Stoicism and the Happiness Pendulum

pendulum wrecking ball

Are you happy? How do you know? And is that important? Why or why not? What does a pendulum have to teach us about happiness? What does that have to do with Stoic philosophy?

We all want to be happy, notwithstanding the fact that our conceptions of ‘happiness’ can vary considerably. But how many of us really are ‘happy’?

Unlike modern academic philosophy, this was an issue of primary concern for the philosophers of Ancient Greece. In fact, it is quite accurate to say that philosophical schools in the Hellenistic period distinguished themselves foremost by their distinct answers to the question of how to be happy and live a good life, for instance, the Epicureans, the Pyrrhonian Skeptics, the Cynics, and the Stoics. I will focus on Stoicism here, although the other schools would agree with much of it.

As an engineer, one metaphor I have lately come to use to distinguish between a wise and unwise emotional life is a pendulum. Recently I shared this metaphor in the comment section of a Stoic Week reading and received several highly enthusiastic replies. Perhaps then many more of you will find it similarly illustrative.

I want to get to the pendulum metaphor as quickly as possible, but first I should provide some background on the Stoic approach to happiness and a good life. If you are not familiar with Stoicism, I encourage you to click the link above, it is not very long. If you are dying to read about pendulums you can skip to the last section.

Happiness and Stoic Flourishing

Stoicism is a philosophy but a very practical one. It is foremost concerned with answering the question ‘what should I do?’, from the moment of waking to the moment of sleep. In fact, it inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a family of therapies which are, on average, proven to be the most effective forms of psychotherapy today. Can you imagine any modern philosophy inspiring a highly successful school of psychotherapy?

Today, we think of ‘happiness’ as a feeling of elation. It is a subjective state which can arise for pretty much any reason. A happy feeling is a happy feeling regardless of how it was caused. The ancient Stoics said that having the pursuit of this kind of ‘happiness’ as the primary goal of our lives is misguided, it can betray us and is not necessarily a good indicator for a life that is meaningful, worthwhile, or logical. Continue reading

What I Learned as a Stoic Hiking for 23 Hours – (Pt. 3) – Challenge, Struggle, and the Will to Live

Mourne Wall - in the clouds

This is part three of a series. Click here to read part one and part two.

… A long hike provides plenty of time to think as well as a new, invigorating, environment to stimulate the mind. It was a great experience, and after being rejuvenated by the challenge and the sweeping natural beauty, I want to pass on to you some reflections of a more philosophical nature …

Frankly, in the first ten minutes I must have asked myself ‘why am I doing this?’ several times. I am very physically fit, but the hike was a proper challenge (not least because I did the first day on one hour of sleep) and throughout the two days I repeated this question, consistently having to dig deep and propel myself forwards. I was carrying a bag which was over a quarter of my body weight up and down steep slopes with aching feet and legs, the straps bruising my torso tender. The most steps demanded full concentration due to the risk of losing my footing and falling or twisting an ankle, and I must have twisted my ankles 5-10 times.

But I kept on walking. Why? It is interesting to consider this matter, not because our hike was an extraordinary human accomplishment (it wasn’t), but because it is a microcosm which provides insight into the core of human motivation and even the meaning of life itself. I found it an immensely beneficial exercise which ramified into the rest of my life.

So what was my answer? Well, most concretely it was ‘agh, shut up, keep going …’. There was a plaintive monologue which would have defeated me if I didn’t refute it or dispel it somehow. This is always the case in life. Our minds present us with moaning and self-criticism which we can either accept or overcome. We just have to tell it to shut up or we’ll be miserable. Often, arguing with it is giving it too much of a platform. If you can, it’s typically better to just slam the door in its face without an explanation.

It is quite a circular idea, but one reason I enjoyed the hike was figuring out how to combat this negative narrative, resisting that cowardly voice which wants nothing but to crawl into bed and exert no effort. To put one foot in front of the other I had to be very skilled in managing my own thoughts. At my most tired and sore, I would scramble for anything to throw back at my own negativity.

As such, it was an exercise in testing what I am made of. We need extreme circumstances to learn about ourselves, to discover the fault lines and the powerful flows. We need extreme circumstances to refine our character, like a knife needs a whetstone to become sharper.

A hike has the advantage that it is entirely voluntary, as opposed to some of the grueling experiences we can find ourselves braving. Although, I have come to think that the best challenge of all is the one which you don’t choose or which you don’t want. That is the challenge which tests you the most. It is much easier to pick a challenge which you like, such as traversing several mountains. It is much more difficult to face a challenge which you’re sick of, or which was foisted upon you, or which is boring and has little opportunity for glory, or which just involves you treading water.

If we want to prove to ourselves that we can face a challenge, rather than some voluntary or exciting subset of challenges, then we ought to look right where we are at the unglamourous, drawn out, and tedious, demands of the day.

My Pride and Joy

Returning to the question of ‘why am I doing this?’, it is time to consider that idea of proving something to ourselves.

But first, let’s get the admissions out of the way. Yes, I would be embarrassed in front of my friend if I gave up (even as a Stoic!), ashamed to be wimpy, and feel foolish for attempting what I could not accomplish, as well as guilty for disrupting their plans. It is funny how much we care about what others think.

Yes it is reasonable to be concerned about hindering others, but overall these are stupid reasons and unhelpful ways of thinking. By the way, note I said reasonable to be concerned about hindering others, rather than guilty. I think guilt is almost always counterproductive. What really matters is what people do, not how they feel. If you do something wrong, correct it as much as you can and change your behaviour so that you don’t do it again. Guilt doesn’t necessarily have any role in that process. In fact, guilt often functions to make us self-obsessed. We become focused on how bad we feel rather than on the objective circumstances.

It’s one of those emotions, like anger, for which there might be an argument that on very rare occasions it is necessary and helpful, but which is otherwise a waste of time and destructive. I am currently trying to eliminate guilt as much as I can from my life, and lo and behold I am not turning into a psychopath. Anyway, guilt is worth an article in its own right, at least, so let’s move on.

On the opposite side of the same phenomenon was being able to say (read: brag) to others that I did it. And here I am (not really). We can impress people such that they approve or disapprove of us, but regardless of the sense – positive or negative – the concern is with impressing others.

From a Stoic perspective, embarrassment is not a very interesting motivation since it is quite irrational, and neither is bragging. But another kind of pride was operative, something which is far more interesting and important. I didn’t want to let myself down after committing to the task. My ability to make a decision and stick with it until completion despite discomfort is very important to me, and it is part of how I define myself as a person. Being able to follow something like that through makes me happy to be me. Giving up would have meant that I would have to go about my life from then on knowing that I capitulated. Continue reading

What I Learned as a Stoic Hiking for 23 Hours – (Pt. 2) – Going Soft, Need, and Use Value

Mourne Wall - sheep slope vert

This is part two in a series – click here to read part one.

… A long hike provides plenty of time to think as well as a new, invigorating, environment to stimulate the mind. It was a great experience, and after being rejuvenated by the challenge and the sweeping natural beauty, I want to pass on to you some reflections of a more philosophical nature …

Sheep are quite abundant in the Mourne mountains, and I noticed how they would casually walk about in some of the harshest, steepest, terrain, while my friend and I, the two humans, would pant and curse and consider ourselves heroic. The sheep don’t expect any pomp or congratulations, they just get on with it. Of course, sheep are adapted to hilly terrain so they have an advantage, but the observation applies to other animals too. Non-human animals do all sorts of things each which if done by a human would be bound to appear in a best-selling autobiography.

Here we go again, another sanctimonious lecture from someone who spent a few hours outdoors. Not really. But it was impossible not to see that humans in many parts of the world, mostly the rich places and the wealthier people, have gotten soft. The industrial and post-industrial lifestyle has detached most of us from the natural world and lead many of us to expect far too much comfort and convenience in life. Many people in rich countries can’t even cook in their own kitchens let alone collect their own food and build their own fire. When the slightest thing ‘goes wrong’ we moan and moan. The Wi-Fi isn’t working, or the bus is late, or my take-away pizza has the wrong toppings on it. It’s raining, how terrible. I’m too ‘tired’ to go down and put my clothes in the washing-machine.

I count myself as much as anyone else in this. What a joke! We are imbued with literally millions of years of hard-earned grit and determination, awesome senses, and the sharpest rational mind on Earth, and we are allowing ourselves to corrode like an axe abandoned in a bucket of water.

It’s not a matter of machismo. I’m not interested in chest-beating about being a hard man ‘alpha male’. Our going soft has many important ramifications but just one I’ll mention here is climate change. Action is most needed at the highest institutional levels of society, but how can we expect to stop this global existential threat if we are too lazy and weak-minded to change the way we live? It’s death by convenience.

What Do I Really Need?

Following on, an immanent question during the hike was ‘what do I really need?’. The first reason is that every bit of weight one carries is felt. My bag was too heavy (20kg), and in the first few minutes I knew that the hike would be tough. So one begins to ask ‘what could I not have brought? What could I throw away?’. Did I really need that spare t-shirt? Did I actually need the gas cooker? The second reason is that everything you are missing is really noticed. If you forget a rain jacket or are left at dinnertime with a tin of beans and no opener, it will have a significant effect and you will just have to deal with the absence.

This question is also central to Stoic philosophy, which is concerned with what life is fundamentally about and hence, all things considered, what a human being truly needs. Continue reading

What I Learned as a Stoic Hiking for 23 Hours – (Pt. 1) – Time, Nature, and Individualism

leaning over hill view

This is the first in a series of four posts. I just returned from walking the Mourne Wall in County Down with a friend. A long hike provides plenty of time to think as well as a new, invigorating, environment to stimulate the mind. It was a great experience, and after being rejuvenated by the challenge and the sweeping natural beauty, I want to pass on to you some reflections of a more philosophical nature.

Before that, here are the basic facts of the Mourne Mountains and our hike. The hike is definitely ‘strenuous’. An article from Extreme Ireland states that:

This is not a stroll in the country but a serious endurance test. Two of the guys from our company did it as training for climbing Mount Blanc and said that it was one of the most challenging tests they had ever faced. The amount of ascents and descents one after the other grinds your willpower down.

The whole wall is 35.5km and it crosses the peaks of 15 of the highest Mourne mountains. The total elevation (adding up all of the mountain peaks) is about 2700m, which is almost a third of Mt. Everest (though of course Everest is much tougher). Sometimes you look ahead to see the wall climbing up a hill which is about as steep as you can ascend without climbing equipment and you think ‘how did they build that?’.

Originally intended to keep animals like sheep from the catchment area of the Silent Valley reservoir which provides water to all of Belfast, it is a granite dry stone wall and took 18 years to complete. However, the generous supplies of sheep droppings on either side (and flocks of curious sheep …) attest to its failure, which was of much amusement to us for the duration of the hike: a giant wall built to keep animals out which doesn’t keep animals out.

We did almost all of the Mourne Wall walk in 2 days, camping overnight. Some people complete the ‘Mourne Wall Challenge’ by walking it in 1 day. Fair play to them. I think our heavy gear seriously slowed us down, but we will be back with a vengeance to complete it in one day. My bag was 3 stone or 20kg, which is, shall we say, difficult to ignore. We hiked for 10 hours the first day, and 13 hours the second, including 4 hours in darkness, making 23 hours total.

The Industrial Clock

The first thing we talked about when we set off on our trek was time. ‘Will we stop to eat lunch at 12?’ I said. My friend responded by saying that we would stop whenever we felt hungry.

With the rise of capitalism in the 18th century came a new way of thinking about time. If you are reading this article (i.e. not a hunter gatherer or nomad who possibly has a different cultural conception of time) then this is the ‘completely obvious’ way which you likely take for granted unless you have read about the social history of time. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #18 – Never Mistake Begun for Finished


Never mistake begun for finished.

I have a long list of entries in a word document for which I plan to create posts in the A Stoic Journal series. When I use an entry, I cross it off the list. I was about to cross it off but I caught myself. I haven’t actually written the post yet and it is very important not to mistake begun for finished.

The beginning can be the hardest aspect of many things in life, like kicking an addiction, setting up a date, or sitting an interview. However, the beginning is often the easiest part in life. At the very least, it is often much easier than finishing. For example, it is very easy to have big dreams and conceive of plans, even very intricate plans, and it is equally easy never to bring those dreams and plans to fruition, or equally easy never to even bother trying to make them real.

Finishing is a phenomenon in its own right. Seeing things through to the end is much, much, more than tacking on 5 or 10 percent to the total. Bringing something to completion transforms a change in quantity (75% done -> 100% done) into a change in quality (not complete -> complete). Try sitting on a chair with 3 legs, or driving a car with 3 wheels. You can live your whole life making 25 percents, 50 percents, and even 75 percents, but finishing something is in another category.

A life of finishes is a different life to a life only of beginnings. So much of our frustration can come from not following through. And our inability to follow through can be a solid indicator for broader problems in our life, indecisiveness, lack of discipline, inability to endure boredom and discomfort, insatiable desire, immaturity. If we get into the habit of finishing things it can help us bring these characteristics more into line. Continue reading

What the Hell is Stoicon? (London 2018)

lecture screen Here is a fact: everybody wants to live well but most of us aren’t particularly good at it. Why would we be? Living can be difficult and complicated and we learn all sorts of unhelpful ideas and behaviours throughout our development. So how can we correct this?

Imagine there was an event where you could attend talks and workshops given by psychologists and academic experts designed to apply ancient Greek wisdom to our shared goal of greater freedom, contentment, and justice. Well, since 2013 you don’t have to imagine, because Stoicon is precisely that event. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #17 – It is OK to Be Frightened

It is OK to be frightened, what matters is how you respond to that fear. Will you swim up the freezing river, or crawl into a secluded corner and slowly die?

Life can be characterised in many different ways. One of the most apt is that life is a battle against fear. Fear is with us from the moment we enter conscious existence till the moment we leave it. If we are water then fear is like the slope of the mountain, we flow around its contours, being nudged and dragged according to the limits the rock imposes on us, taking the path of lesser resistance. (This has nothing to do with the ‘freezing river’ mentioned above).

Let us admit it. Fear is horrible. Of all the things in life we want the least, fear is chief. It is like an invisible force field, best illustrated by popular online videos of pet dogs who won’t walk past cats, stopping at an invisible boundary delineated only by their sense of fear. Humans are no different. Suggest that a friend ask someone on a date and observe their jaw clamp shut unable to speak and their hand seize up unable to operate a phone. We can’t really explain to ourselves why experiencing fear is so horrible, it is just a brute fact due to biological programming. And if we could somehow live a fearless life that was full and without serious compromises, we would do it.

Indeed, we might really hope for that. We might live in wait of that wonderful day when we finally eradicate fear. Of course it sounds silly to state it so clearly, but surely in the back of our minds we all hold out for our fears to clear up like clouds on an overcast day. Yes their greyness hovers above me today, but tomorrow, who knows, it might be clear, and then only blue skies from then on. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #16 – When You Rest on Laurels They Become Thorns


When you rest on laurels they become thorns.

This is one of my favourite sayings because it captures a fact at the centre of life, something operative every single day which is so easy to forget, again, and again, and again. I’m trying to remind myself not to become complacent with whatever progress I’ve made, whatever challenges I have faced down, whatever misfortunes have dissipated like rain clouds.

Sometimes life is so difficult you don’t know how you can continue, or you work so hard that the days are long and rough like sheets of sandpaper. Appreciating favourable changes in your external world is important. When the blizzard finally ceases you say ‘my word, it finally stopped … fantastic! Now I don’t have to try so hard just to keep myself warm and dry’. When the sun beams from the centre of the sky you can lie out and bathe in it. You must adapt your mentality and behaviour to present conditions, and not be fixed in some past state which is no longer suitable.

Recognising your achievements is especially important since those pertain to your efforts and guile rather than merely to the caprices of the wider world [1]. Whether a great feat or a smaller challenge, being able to say ‘I did it’ is one of the great wonders of living. Even more so when you have been truly tested to your limits, that experience of perseverance is steadfastly satisfying and provides a confidence anchored in the furthest depths of your being.

That being said, when you finally have something to bask in the temptation is wring every bit of satisfaction from it like a sponge. You remember your accomplishment again and again. You examine every aspect of the experience and the outcome, trying to re-live it. This is understandable. Sometimes, too, it can feel like we haven’t achieved anything or gotten respite in so long. We hanker over past graces. So rather than trying to obtain a reward through present action we retreat into the imagination. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #15 – Relax, It is Just Life


Relax, it is just life.

We take ourselves awfully seriously, don’t we? ‘I must work harder’, ‘I’ve got to look better’, ‘I have to send that email, or else …’, ‘I ought to be happier’, ‘I’m not doing enough‘, ‘I need to make my mark’, ‘do they like me? What should I do?’.

We are constantly jostled by imperatives, like squeezing through a crowd on a busy shopping street. Relentlessly we parry our daily demands. We wind ourselves up like the rope in a catapult in order to create enough tension to propel ourselves forwards. And especially when we encounter some disaster or an obstacle which upsets us, we either succumb to ire and dolor or gravely march onward like a soldier surviving aerial bombardment.

I definitely do this. When I wake up I’m instantly winding up my torsion catapult, thinking about what I could be doing to have a good day, to make the most of it. I spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to be a good person. I want to live a good life. I want to be my best. I want to get it right, I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to waste my limited time alive. I ask myself ‘am I living as fully as I could be?’. I am careful to point out to myself when I am not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

That is all fine and good in a way. But also, I worry myself. I wind up my catapult so tight, it is like I am strangling life. I care so much about life, I think it is so valuable, so meaningful, and so important, that I take it far too seriously. In this entry, I am prompting myself to let that all go, at least for a few breaths, to relax and not take life quite so seriously.

Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #14 – Follow Through or Be Adrift on a Sea of Chaos


If you cannot follow through on your own decisions, then you are helplessly adrift on a sea of chaos.

We make hundreds, even thousands, of decisions every day, big and small. Do we follow through on those decisions though? We say ‘today I will quit smoking’ but cave in like the previous 153 times. We say ‘today I won’t just sit at home watching videos’ and waste the day anyway. We say ‘I really need to start sleeping properly’ then stay up till 3am again. We say ‘I’m going to be less selfish’ but end up leaving it ‘for tomorrow’. In this entry, I am trying to shake myself awake from such a slumber.

What is chaos? A total lack of structure and direction. And what creates structure and direction in our lives? Our minds, specifically our rational faculty, our ability to make a decision and then to execute it. Making a decision but not seeing it through till completion is as good as making no decision at all because the result is the same. Therefore, it is our ability to follow through on our decisions which establishes a healthy order in our lives as opposed to chaos.

Living in chaos is like being adrift on a stormy sea. The waves crash over you this way and the other, the gale swirls tempestuously, you want to travel out of the storm but have no means to, instead being dragged about by Poseidon’s fury. You cannot make any progress. You are so absorbed with simply not unceremoniously drowning in a watery vortex that you can make no progress. You keep your head just above water saying ‘I’ll get out of this storm today’ but eventually become so worn out and jaded at what your life has become that, somewhere, you give up trying to persevere. Continue reading