The Wisdom of the Stoics

Lately, I’ve been thinking about setbacks. In yesterday’s post, I shared a list of setbacks I encountered throughout the year. I’d like to share that list again, but this time with updates or actions I’m taking to overcome them.

-My mom fell and broke her wrist and elbow. Update: she texted me today to tell me she got the all-clear from the doctor and she’s fully healed.

-My uncle went into a coma. Update: he continues to show signs of progress every day.

-At 29 years old, I was diagnosed with a diminished ovarian reserve. Update: I decided to freeze my eggs and have been reading up on all the latest research and making lifestyle changes to increase my odds of success.

-The person I’ve been dating for the last 14 months ended things with me. Update: I’ve already started putting myself out there again and have a few dates lined up.

Not everything is where I want it to be, but having a plan and taking action instead of sitting on my couch and wallowing in my own sadness brings me a lot more happiness than doing nothing. Even if I haven’t reached all my goals, I’m at least moving forward and that’s what’s important.

I listened to an episode of The Happiness Lab yesterday, where the guest was Professor William B. Irvine, the author of The Stoic Challenge. After listening to the podcast, I immediately checked out the book and devoured the whole thing in one sitting.

The Stoics were a group of ancient philosophers, who came up with a way of dealing with setbacks in a way that minimizes negatives emotions. At the core of this strategy are two important techniques: anchoring and framing.

Anchoring involves practicing negative visualization to better appreciate your life. For example, this morning I took a few seconds to visualize going to take a shower and having no running water. I visualized being thirsty and going to take a drink of water, only to find the faucet running dry. Even though I only spent a few seconds doing this exercise, you better believe I was more grateful to step into my warm shower that morning and take my first sip of water of the day.

Framing involves casting your situation in a different context. There are a few different frames you can use. One might be humor, so instead of getting angry about a setback, you can find a way to laugh about it. Another is storytelling, which means you go through the situation thinking about how you will tell the story later, but to have a good story you have to come up with a better resolution than just stomping your feet and getting angry, because that’s not a very good story at all.

My favorite framing technique, however, is pretending you’re being tested by the imaginary Stoic Gods. Whenever an obstacle presents itself in your life, pretend it’s these mischievous beings meddling in your life. They’re testing you with this obstacle because they think you’re capable of handling it (so really, you should be flattered) and also to help make you even stronger and more resilient. Afterwards, you can grade yourself on how well you reacted emotionally and the efficiency of your solution to the problem.

I tried practicing this technique when I had a very minor setback today. Someone I’d had a good conversation with on a dating app and planned to meet up with suddenly unmatched with me (welcome to the world of online dating!) I got a little upset, before I remembered the wisdom of the ancient philosophers. I laughed and thought to myself, good one, Stoic Gods!

Admittedly, I did wallow for a few minutes before I enacted the technique, but I imagine with more practice it’ll become more of a habit.

The thing about setbacks in life is that they’re unavoidable. They’re also costly. They can cost us our time, our money, our health, our relationships, among other things. But when I think back to some of my biggest setbacks, I realized that what followed was always better. When I got laid off from my last job, I got hired at a company I liked more where I got a significant pay raise and was happier overall. After my last relationship ended, I met someone I connected with more and who dating helped me grow considerably as a person. I mean, isn’t that what happens when you go through hard times? Good times almost always follow.

The most important change I’ve had to my mindset recently is that you won’t be magically happier after accomplishing x, y, and z. You might be happier for a time, but then there will be more obstacles and setbacks. Good times and bad times go hand in hand, and it’s the bad times that make you really appreciate how great the good times are. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use the wisdom of the Stoics to make the bad times feel a lot less bad.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Stoic philosophy, I highly recommend checking out The Stoic Challenge.

And if you’re going through a hard time right now: good luck, and don’t let those Stoic Gods get the best of you!

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