Stoicism Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy
All skills are learned through practice, and life skills are no different. The idea that you are practicing makes it easier for you to forgive your failures, provided that you continue to practice in order to eliminate the fault(s) that led to the failure.
Alright, you’ve probably read a zillion articles about happiness online and you’re not a zillion times happier. What gives?
Reading ain’t the same as doing. You wouldn’t expect to read some martial arts books and then go kick ass like Bruce Lee, would you? All behavior, all changes, must be trained.
The ancient Stoics knew this. They didn’t write stuff just to be read. They created rituals — exercises — to be performed to train your mind to respond properly to life so you could live it well.
That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should. — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.9.13-14
And what’s fascinating is that modern scientific research agrees with a surprising amount of what these guys were talking about 2000 years ago.
Okay, kiddo, time to rummage through the Stoic toolbox and dig out some simple rituals you can use to be much happier.
So let’s say life decides to suplex you and you’re feeling 32 flavors of bad. What’s the first thing in the Stoic bag of philosophical tricks to improve how you feel — and help you make better choices in the future?
Ask, “What Would I Recommend If This Happened To Someone Else?”
Traffic is terrible. Your friend is driving. He leans on the horn, punches the steering wheel, and shouts at the other drivers. You’re like, “Jeez, calm down. Why you getting so worked up? Chill.”
The next day traffic is terrible but you’re driving… So, of course, you lean on the horn, punch the steering wheel, and shout at the other drivers.
See the problem here, Sherlock? We all do it. But there’s a lesson to be learned that the Stoics knew a few millennia ago…
When something bad happens, ask yourself, “What would I recommend if this happened to someone else?” And then do that. You’ll probably be more rational. And it’s harder to ignore the advice — because it’s your own.
In his Handbook, Epictetus advocates this sort of “projective visualization.” Suppose, he says, that our servant breaks a cup. We are likely to get angry and have our tranquility disrupted by the incident. One way to avert this anger is to think about how we would feel if the incident had happened to someone else instead. If we were at someone’s house and his servant broke a cup, we would be unlikely to get angry; indeed, we might try to calm our host by saying “It’s just a cup; these things happen.” Engaging in projective visualization, Epictetus believes, will make us appreciate the relative insignificance of the bad things that happen to us and will therefore prevent them from disrupting our tranquility.
Slick advice. Does it work? When I spoke with Duke professor Dan Ariely, author of the bestseller Predictably Irrational, he said pretty much the same thing. He called it “taking the outside perspective.” Here’s Dan:
If I had to give advice across many aspects of life, I would ask people to take what’s called “the outside perspective.” And the outside perspective is easily thought about: “What would you do if you made the recommendation for another person?” And I find that often when we’re recommending something to another person, we don’t think about our current state and we don’t think about our current emotions. We actually think a bit more distant from the decision and often make the better decision because of that.
The Golden Rule says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In honor of the Stoics, I’m going to suggest that when something gets you worked up you should follow “The Toga Rule” and “Do unto yourself what you would recommend to others.”
(To learn the 6 rituals that ancient wisdom says will make your life awesome, click here.)
Alright, you’re following “The Toga Rule” when life goes sideways. But some reactions are hard to squelch. You have bad habits. We all do. So what do the Stoics have on their Batman utility belt to deal with bad habits?
Turns out they were way ahead of their time on this one…
Use The “Discipline Of Assent”
There’s usually a moment — however brief — when . . .
In the Guide, I touch on the first idea:
In any situation or circumstance, most people already know what actions they should undertake or what decisions they should make. (This becomes evident when people say that they don’t know what to do in a situation, but when asked what a counselor, therapist, coach, teacher, or minister (or rabbi or priest or imam) would advise, they usually find it easy to state the advice they would get.) Starting each day with a ritual of personal grooming adds just enough push so that you will do some actions or make some decisions that you already know you should do or make, and those steps are enough to start the cycle of positive feedback, which can grow quickly (cf. regenerative feedback).
This process works because the force driving it is (1) unobtrusive (that is, it comes from doing a routine and necessary task, not something out of you ordinary routine, which would require some deliberate commitment) and (2) enjoyable (in attracting flies, honey works better than vinegar: people learn faster from seeking pleasure than from avoiding pain) and (3) (quite important) daily: the push may be small, but it’s steady and on-going, and once the effects start to become evident, the process picks up speed because of its self-reinforcing (regenerative) nature.
It’s also worth noting that . . .