Book Review – Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

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Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson

The Stoics also emphasized the notion that by anticipating possible future adversities we can learn to take away the sense of ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ that often accompanies their occurrence, seeing them instead as something natural and in some cases inevitable in life.

Donald Robertson, p. 159

The truth is that Stoicism has a lot to offer modern readers. However, I’ve found the predominant use of ancient Greek terminology to describe key concepts for English readers has had a dampening effect on its adoption in the US. There’s nothing wrong with using Greek words to describe Greek ideas. The problem is that many modern readers are unfamiliar with these foreign words. This means readers must learn both a “new language” and new cognitive strategies in order to make Stoic philosophy an accessible way of life.

A Strange New Vocabulary

  • Eudaimonia – happiness/sense of fulfillment from living a “noble” (Reason-focused) life
  • Ataraxia – tranquility/peace of mind
  • Hupexhairesis – reserve clause/Fate Willing/I’ll do all in my power, but I accept that it may not turn out how I planned.
  • Prosechê – attention to one’s mind/mindfulness of your thoughts

I think this is where Robertson has done a remarkable job in creating a textbook for modern Stoicism to rival the historic Handbook of Epictetus in it’s usefulness to the common reader. There are so many great texts on Stoicism—both ancient and modern—that it can be difficult to know where to start your search.

Robertson has made your decision effortless and given you the best of both worlds from Seneca to Hadot. If you want a solid understanding and a real chance at practicing the Stoic way of life, grab a copy of this book and start reading today. Robertson not only provides a slew of source material, but he also gives us a helpful format that provides structure and guidance as we learn how to approach life with Stoic mindfulness.

Additionally, the novel Teach Yourself format reinforces key concepts to help you maximize your understanding as well as easily refer back to the material as you interact with it. Some of the most helpful features include “Try it Now” practice exercises, “Case Studies” and “Self Assessments.”

Give this one a chance and experience the rich history of the Stoics while getting real world perspectives and even psychological insights from CBT – Cognitive Behavior Theory. Stoicism as a philosophy of life can help you achieve your best.

The Cornerstone of Success

There really is no shortcut to success. It takes constant work and repetition to create the skills necessary to build your best life.

It is only with hard work that greatness can be achieved. Too often we look at those around us and end up envying their possessions, fortune and fame. The truth is that we can be unfair in those moments.

  • Why are we upset about another’s good fortune?
  • What are we fighting for—a home full of “stuff” or a better life?
  • Are we jealous or are we seeking opportunities that may be withheld from us?

We seem to forget that the cornerstone to success isn’t luck but effort. Success—in whatever form it takes for you—can only be achieved when you direct that effort toward your goal. You can’t wish for a better tomorrow. You have to build it one day at a time.

  • We can dream of having the fortunes of others.
  • We can wish for the winning lottery ticket.
  • We can imagine the great deeds and generous donations we would make if only we had “the money.”

When we do those things, we missed the point. We spent all of our energy dreaming but never planning. We will spend all our time imagining how we would spend uncollected fortunes, but we will never plan a way to make that fortune.

For some reason, too many of us spend our days stuck hoping that the our lucky day will come, that we’ll will win the lottery, or that a windfall will find its way to our doorstep. I find that discouraging. Why can’t we spend our days actively building that better tomorrow? What can we do today other than dream?

Desire can be a two edged sword. It can motivate you to accomplish more when you wield it as a tool to aid you in your labors. However, it can also easily hold you back if you spend your time longing for the golden blade of your neighbor.

A blade wielded is a helpful tool. A blade set aside or longed for performs no labor. It’s better to use a rusty blade to accomplish your work than to do nothing. What does it matter if your tool is old as long as it aids you in your purpose?

In modern words, use the tools you have. Don’t let your hangups, embarrassment or opinions keep you from achieving your goals.

Happiness is a Metaphor

It seems everyone has heard of at least one apocryphal or even modern sage who has some “secret” to share for achieving your best life. They speak confidently that if you listen carefully, and follow their instructions precisely, you will ultimately find happiness.

It’s absurd.

The goal we are told to seek is flawed. We look for joy and forget the truth that the concept is fleeting. We treat our emotions as if they were tangible goods that could be bought in any marketplace. Then, when we can no longer grasp and hold on to this phantom “feeling,” we flounder in despair.

We struggle, and we fight against the world. We do more of the “right” things. We follow more of the same archaic rules. We continue to rely on the illusion of hope, because we’ve invested so much time and energy toward this single idea that we can’t bring ourselves to admit defeat and change our course. We act as if action and belief are enough to manifest joy and banish pain. We desperately justify and narrate our stories with grand fictions placing ourselves as either heroes or tragic victims. We create myth so that at least in fiction there is a version of happiness that will last the remainder of our lives.

This is the happinesses illusion. We end up blaming our failure to find our unobtainable goal as a defect in ourselves—in our faith, in our character or even in our will. Those “secrets” we were given only led to empty promises, and our unfounded hope binds us to an unpleasant truth.

  • We can do all the right things.
  • We can follow all the rules.
  • We still won’t find lasting happiness or joy.

Somewhere along the way we drew the erroneous conclusion that happiness should be the goal of life. We decided pleasure and joy were the endgame. If we could just achieve this almost sublime state of mind, then we had made it to the “promised land”—the mystical height of the human condition.

This is clearly untrue, but we still blindly support this belief system. Every time we make it our goal and purpose in life to be happy, we set ourselves up for failure. We reinforce this false dynamic with happiness traps.

  • If only I could save up enough money to buy a house, I’d be happy.
  • If only I could finish school…
  • If only I could get this job…

What’s keeping us from being happy with what we have? What’s preventing us from living successful and impactful lives without acquiring something more?

We all understand that happiness feels good. Pleasure is fun and it’s easy to to pursue. Who doesn’t want to have a little more fun in their lives? In contrast, hardships are unpleasant and we will do our best to avoid them. So, we end up choosing the wrong priorities. We stop thinking about how we can can live more impactful and influential lives, and instead we focus on what we can acquire to make our days a little more convenient and less burdensome.

Just because we avoid hardships doesn’t mean we should seek happiness as the end goal. The unfortunate truth is that we’re incapable of being happy 100% of the time. Happiness is a subjective, emotive and ever-adapting response to our environment. Happiness has never been a tangible measurement or a lasting state of mind. We can’t weigh happiness and ensure everyone keeps 5 lbs of joy on them at all times. So, why do we keep acting as if joy were something we can purchase or acquire through hard work?

Emotions are temporary responses to changes in our environment. By definition they cannot be sustained indefinitely. You can’t keep yourself in the throes of jubilation laughing for the rest of your life over the joke you told when you were in the third grade. Happiness is a roller coaster of highs and lows.

  • I can have a rough morning and find true happiness savoring a cup of coffee.
  • I can break my leg and find bliss looking into the eyes of my partner who’s there by my side.
  • I can lose my job and still come home to an enthusiastic, tail-wagging dog who always wants to play and has no concept of his human’s trials.

Happiness is like the rising and setting of the sun. It’s always there if you know both when and where to look for it. Joy is the metaphor we use for reminding ourselves to pause and appreciate the passing of the time.

  • All things come and go.
  • Bad things will eventually end.
  • Good things will ultimately disappear.

We need to make peace with the reality that we’re temporary—just like happiness.