point.
Moderation is the stabilizing factor in life. It guides you toward what you should choose and what you should reject. To live a good life, you need to tame your fears and desires and do what is reasonable. A help in this is to keep in mind what is within and what is outside your control.
Desiring what you cannot have can lead to excessive behavior, which is the direct opposite of moderation. Keep in mind that only your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions are within your control. Limit your focus. Welcome externals, but do not obsess over them.
Cultivating the virtue of moderation requires awareness and wisdom. It is necessary to have clear for yourself what benefits and harms you. One tool you can use for this is keeping a journal.
By journaling, you will notice that you often crave things that are unhealthy or unattainable. Reading your thoughts, you see how irrational you can be. By thinking through what you want and what you need, you will be able to find the golden mean, which leads to happiness.
Start Living Well Right Now
To live well and be happy you, need to practice daily. Developing life skills is a process that never stops.
In the coming weeks, I will publish articles on each of the four virtues. I will also include exercises to help you get started practicing Stoicism daily. All of this, I will bundle in a course that my subscribers will receive for free.
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