Table of Contents
- What Is Stoicism?
- Main Beliefs and Principles of Stoic Philosophy
- Benefits of Practicing Stoicism for Mental Health and Happiness
- Potential Drawbacks of Stoicism
- Prominent Stoic Philosophers + Works
- 7 Ways to Think and Act Like a Stoic
- How a Stoic Doesn’t Act
- Viewing Stoicism as One Way to Build Emotional Intelligence
Do you know someone who always manages to work well under pressure, stays “calm, cool, and collected” even when they’re angry or upset, and mostly ignores things that are out of their control? These behaviors could all describe a “Stoic,” defined as “a member of the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism” and as “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.”
Stoics can be misunderstood, as they’re sometimes interpreted as being cold, unfeeling, or aloof. But according to Stoicism, the goal of being a Stoic is not to have no feelings or ignore them, but rather to control them.
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude (toughness and courage) as a means to overcome destructive emotions. Being a Stoic means practicing these principles and aiming to understand the natural world and our place in it, governed by our reason and focus on what we can control.
Many believe the wisdom of Stoicism offers timeless insights into human nature and provides a blueprint for living a fulfilling and meaningful life. In this article, learn how to adopt Stoicism’s teachings to cultivate mental resilience, improve your relationships, and find tranquility amid life’s turbulence.
- Stoicism philosophy is not only a theoretical philosophy; it’s also intended to be a practical guide to living with purpose and peace.
- Stoic principles have been practiced by powerful people throughout history, including emperors, kings, presidents, writers, scholars, and entrepreneurs.
- Stoics focus on their responses to different events rather than what’s out of their control.
- A Stoic person seeks to live a virtuous life, meaning they act with wisdom, courage, and self-discipline.
- When acting stoically, it helps to engage in exercises like meditation, journaling, mindfulness, and Stoic principles such as acceptance.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic (Ancient Greek) philosophy founded in Athens in the early third century BCE. Zeno of Citium is the philosopher credited with starting Stoicism, which teaches people how to gain more self-control and to find peace of mind by accepting each moment as it is. Stoicism philosophy has many things in common with major Asian philosophical systems of thought, such as Buddhism and Confucianism.
One of the main goals of Stoicism is to train one’s mind to understand the world and human nature and to harmonize with them instead of fighting against them and wishing they were different. To be a Stoic, you must practice embracing your current circumstances instead of desiring pleasure or fearing pain.
Main Beliefs and Principles of Stoic Philosophy
“In life, our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”Epictetus, Ancient Stoic Philosopher
Stoicism promotes the harmonious relationship between the “cosmos” (the natural order of the world governed by a divine principle) and individuals. According to Stoicism, everything in the universe is interconnected and follows a deterministic path that’s guided by nature, divine reason, and logic.
Here’s more about the essential aspects of being a Stoic, according to the teachings of Stoicism:
1. Understanding and Accepting What You Can Control
Stoics divide the world into things that are up to us (our beliefs, judgments, desires, and actions) and things that are not up to us (basically, everything else).
Stoicism teaches that we should accept what we cannot control, focusing instead on how we respond. By focusing only on what we can control, we can be more resilient to the ups and downs of life, experience less stress, and achieve greater contentment.
2. Pursuit of Virtue
There are four main virtues in Stoicism which include: wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline.
Aristotle believed that humans are rational and social animals and that virtues are qualities that allow people to succeed in acting rationally and cooperating socially. According to Stoics, virtue is the highest good and the source of true happiness, or “the good life.” The opposite of virtue is vices, which are the source of evil.
In Stoicism, it’s believed that virtuous living equates to living in accordance with the natural order of the cosmos and the purpose of the universe. To live virtuously, a Stoic should aim to develop these traits:
3. Control Over Emotions
Stoics value rationality and believe destructive emotions result from errors in judgment. Stoicism doesn’t mean the absence of emotion but rather the transformation of emotional reactions. A Stoic aims to replace unhelpful and harmful emotions with a calm, rational understanding of what has occurred in order to respond wisely.
4. Harmony With Nature and Others
Stoics view the cosmos as a living being where everything is part of a larger organic unity. In this sense, everything that happens is part of a cosmic order, even if human beings do not necessarily understand or perceive that order.
A Stoic accepts the natural order of the world and seeks to align with it rather than fight against it. They also accept “fate” and experiences as they come, recognizing that many things are beyond one’s control. By living in accordance with reason and nature, people can achieve “eudaimonia,” or fulfillment, aligning themselves with the cosmic order.
Additionally, Stoics believe in a universal human brotherhood. They used the concept of “sympatheia” to describe the interconnectedness of all things and beings. According to Stoic thought, all people, regardless of their social status, are manifestations of one universal spirit. Therefore, every person deserves to be treated with respect and kindness.
Stoics teach that tranquility, or peace of mind, is achieved through understanding and accepting the world as it is. Learning Stoicism can help one to face suffering with resilience, deal with hardships, and approach death with less fear and a calm and balanced mind.
A Stoic can maintain equanimity even when faced with challenges by recognizing the impermanence of life, sources of good and evil, and the inevitability of suffering.
Various philosophical systems, including Stoicism and Buddhism, emphasize focusing on your actions and attitudes rather than external circumstances beyond your control. Here’s how to distinguish between these two categories:
What’s In Your Control
- Your actions: You can choose how to act or react in any given situation.
- Your thoughts: While it can be challenging, you can often control your thought patterns with practice and mindfulness.
- Your attitude: You can decide your attitude toward challenges and successes.
- Your effort: You control how much effort you put into your work, relationships, and hobbies.
- Your goals: You can set, modify, and pursue your personal and professional goals.
- Your values and integrity: You choose what values to live by and how to act in accordance with those values.
- Your lifestyle and habits: While not all aspects of health are controllable, you can often choose your diet, exercise, and sleep habits.
What’s Not in Your Control
- Other people’s actions, feelings, and opinions
- Economic or political climates
- Natural disasters and weather
- Your genetic makeup and predispositions
- Past events, including your upbringing
- Unexpected health issues
Benefits of Practicing Stoicism for Mental Health and Happiness
“Philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing, or even reading long, dense books. In fact, it is something men and women of action use—and have used throughout history—to solve their problems and achieve their greatest triumphs.”Ryan Holiday, Stoic Author
Studies have found that Stoicism can help people deal with worries and anxiety and gain peace of mind. “Many people confuse Stoicism, the philosophy (upper-case S) with stoicism (lower-case s), or having a ‘stiff upper lip,’” says Tim Lebon Phil, a researcher at the organization Modern Stoicism. But in his words, “The notions that Stoicism is only for times of great difficulty, or that Stoics repress emotions, are two of the most common myths about Stoicism.”
When the non-profit Modern Stoicism taught 1,200 participants how to use Stoicism in their everyday lives and then had participants complete well-being questionnaires, they found that the participants experienced “significant improvements in their well-being.” After Stoicism training, people reported greater life satisfaction, a sense of flourishing, an increase in positive emotions, and a decrease in negative emotions. Researchers discovered that the quality most associated with Stoicism “turns out to be zest, which means energy, enthusiasm, and looking forward to life’s challenges.”
Thinking and acting like a stoic can have several benefits, such as:
- Emotional Resilience: Research shows that Stoicism combines many of the benefits of cognitive-behavioral therapy and positive psychology. By understanding and managing your emotions, you can enjoy a more balanced and content life. This involves accepting what you cannot control, embracing uncertainty, and focusing on your responses, all of which help you gain self-control and confidence. This approach also cultivates resilience, decreases anxiety, and helps you cope with setbacks and challenges more effectively.
- Mental Clarity: Understanding that some things are beyond your control allows you to free your mind from unnecessary worries. Distinguishing between good and evil (or virtues and vices) also gives you a blueprint to follow that leaves you with less mental clutter and indecision.
- Improved Relationships: Stoicism teaches understanding, empathy, fairness, and acceptance, as well as emotional control and thoughtful responses, which lead to healthier relationships. It also emphasizes virtues such as self-discipline and justice that help build lasting connections.
- Enhanced Decision-Making: Stoics argue that unhelpful emotions are the result of false beliefs, so understanding these beliefs can help control emotions. To act as a Stoic means to think logically and objectively when making decisions instead of emotionally, irrationally, or impulsively. Stoics’ commitment to rationality, as well as virtue and ethics, guides them in making responsible decisions that contribute to the “greater good.”
- Effective Leadership: Having a calm, rational approach can make you an effective leader who can guide teams through challenges without panic or rash decisions. Being a Stoic also involves the continuous pursuit of knowledge, personal development, and self-improvement, which can contribute to career success.
- Productivity: Stoics focus on discipline as well as their overarching values and goals, meaning they don’t get sidetracked by unnecessary worries, vices, or conflicts. This allows them to be as focused and efficient as possible.
- Conflict Resolution: Having the ability to approach conflicts with reason and empathy can help resolve disputes, contributing to a life with more support and less stress.
Potential Drawbacks of Stoicism
Although Stoicism helps build resilience, some studies have found that people who suppress their emotions and fail to seek help when needed (both characteristics of people with “Type C personalities” who tend to downplay their feelings) may deal with health consequences as a result.
Type C’s are people often described as being precise, logical, and happiest in predictable environments. They shy away from being overly emotional or impulsive and have a hard time asking for assistance. One study published in BMJ Open found that people who strongly believe that they should manage their problems on their own, not show emotions, and not complain about physical discomfort are more prone to experiencing “internal cognitive conflicts” when faced with situations that require help from others. This internal conflict can lead to avoidance of help-seeking, with potentially life-threatening consequences for people’s health.
While Stoicism often emphasizes detachment from certain emotions as a means of control, some experts would instead encourage engagement and appropriate management of emotions rather than avoidance.
Prominent Stoic Philosophers + Works
“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Author and Philosopher
Famous ancient Stoic philosophers—including Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—helped shape Stoic philosophy and left behind valuable writings that detail what it means to be a Stoic. Although many Stoic works weren’t intended to be published or read by the public (they included private diaries, letters, and notes), they’ve inspired modern interpretations and adaptations of Stoicism for centuries.
Today, Stoicism is said to be “a living philosophy” with applications in the modern world. For example, popular contemporary authors such as Ryan Holiday (author of The Daily Stoic, The Obstacle is The Way, and Ego Is The Enemy) have been inspired by ancient Stoic teachings and continue to find ways to share Stoic lessons with millions of people every year.
Important and influential Stoic philosophers throughout history have included:
- Zeno of Citium: Considered the founder of Stoicism, Zeno is the philosopher who laid the groundwork for its teachings on ethics and logic. The Stoa Poikile is a historically significant location in Greece where Citium taught in the early third century BCE. The name “Stoicism” derives from “stoa,” reflecting the connection between this location and the philosophical tradition. Citium’s teachings helped establish the major philosophical schools of ancient Greece and Rome. He once said, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”
- Seneca: Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher who wrote extensively on ethics and morality, making significant contributions to the philosophical understanding of Stoicism. His works include Letters from a Stoic and On the Shortness of Life. As Molly Young for The New York Times writes, “The proper way to respond to catastrophe, the Stoics will tell you, is to perceive it as a training exercise. Or, as Seneca put it: ‘Disaster is virtue’s opportunity.’”
- Epictetus: A former slave turned philosopher, Epictetus provided practical advice on living a virtuous life, emphasizing the importance of accepting things outside of one’s control. His teachings are compiled in the Discourses and the Enchiridion. One of his lessons was that it’s not things or events that upset us but our judgments about these things. Therefore, how we think about things is key. He explained that you are only frustrated, disappointed, or angry about any situation because you have judged that something bad has happened—however, your judgments are not always correct.
- Marcus Aurelius: The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is renowned for his philosophical work Meditations, which are personal writings offering insight into how he applied Stoicism to his life and leadership. For instance, Aurelius believed that one should control emotional reactions to external events through understanding and wisdom. In Meditations, Aurelius states, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
7 Ways to Think and Act Like a Stoic
“A key principle of the ancient Stoics was the belief that we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us.”What Is Stoicism
A Stoic person embodies the principles of Stoicism in their daily life, for instance, by living a virtuous life, rejecting unhealthy vices, and practicing self-control, self-awareness, and reflection.
Here’s how to benefit from Stoic ideas and practices in both your personal and professional life:
1. Remain Calm and Composed
- Assume the best: Try to remain unruffled by external events, maintaining a calm demeanor even in stressful or frustrating situations.
- Don’t believe all your thoughts: Aim not to lose control over your emotional reactions by questioning your thoughts and giving yourself time to think things through.
- Physically calm your body: When stressed or angry, walk away from the situation to take deep breaths and calm yourself down. Once composed, use tools like journaling and talking to others to come to logical conclusions.
2. Think Rationally and Logically
- Approach problems and challenges with reason: Carefully analyze situations from different perspectives.
- Make decisions based on logic: Avoid acting on impulses or fleeting emotions. When making a decision, focus on facts and evidence. This doesn’t mean ignoring emotions but rather recognizing them and ensuring they don’t unduly influence your reasoning process.
- Understand your biases: Identify blindspots and actively work to counteract them. This involves constantly questioning your assumptions and seeking information from diverse sources.
- Learn to recognize common logical fallacies: For example, techniques such as breaking down assumptions or complex problems into smaller parts and evaluating each part logically can aid in rational thinking.
3. Focus on What’s In Your Control
- Don’t waste energy worrying about what’s beyond your control: This can include catastrophic events, other people’s behaviors, and judgment. Instead, focus on your actions and responses.
- Understand your values: Identify your mission so that you keep the “big picture” in mind. Have a clear understanding of your core principles. This foundation will guide you in making ethical decisions.
- Regularly reflecting on your actions: Check in to ensure your decisions align with your values. If they don’t, come up with a plan to change your trajectory.
4. Be Mindful of Your Thoughts and Reactions
- Practice self-awareness: Do this so you have a solid grasp of how you feel in different situations. For example, you can name which emotions you’re feeling in the moment (such as anger or sadness), which helps you break them down and analyze them more easily.
- Replace limiting beliefs: Work on replacing negative emotions and limiting beliefs with affirming beliefs, understanding, and acceptance. See yourself as a constant work-in-progress that’s always improving, regardless of the past.
- Develop a stress management toolkit: Knowing what relaxation techniques work for you (such as deep breathing, exercise, and hobbies) and having them readily available can be essential in stressful situations. Regular practice on a daily basis can make them more effective when you need them most.
5. Act Ethically and Virtuously
- Live in alignment with virtues: Emphasize wisdom-seeking, courage, justice, and self-discipline in everything you do.
- Be committed to doing the right thing: Act with integrity even when no one is watching.
- Seek guidance from others: Find mentors to confide in and learn from those with more experience and general expertise in ethical matters.
- Commit to transparency and accountability: Being open and honest about your decisions and actions fosters trust and integrity. If you make a mistake, owning up to it and taking appropriate steps to rectify it can demonstrate a strong commitment to justice and ethics.
6. Prioritize Being Empathetic and Just
- Lead with empathy and fairness: Recognize the shared humanity and flaws in all people. Treat others with dignity and respect, even if you’re in a position of power.
- Practice perspective-taking: Put yourself in “others’ shoes” and treat people how you would want to be treated.
- Give others your full attention: Show humility and consideration by actively listening. Assume everyone has something valuable to teach you.
7. Build Resilience
- Don’t fear failure: Make it your mission to bounce back from setbacks and failures, understanding that such experiences are inevitable and also valuable lessons that are crucial for growth.
- Maintain a growth mindset: This means you believe that you’re capable of continuously learning and evolving. It involves rejecting perfectionism and embracing challenges and new experiences.
- Remain open-minded: Constantly take in new information and perspectives. Stay fixated on humility which drives self-improvement.
How a Stoic Doesn’t Act
Given that Stoics emphasize being rational, fair, and composed, here’s how a Stoic person does not act:
- Impulsive: They avoid rash decisions based on superficial wants and fleeting desires.
- Overly Attached to Material Possessions: They understand that external goods are temporary and don’t base their happiness on them.
- Vengeful or Petty: They don’t hold grudges and strive to be forgiving and understanding instead.
- Overwhelmed by Emotions: They work to understand and manage their emotions rather than being controlled by them.
Viewing Stoicism as One Way to Build Emotional Intelligence
Stoicism offers a robust framework for personal development and ethical living that can be valuable in various aspects of life. Stoicism and emotional intelligence, though distinct concepts, share common ground in their emphasis on understanding, managing, and appropriately responding to emotions.
Here are some ways to adopt Stoic principles to build emotional intelligence:
- Practice Introspection: Assess your perspectives and beliefs regularly to challenge irrational thoughts. See things as they are, not as you believe they should be. Contemplate your actions, judgments, and reactions to let go of what you can’t control, like external events or people’s opinions.
- Take Responsibility for Yourself: Focus your energy on what you can do to better yourself and your life, regardless of your past or circumstances. Think about how you can use your strengths to contribute positively to the world.
- Fight Irrational Fears: Accept that you can’t predict or control many things in life. To worry less, visualize worst-case scenarios to appreciate what you have and diminish the fear of helplessness and adversity. Consider approaches you could take to tackle obstacles if they did in fact come your way.
- Embrace Challenges: View obstacles as opportunities for growth and learning instead of threats. Just as you treat others with compassion, practice self-compassion and recognize your humanity.
- Be a Lifelong Learner: Write daily reflections about your thoughts and actions. Learn from your mistakes and strive for personal improvement, much like Marcus Aurelius did in Meditations.
Want to learn more about the ideas and advice of Ancient Stoics? Check out this article:
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