How to be Happy – Stoic Wisdom for Modern Life

We all want to be happier. We often think that getting the latest iPhone, that new Tesla, getting the girl (or guy) or trying the newest strawberry cookie-dough flavoured cruffin will do the job. But what ends up happening after a few months when you your new phone suddenly isn’t so shiny any more, your Tesla gets stuck in traffic just as much as your old car, you find out your new boyfriend has a slightly irritating thing they do with their toe and you’re wondering how long you’ll have to spend in the gym working off that cruffin?

Why can it seem so hard to find lasting happiness? How many of us actually spend time thinking about what truly makes us happy? If having more money and possessions is supposed to make us happier, why are there so many rich people out there who are unsatisfied with life? Have you ever set out to reach a goal, then achieved it, only to feel somewhat unsatisfied still?

Turns out, these problems are as old as time. A bunch of people who lived about 2500 years ago mulled over these same issues and came to a number of wise conclusions. Conclusions that were so profound that they eventually became a branch of philosophy known as Stoicism. These principles under Stoicism have actually been adopted into Christianity and even modern talk therapy techniques to treat depression.

Much of the thinking in this field can be attributed to a handful of people: Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Epictetus, Zeno and Marcus Aurellius. If you’ve seen an inspiring Stoic quote somewhere on the Internet, chances are it came from one of these names.

In this post I won’t go too deep into the history of Stoic philosophy. It’s a deep body of study that I’m still very fresh with. Instead my goal is to distill what I’ve learned into what I think are the most relevant and fundamental insights principles that can be practiced everyday.


Basic principles you can apply

But why should we care about something that people came up with 2500 years ago?

Well as I hope you’re about to found out, many of the lessons from this philosophy seem as relevant today as they did back then. They speak to deep parts of our nature. We all want to be happier, yet many of our pursuits of it often don’t work out and this is as true today as it was back then. The fact that these ideas have persisted for so long means that they are valid across just about every society of people.

Stoicism can be explained through 2 main pillars:

1. Dichotomy of Control

This is the most central teaching and states that in life there are two types of situations:

  1. Those within our control and
  2. Those outside of it.

That’s it. Things within our control are thoughts and actions. Everything else lies outside of it. This means two things:

  • We should take full responsibility for things within our control: our thoughts, actions, values & beliefs.
  • We should accept the things outside of our control. This includes things like the weather, other people’s actions, the laws of physics, who your parents are etc.

Let’s say I wanted to get a million people to subscribe to this blog in one year. The Stoic way to go about this would be to take full responsibility for my actions and focus on everything that I know is within my control to hit this goal. This would be to write often and research valuable topics, refine my writing and maybe even pay for ads to promote it.

Let’s say I did this for a whole year and put in all of the effort I possibly could into the effort, yet only 950k people subscribed. The Stoic response to this would be to accept this number, since ultimately the fact that anyone subscribes is their own choice and I have no control over that. Worrying about the fact that the 1 million goal wasn’t hit would only be unproductive and ruin my own tranquility. Here lies another central thought:

“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” – Marcus Aurelius

Situations are not inherently “good” or “bad”. These are just labels that we assign to things. Hitting 1 million subscribers could be viewed bad outcome if your goal was 2 million, or it could be a massive success if you were only expecting 1000. It’s better to view situations through the lens which will give you the most happiness and tranquility. Maybe the Stoics were the original people to be “glass half full”.


2. Virtues:

For the Stoics, the key differentiator between us and all other species on earth is the ability to reason. Reason is our ability to think critically, apply logic and apply conscious thought. In other words it means to ‘step back’ from a situation and view it rationally. In the eyes of the Stoics, in order to live a good and happy life, our reason should be aimed towards living with the highest virtue in every situation.

In Stoicism, the four virtues are:

  • Wisdom: Harnessing the Dichotomy of Control by identifying what is and what isn’t within our control so that we can respond appropriately.
  • Courage: To do what we believe is right in the face of fear and anxiety, to resist the comfort of the status quo and insist your mind and speak the truth. To me, this means standing up for what you believe is right, whether that be animal rights, women’s rights, human rights etc. It means not letting your own fear of judgment hold you back from going after that promotion or career change you’ve been wanting.
  • Justice: The ability to do what is right for our community. This means helping others and acting in the interest of the collective whole, rather than just yourself. This can be big or small actions, like not cutting in line or acting sustainably and ethically.
  • Temperance: The ability to moderate our behaviour – to practice self-control and not live in excess nor deficiency. Yes, that means not reaching for that 5th donut in your fridge.

The Stoics knew that you can’t always act with perfect reason and rationality. But with that in mind, you should aim to act towards these virtues whenever possible, even in bad situations. The more you are able to do that, the more you will move towards achieving lasting happiness.


Conclusion and Further Reading

I’ve found that the beauty of Stoicism is that happiness is achievable through an inward shift in your mindset, rather than by achieving anything external such as wealth, career success or hordes of followers. In other words, you already have all you need to be happy.

There’s so much more to the philosophy that I haven’t been able to cover here. Like how to approach death, fame, wealth, anger and just about every other situation in life. If you’re interested in learning more about the Stoic way to live a happy life, I suggest you check out:


Ali Abdaal’s Skillshare course

The Daily Stoic

Meditations by Marcus Aurellius (book)

Happy by Derren Brown (book)