Welcome back to the Unhappiness Project, an exploration of the whats, whys and wherefores of the least welcome and seemingly most common emotion: unhappiness.
You’ll recall that last week we looked at the idea that our unhappiness is an intrinsic part of us, a sort of evolutionary stowaway that has grimly hung on, no matter how much else we’ve changed in response to our environment.
It is probably fair to say that when we experience unhappiness, it is not usually an emotion we want to dwell on. So, for as long as it has hung around, I’m willing to bet that people have worked on ways to rid ourselves of it.
As a species, we’re generally quite imaginative when it comes to dealing with problems.
How we’ve come to deal unhappiness is no exception. Go back to our working definition of unhappiness, that is, the emotion that we feel when there’s a gap between where we are and where we want to be, but we don’t have the means to bridge the gap, then look at all the ways we’ve found a way to mitigate that emotion: religion, meditation, booze, drugs, music and philosophy have all played a part.
We’re going to start with philosophy, and here’s why…
At the beginning of Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, he kicks off with a poem in which he figuratively waves a frail and angry fist at the world, unhappy about how much it sucks to be old and how Fortune has abandoned him. He even finds a moment to riff off Herodotus’ comment about Croesus of Lydia (“Call no man happy until he is dead”) when he wonders why his friends used to boast of his happiness, given how far he’s fallen.
So far, so miserable. Then, as is so often the case when men find themselves lying around complaining that their life’s turned to poo, he’s visited by a woman who, sizing up the situation, demands that the Muses of Poetry (“theatrical tarts” in my translation) who’ve been encouraging Boethius to wallow in his misery to be gone, and tells him to get a grip.
Our lady visitor is none other than Philosophy herself, who name checks half a dozen of the classical era’s best and brightest, including Anaxagoras, Socrates, Zeno, Plato, Canius and Seneca, the last two stalwarts of the Stoic school of philosophy. So, for no particular reason, other than the fact that Stoicism particularly resonates with me, we’ll start there.
The Stoic school was started in Athens around 300 BCE, spinning off from the Cynic school, by Zeno of Citium. Its key tenet was that, by practice and training, the Stoic could overcome emotion by way of a combination of self-control and fortitude. This mental disciple, as Stuart Walton points out in Humanity: An Emotional History, allows the Stoic to reason that someone who doesn’t ask for much, can hardly be disappointed.
AA Long, in Hellenistic Philosophy, cites Zeno as claiming that, “A man’s excellence or virtue does not depend on his success in obtaining anything in the external world; it depends entirely on having the right mental attitude toward things”. For man, read person, but you get the general gist.
Given the Romans’ fairly brutal attitude to life (after all, Rome’s founder had been abandoned to drown in the river Tiber, together with his twin, whom he later killed), Stoicism became a thing in Rome, culminating in its adoption by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose most famous work, The Meditations, cornered the market in witty and insightful aphorisms in the second century CE.
For reasons beyond my ken (but probably something to do with the fact that I know next to nothing about cognitive behavioral therapy), CBT enthusiasts also have a bit of a thing for Stoicism. One of the most succinct summaries of the Stoic approach I’ve come across was done by a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist called David Robertson, which sets out the three strands of Stoic theory, as set out by Stoic philosopher (and former slave) Epictetus:
- The Discipline of Desire, which has to do with acceptance of our fate;
- The Discipline of Action, which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind;
- The Discipline of Assent, which has to do with mindfulness of our judgments.
Taken together, these three disciplines allow the Stoic to gain a clear understanding of “logos” (the natural universal reason in all things), from which stems the Stoic maxim, “Live according to nature”. Interestingly, the opening line of the Greek translation of the Book of Genesis reads thus: “En archē ēn ho Lógos”, or “In the beginning was the Word…”. Leave that with you, but we might pick it up later when we get on to religion…
Possibly because of its similarity to certain strands of Buddhist thought, in the aftermath of the West’s rush to embrace its own Starbucks version of Eastern philosophy, stoicism has enjoyed something of a comeback in recent years.
Today, we even celebrate Stoic Week, which started as a workshop at the University of Exeter in the UK, and is now at the forefront of a Stoic revival. Weird but apparently true.
Stoicim, to me at least, seems the perfect way to deal with the inevitable unhappiness that arises over the course of any given life. As even Croesus found, just because your name becomes a byword for wealth down the ages, it doesn’t mean that you’re immune from life’s iniquities. Or in his case, from being burnt alive by an angry Persian emperor.
In essence, Stoicism is a way to strip away the emotion and grief that comes as life’s free gift, and focus on the cereal within. It grants the confidence to know that you should really only worry about what you can fix, and ignore the rest. And if the rest is still bothering you, then keep working on it…
Pissed off that your car’s been stolen? Reflect on the fact that a) you’ll probably get it back, b) the person who stole it has probably had a pretty shit life up til now if they’re spending their time breaking into cars for a hobby and most importantly c) YOU get to decide how you feel, not some moron with a knack with bent coat hangers.
It allows you to love all the people in your life when they’re angry or stressed or miserable. Because rather than getting pulled into their particular snarl, you can step back and try to understand not only that they’re unhappy but to try and figure out why they’re unhappy. More often than not, the grief being directed at you is only being directed at you because you’re handily placed, and what’s really fired them up is something completely different.
That said, Stoicism can often be mistaken for a smug unwillingness to engage. But that is the price you pay for opting out of unhappiness.
Next week, it’s another Helleno-centric philosophy…but this time, rather than aiming for wisdom, virtue and the emotional fortitude to tough it out, these folk choose to make the most of what they have…ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…LGBTI*…it’s the Epicureans…