Stoicism And Its Positive Influence On My Life

Slightly more than two weeks ago, besides sharing an article from Alex Green’s The Secret of Shelter Island, I also trumpeted the benefits of reading the book and how it introduced me to other interesting materials. And I have little doubt that among the most important is to be acquainted with this ancient philosophy: Stoicism. 

After reading one of Alex’s amazing articles that briefly touched on Stoicism, I was piqued by this ancient philosophy of life. And it helped that he also suggested “A Guide To The Good Life, The Ancient Art Of Stoic Joy” written by William Irvine as a further reading material. Picking the book up, I was pleasantly surprised that the book wasn’t written in Old English and also thankful that the contents were pretty easy to understand.

Like many of us, William Irvine didn’t knew what he wanted out of life. Sure, he knew he wanted a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice house just like most. But to him, that’s just things that we want IN LIFE. He realised that he lacked a grand goal in living, and he wasn’t alone in wandering aimlessly in life. And luckily for him, he stumbled on Stoicism in his work as an academic and realised that it was a useful philosophy of life, and not just for him. So he decided to write this book to help others which also famously became… the first e-book I bought on my iPad!  😆 

Instead of getting technical about the terms virtue and tranquility (according to ancient stoics, these are the two things worth pursuing in life), a big takeaway for me that I shall share with you is that Stoicism aims to prevent the onset of negative emotions like anger, anxiety, fear, grief and envy. And this aim could be the grand goal of our life. Now, this should start to interest you, right?! Well, who wouldn’t want to banish or at least reduce these negative emotions in our life?

To increase the amount of satisfaction in our life, the ancient Stoics made use of a few techniques and today, I shall share on two of the most useful tools the ancient Stoics had in their disposal.

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Negative Visualisation

The problem with humans is that we are insatiable. As economists say “Needs are limited but wants are infinite”. This is likely a part of our genetic make-up since those who ate more and had more tools were more likely to survive and procreate centuries ago. That’s why many of us still overeat and make ourselves feel fat and lousy. Even when there is plenty of food to go around in this country during this day and age.

And it’s more than just food. After getting a dream 5-room flat, you start thinking of upgrading to a condominium and after marrying your childhood sweetheart, you start thinking about approaching Ashley Madision. (Start googling if you don’t know what I am talking about.) We are all on a hedonic treadmill that is likely to give us plenty of bad consequences to deal with in the long run.

And well, many have suggested that the cure to this is to want what you already have. But that’s hard right, especially when people look at my old and slow iPhone 4 and tell me it’s time to upgrade to the iPhone 5 already! But the stoics have an ace up their sleeve. Why not just imagine the things we are using or possessing are not there anymore?

What?! No more on-the-go surfing and easy arranging of appointments with friends? No more roof over my head if the 5-room flat is confiscated? No more wife to chat with at night?

When I imagine these scenarios playing out in my head, I feel an urge to kiss my iPhone, sink into my sofa with a smile when I reach home and also give my wife a big hug when I see her later! If these are not acts of happiness, I don’t know what is. And since this is a personal finance blog, a positive side effect is that one wouldn’t be buying more and more stuff that costs more and more money.

Well, you might argue that if I think about all these things being taken away from me, wouldn’t that make me worry even more? Nope! Not if it’s just an intellectual exercise and you’re just contemplating.

After all, people who practise prayers before meals don’t go berserk about the possibility that their food might be taken away. If you appreciate that all of us will die one day, negative visualisation would not only help us to appreciate the food but the company too when we are attending events or get-togethers.

Trichotomy of Control

The ancient stoics believe that there are some things we should not be concerned with if we have no control over it. You can bitch all you want when it starts to rain while you’re having a picnic but if the goal is to change the weather, then stop this futile and negativity-inducing behaviour. And the past and present (this exact moment) is also beyond anyone’s control. So no point mulling over spilled milk (although lessons should still be learnt).

On the other hand, there are some things which we have absolute control of, which includes our values. Whether you value fame over character or pleasure over tranquility is up to you and this ability goes a long way to helping us live a good life too.

However, most things fall in between. For example, I like playing table tennis and am pretty competitive by nature. Losing might upset me and since there is no certainty I can defeat an opponent, it might appear that I should just abandon the sport. Like huh?

Well, stoicism is not defeatist. To allow me to enjoy the game and not feel bad, Stoicism recommends internalising our goals. Since winning the game is dependent on the ability of the opponent, I could get around this whole thing if my goal was to “play to the best of my ability”. 

With this goal, I wouldn’t start panicking if I lose a few points at the start, which interestingly, should actually help to boost my chances of winning even when my aim isn’t to win. Instead of worrying about and being upset as to whether my wife would leave me one day, I reframe my goal to become the best husband I can be! (She’s going to be really happy reading this.)

With regards to personal finance, this control vs concern concept is also the reason why I prefer saving that extra 10% of my income rather than aiming to earn more or achieve higher returns. There is more control over the former than the latter two, which are dependent on external factors. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t even bother asking for a raise or invest in the market. Because even though I can’t control the actions of the management, I would not set myself up for disappointment if my aim was to do my best in my job or make the best investment decision based on my knowledge of the businesses.

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I would like to reiterate and give credit where it is due. The content is largely based on this book “A Guide To The Good Life, The Ancient Art Of Stoic Joy” written by William B. Irvine. I have read and re-read it multiple times. Do check it out and it’s available in our local public libraries too.

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    4 thoughts on “Stoicism And Its Positive Influence On My Life

    1. Spectra

      Thanks! It will be really great if we are able to control our own greed and envy. To be able to stay not tempted in this highly consumer driven market.

      I also like the idea that we should stop fretting over things and situation that we do not have control over. Instead the focus should be on one self.

      Nice! Thanks.

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi Spectra,

        I think it’s inevitable to feel a little greed and envy once in a while. It’s sometimes a reflex response that we do not have much control over. However, if we are able to see it and recognise it as an irrational response and smile at ourselves, it’s more than half the battle won, isn’t it?

        Yes, focus on what we can do and what we can make better in the future.

        You have an interesting blog there too and I particularly liked the post on your Mt Kinabalu trip. I have never been there but it’s going to be on my list of things to do!

    2. B

      Hi HWW

      Thanks for recommending the book.

      Just based on your preview alone i am tempted to buy the books already. It seems like a good philosopher of life and I love such books.

      A lot of times our goals are internal but it is the external factors that sways our decision. If only just everyone can think right for once, we’ll be in a much happier place on earth.

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi B,

        I don’t think my review is doing enough justice to the book and if you’re interested, no harm checking out our local libraries first?

        Stoicism has some common tenets with Zen Buddhism and Cynicism (not to be confused with being skeptical) and there are many other philosophies of life out there. What’s more important is to have a consistent and suitable philosophy to guide us through life.

        To be concerned with things that we have more control of is also akin to taking more personal responsibility for our decisions and life. Many Singaporeans would benefit a lot if they practice this (instead of blaming the government for almost every negative situation in their life).