9 Principles of Stoicism which will Improve your Life

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Tim Ferriss’ most recent podcasts and studies demonstrate a keen focus, as always, on self-improvement. Yet specifically, his new series introduce practices of Stoicism.

What is Stoicism?

The four great works of four Roman stoics focus on four key central ideas which describe Stoicism, as defined by Exeter University:

Value: the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness. External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness. Although there is nothing wrong with these things and they do hold value and may well form part of a good life, often the pursuit of these things actually damages the only thing that can bring us happiness: an excellent, rational mental state.

Emotions: our emotions are the project of our judgements, of thinking that something good or bad is happening or is about to happen. Many of our negative emotions are based on mistaken judgements, but because they are due to our judgements it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions. Despite the popular image, the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn’t have them in the first place. This isn’t as cold as it might at first sound: we ought to overcome harmful, negative emotions that are based on mistaken judgments while embracing correct positive emotions, replacing anger with joy.

Nature: the Stoics suggest we ought to live in harmony with Nature. Part of what they mean by this is that we ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control. There is nothing to be gained from trying to resist these larger processes except anger, frustration, and disappointment. While there are many things in the world that we can change, there are many others we cannot and we need to understand this and accept it.

Control: in the light of what we have seen, there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not. Happily the one thing we do have control over is the only thing that can guarantee a good, happy life.

Articles on Stoicism

Paul Jun through 99U article 9 key principles of Stoicism, detailed 9 solid principles of Stoicism. A fascinating article which in addition to other articles as follows, gave a compelling need to bring together a summary:

9 Principles of Stoicism

Detailed below are the 9 Principles of Stoicism, summarised from the Paul Jun article:

1. Acknowledge that all emotions come from within

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

2. Find someone you respect, and use them to stay honest

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. This is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.” — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic

3. Recognize there is life after failure

“Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

4. Read purposefully, and apply your knowledge

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” — Epictetus, The Art of Living

5. Challenge yourself to be brutally honest

“‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure? So — to the best of your ability — demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the first part of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.” — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic

6. Reflect on what you spend the most time on

“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

7. Remind yourself: you weren’t meant to procrastinate

So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doings things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

8. Put the phone away and be present

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic

9. Remind yourself that time is our most precious resource

“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Stoicism in the Modern Day

Evidently, elements of Stoicism appears to have profound benefits on the development and progression of society. Yet the principles come with flaws. Stoicism, through personal studies tends to be:

  • Individualistic: The principles, loosely focus on developing oneself. In modern leadership, yes, we have to develop ourselves. But naturally, it is through developing and learning from others that we improve the most. One could argue stoicism focus on this ‘communal’ aspect of development, yet many argue it is individualistic in nature
  • Ignorance of Advancements: Stoicism tends to focus on the more traditional tools and techniques associated with grounding ourselves in our environment. Yet many technological advances have helped to improve our lives and through leveraging these we can create the same, if not better effects, of a traditional stoic-focused life
  • Acceptance: Arguments exist to suggest that Stoicism is focused on accepting the cards you have been dealt, know your place in society and ultimately, do not challenge the status quo
  • What is Happiness? Stoicism focused on the underlying principle that unhappiness exists. Yet many non-stoics may suggest happiness exists in all walks of life. You could argue, these are already living life by a ‘calm and collective’ manner and thus stoic principles need not apply.

Application of Stoicism

Stoicism in the modern day is less about the solid nature of the philosophical teachings from the likes of Marcus Aurelius and more about how we apply principles in our every day life. The 9 Principles of Stoicism help us to do this.

It is not about taking the practices and looking to transform our lives by following the teachings like a bible, but cherry picking to form our own adaptation of Stoic practices. Essentially, you do not have to be a Stoic to become heavily influenced by Stoics!

About Stephen

Follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter (@_Baines & @BeTranquilLed), and Instagram (@BeTranquilLed) where I regularly post insights relating to Health, Wellness, Mindfulness, Leadership & Innovation. Note that all views are my own

Read more about Stephen and Tranquil Led at Stephen’s personal website and sign-up to our introduction to mindfulness course here which follows these Stoic principles

Founder at Tranquil Led & Mindfulness Evangelist at Salesforce.

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