Philosophy can often seem like a dry pursuit; the province of dusty academics discussing abstractions with little relevance to how we live from day to day. But it’s not all hermeneutics and ontologies – some of it can be very practical indeed.

Take Stoicism, a branch of ancient Greek philosophy practiced by slaves and emperors alike. The Stoics were concerned with developing a more robust outlook, a set of mind able to weather whatever life throws at it. Times may have changed, but people are still very much the same, and the Stoics’ advice is as relevant today as it ever was. Indeed, Stoic wisdom forms the core of many modern psychological therapies, especially CBT. This blog outlines 5 key lessons we can take from the Stoics and apply to our own lives.

  • The only thing you control is your actions
    What can I do about it? That’s one question that’s always worth asking about whatever happens in your life. Because whatever happens around us, whatever anyone says or does, how we respond is entirely our choice. Knowing this allows us to adopt a more constructive, problem-solving attitude.
  • You have no control over anything or anyone else
    The world is a vast, complicated place. There are forces at work we could never hope to fully understand. We all drift in social, political, economic and natural currents. The people we interact with make their decisions based on personal histories to which we’ll never be privy. Even our closest fellows are essentially strangers. Think of the parents who feel themselves as failures because their child acts out. Believing we can control external events is a one-way track to neurosis.

  • Acceptance is key
    The stoics believe that much emotional suffering is caused by the frustrated desire to control the world around us. If the answer to the question ‘what can I do about it?’ is ‘nothing’, then all that remains is to accept the situation. If you manage to do that, the anxiety is removed. Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional.
  • Do not confuse influence with control
    Your actions are not meaningless. Just because you can’t control the world around you, that doesn’t mean you can’t influence it. It just means that the extent to which you do so is not up to you. It might not be as much as you think. Then again, it could well be more. All you can do is your best.

  • Remember the bigger picture
    Much anxiety stems from a removal of context. Our focus narrows down to a single point that assumes overwhelming importance in our mind. The ability to take a step back, broaden our awareness and place things in their proper context. Missing a train, for example, does not make you an idiot! It simply means that you missed a train, and in all likelihood you’ll catch the next one.

If some of this advice seems obvious, that’s because it is. The key principles to living well are always simply in their theory – the challenge is to implement them consistently.  The Stoics often spoke of commitment to their lifestyle, and that’s crucial. The negative bias, something I shall address in a future blog, means we are hardwired to reward anxious feelings. This is what makes them so alluring, like the siren’s song that will have our ship smashing its hull against the rocks. But the good news is that the more you apply these simple principles, the more you condition new responses and turn this new, more rational way of being into second nature.

One criticism levelled at the Stoics is that they somehow advocate living a life lacking in passion. Nothing could be further from the truth, as any regular reader of my blog would know. Not being a slave to your emotions doesn’t mean feeling any less fully – simply that you live a healthier life less burdened by unnecessary cares. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

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