7 Ways to Use Stoic Philosophy to Improve Your Health and Happiness

A few weeks ago, I shared some thoughts on one of my favorite books of late, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine. I appreciated the comments from folks who connected with the central message: how to cultivate a life with the most peace and contentment possible. The Stoics were fans of living life mindfully and deliberately. When we’re honest, it’s easy to see how easy (and common) it is to spend life by accident. Getting through the day turns into getting through the years, turns into life gone by. What will we be thinking at that stage? Better, the Stoics advised, to be clear about your intentions, thoughtful in your choices, simple in your desires and content in your days. Here’s how I translate that to Primal practice.

First, let me say that this isn’t to abandon the Primal model. I’ve always said that the Primal Blueprint isn’t about recreating primordial conditions. It’s about identifying ancestral patterns, measuring their confluence with modern circumstances and gleaning useful strategies from all available sources to live the healthiest and happiest life possible.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Stoics were all about appreciating simple pleasures, detaching from wealth and status concerns, resisting the expectation of being comfortable all the time, and accepting momentary circumstances for the purpose of equanimity – all principles that I think Grok would’ve recognized. And yet, there’s more than just necessity of circumstance here as it largely was for Grok and his crew. The Stoics present these as voluntary choices to foster gratitude and contentment. The “good life,” they suggest is the simple, present one.

And, according to the Stoics, it’s also the thoughtful, purposeful one. Perhaps more than at any other time in human history we have the opportunity, the privilege really, of discerning our overarching pursuit – our main objective in life. What is it that we really want more than anything else? What would bring us the most peace, the deepest gratification, the most genuine fulfillment? Knowing we had dedicated our lives to a central interest could offer us the most satisfaction and peace at the end of our days. That is our purpose – the interest and organizing principle we must live out and guard as we go through life, Irvine and his Stoic subjects suggest.

I think these principles offer an outline for well-being akin to the Habits of Highly Successful Hunters and Gatherers. How can we navigate life enjoying the most genuine (and sustainable) happiness, the greatest emotional equanimity and the highest gratification? What would these principles look like in Primal practice? Let me offer a few ideas.

1. Articulate your life purpose – and revisit it regularly.

This is the crux of Stoic philosophy – living life on purpose. If we don’t know at the core what we want to cultivate in our lives, one thousand other agendas will freely rush in and take over the entire event. At the end of life we’ll see that we lived other people’s interests and demands instead of ours. It’s an own your days or your days will own you kind of thing….

The simple truth is where we invest our time is where we invest our lives. How much are you aligning yourself with your purpose each day – or are you putting that off while you continually “take care” of other pressing concerns? Without care, those pressing concerns become our lives, and we’ve abandoned our visions, not to mention our self-care.

What do you want your life to be about? Being a compassionate, present parent or caretaker? Being a devoted partner? Being a committed activist or artist or entrepreneur? Being an example of inner and outer health? Being a spiritual seeker? A socially conscious presence on the planet? I’m not here to tell anyone what to seek, and the Stoics didn’t either (despite warning us of the limitations and conflicts involved in making money or fame your primary goal).

Maybe a better way to phrase it is this: what do you want your legacy to be? Legacy is the outcome of the purpose we embody throughout our lives. A pile of money is a collection rather than a creation. Raising a child who is healthy and well-adjusted is a creation. Applying your gifts to a company that serves a legitimate need in the world or championing a cause that enriches a community is a contribution if not a creation. Some people are happy with what they have while other people are happy with who they are. The Stoics asked us to appreciate the difference.

Purpose, like health, can and should be the centerpiece of each day. Integrity of purpose begins today. Like health integrity, it obliges us to get real about our choices and whether or not they’re in alignment with that purpose. Each day the better guidance isn’t asking ourselves what we want but what kind of people we want to be.

2. Develop a gratitude record.

Any kind of gratitude practice will benefit you. I do a kind of gratitude meditation each day, but I have a journal as well. Down the road, having a record means you can look back at not just positive circumstances you’ve enjoyed but the positive attitude you were able to have whether a day was good or bad. You’re reminded that life is a balance of positive events and negative situations. As the Stoics said, we can maintain the most serenity when we attach ourselves to neither but recognize the inevitable pendulum at work.

This raises the issue of what to put in a gratitude journal. Some people complain that it’s just going to end up being the same thing every day – my kids, my job, food on the table. Yes, these are all legitimate things, but I’d suggest looking more closely. How were you fortunate today? What did you do well? What happened in your favor? What did you learn or realize when something unfavorable happened? How did life open to you today – or how did you open to life a little more? What did you see in your child? What did you appreciate in your partner? What kind words did you receive today at work, in the checkout line or during a phone call? What did you get the chance to observe in nature today that inspired you or quieted you?

If we’re having trouble seeing something to be grateful for each day, it’s likely because we’re not seeing much of what we encounter – what we’re being presented with.

The fact is, every one of us receives something good, affirming, even life giving each day. Traditional societies were/are more in touch with this sense of being recipients. Moderns tend to think they make everything happen themselves (until something bad happens, and then they’re looking for who to blame), and this mindset undermines gratitude at the outset. It’s also why those who have gone through hard times are often more grateful. They’ve come up against events and losses during which others help and support buoyed them. Small things felt magnified. When you live day to day in the present moment because you choose to or because you have to, you aren’t as likely to miss (or dismiss) the positive details.

I personally think a gratitude journal is one of those endeavors that pays off more the longer you do it. Don’t worry in the beginning if it feels forced or trite. It’s for no one but you. Act as if until you catch on, until it becomes a habit. You’d be surprised how deeply this one can change your outlook on life and how that shift can instigate deep changes.

3. Live with boundaries.

Boundaries aren’t walls or self-enclosures. The idea here isn’t to isolate ourselves or refuse to live in community or collaboration. It’s about acknowledging that we’re working with limited resources here – limited time and energy. To pretend otherwise is delusion.

Think of living with boundaries as managing your investments – your time and energy investments. If you give all your time and energy away to ancillary purposes or unhelpful emotions (e.g. anger, resentment, worry), you’ll have nothing left for the central vision and people in your life. Maybe Grok didn’t worry about a central vision, but he also didn’t field the eight zillion inputs, tasks and notifications that we do in a day. If it’s a contest of who is more at risk of mis-living a life, I’m going to vote for the modern every time.

Consider which relationships and endeavors sustain your equanimity, foster your well-being, serve your overarching vision in life. Invest in these. Let the rest go, or mindfully give budgeted amounts to other interests and circles as you reasonably can. There’s nothing wrong with selectivity. No person can or should be responsible for everything and everyone in the universe. To be a useful presence in the world, we need to be balanced people. We can’t become or sustain that by being at the whim of others’ demands, judgments or suggestion.

4. Imagine not getting what you want (i.e. create a detachment practice).

I’d call this the flip side of a gratitude record, but it cultivates gratitude in its own way.

The idea here is to let go of attachment in life – attachments to outcomes we desire, attachments to conditions we feel we are essential, attachments to possessions and even relationships we feel we couldn’t live without.

On the one hand, there are the small things – the desires we have, the outcomes we chase. It’s important to be able to understand that life can be great even when we don’t get our wish lists. Someone sent me a funny gif the other day that said something to the effect of “As long as everything is exactly the way I want it, I’m 100% flexible.” Of course, this was meant to be funny, but the truth is some people really live this way – or mis-live, as the Stoics would label it. Life will present us with enough challenges. We don’t need to set ourselves up for more by fueling expectations or living rigidly. Sometimes not getting what we want is the best thing possible.

Sure, when it comes to the deeper things (our close relationships, etc.), it can be harder. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, nothing is permanent. No one is guaranteed anything in this life except the eventual end. Rather than getting depressed about it, we can embrace it and see it as reason to hold our connections and possessions lightly – to care about and enjoy them without identifying all of life or happiness with them.

5. Develop a resilience discipline.

I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say we’ve gone soft. Yup, with our climate control and advanced weather wear, our motorized transit, tap water and shopping – even delivery – conveniences. For many people, it’s entirely doable if not easy to live without walking, lifting, shivering, sweating or otherwise being in touch with the “hard” parts of having a physical body.

Grok and his clan lived with variability in a way we’re cut off from. Reapplying that into our lives with imposed power outages, cold water therapy, and other physical measures can help our bodies and minds recalibrate to a more flexible, resilient center.

Likewise, getting out of our comfort zones and doing something that exposes us to the aspects of life and community we’d like to pretend don’t exist (ideally with the point of interacting and helping rather than simply observing) can get us in touch with a reality larger than our own and build mental fortitude as well as emotional resilience.

6. Apply a control grid.

Irvine expanded his description of the Stoic’s suggested categories for what we have control over and what we have no control over by splitting what we have complete control over and what we have partial control over (along with the third category we don’t have a hand in).

In the moment of “figuring out” or otherwise stressing over a problem, it’s so easy to think every facet of an issue is something you can influence. An insanity-producing, white-knuckle fantasy kicks in that says you better make this happen or get a handle on it – now.

How about unclenching the jaw and letting the tightened fist go slack and getting, yes, a real grip?

Breathe for a minute and get out your graph paper. At the top – issue du jour. Across the page – what I have total control over, what I have some control over and what I have absolutely zero control over. Instant perspective if you’re honest.

I know, people will nod their heads and give it mental lip service for a minute, thinking that it’s a good idea. No, it’s not a good idea. It’s useless as an idea. Make it a practice – a regular, unflinching practice for all your family, work, financial and other problems.

The benefit of actually doing it? You’ll be more efficient in applying your logistical efforts and emotional investment. A good leader (of a corporation or a life) applies him/herself thoughtfully and efficiently. Stop spinning your wheels.

7. Accept your life as “on loan.”

Finally, apply what I’d call the ultimate overlay. You can write about this or just think about it as a periodic practice. Step back on a regular basis and really let it all sink in that everything in your life – including your beating heart itself is all on loan. That means all of it – kids, partner, friends, parents, possessions, work, land, talents, joy, grief, awe. Your life itself is borrowed from Life as a capital L force. We get to play for a little while, and then it’s gone.

Some will choose to attach metaphysical meaning to this concept. I think it stands quite well without it, but it makes no difference. The point is the same. You drink in the fact that Life existed before you and will exist after you. All and everyone you love – same deal.

Some people may file it under religion. Others may connect it to the ongoing nature of life – or even the laws of evolution. Grok and his crew were subject to forces larger than themselves, and they recognized this. For me, it’s not a question of spirituality. It’s a question of humility and proportion.

And that, I believe, is the heart of the Stoic perspective itself – an approach that puts us at the center of our own lives – not to manhandle life or to detach entirely, but to live more lightly and deliberately. When we mind our time and thoughts well, we can better enjoy the unfolding story.

Thanks for reading today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on living a good life – whether you connect it with Stoic principles or not. Have a great end to your week, everyone.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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49 thoughts on “7 Ways to Use Stoic Philosophy to Improve Your Health and Happiness”

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  1. “For me, it’s not a question of spirituality. It’s a question of humility and proportion.”

    which boils exactly to the same 🙂

    Great read, thank you

  2. The Apostle Paul pretty well summed up that theory. Sometimes, most times life is great. Occasionally life sucks. But you still have to get through the day.

    Philippians 4:11-13New International Version (NIV)

    11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

  3. I have been reading a lot about Stoicism lately and I am beginning to get their wisdom. This article was a great breakdown of their ideas, detachment and discipline. I

    1. Yes l believe living primally minimalism stoic, and like mr moustache are good ways to live

  4. This is a good article or all of us, particularly the control freaks out there. When you stop to think about it, we have absolute control over very little. In fact, probably nothing at all. No matter how thoroughly we plan and connive, there are always going to be factors that can’t be pinned down. As that old bumper sticker wisely pointed out, “Sh*t Happens.”

    1. The Stoics claimed, and Irvine also posits, that just about the only thing we have complete control over is our emotions. How often do we say “That guy made me angry” when the truth is that we failed to control our anger and therefore chose to get angry? I’m not saying that I have some superpower that helps me accomplish this when in fact I suck at it, but that’s the goal of Stoicism.

  5. Legacy-wise, the lesson I leave is to live well within one’s means. Thing is, nobody I know seems to have been affected by my lifestyle, so I seriously doubt anyone will be after I’m gone. In other words, nobody cares.

  6. I was in my 40’s when I began to really meditate on the CGIT “purpose/ we recited every week when I was a teen: It is my purpose to cherish health, seek truth, know God, and serve others, and thus with God’s help, become the girl that He would have me be. It seems to me now (and I’m closing in on 70) to be a really good guide to a fulfilling life.

  7. I don’t have the gene for “life purpose,” to me the whole thing seems pointless, the universe exploded into being and I am a tiny blip it its expansion.

    1. I struggle with this too – seeing the point – I do find the notion we are souls having a human experience a more positive way of thinking, but I still struggle, a lot, especially of late. Being late 40s and unexpectedly having to completely reframe my life isn’t helping either!

      I enjoyed the post, and its precursor. Perhaps for me I should stop trying so hard, descend from my head and just allow myself to be.

  8. Simplicity is the mother of happiness. When I travel to undeveloped countries, I find the people that have nothing are the most thankful and happy. The children with no shoes are always smiling and never complain. For most of humanity, access to a clean water supply is a luxury. Our “problems” stem from having too many options. The stoics did not have electricity, convenience foods, or fossil fueled transportation. We have all these things and want more. I wonder how they would look at modern society today?

    1. “The children with no shoes are always smiling and never complain.”

      this kind of thinking makes me crazy and smacks of white privilege. just because you don’t see them crying at night because they are hungry or in the morning because nobody can afford school for them doesn’t mean these little kids’ lives are nothing but joy and metaphorical lollies and puppies.


      1. Yes Noodletoy, I have seen that too. Perhaps they are smiling and happy because someone cares enough to visit their village and bring them clothes, shoes, books, first aid supplies, reading glasses and other useful items Americans of all races take for granted and throw away.

        “When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own Failings. Then you will forget your anger.” – Epictetus

        1. Yes thank you.. Why is it always RACE and why is it always the WHITE man.. Eesh is right. LET IT GO BE AT PEACE WE ARE ALL LETTING IT GO!!! there are the Elite class no one will change, they are not here reading this.. This is for we the real people that live and want change and better life for ourselves and those around us by extension. Peace to you

    2. My sister an I were just talking about this… We concluded that t is both a privilege and a burden.

      1. I agree, Ara. Seeing both the privilege and burden is necessary to create a multi-dimentional image of the situation. Privilege is at one vanishing point and Burden is at the other. The image changes with the loci of the vanishing points.

  9. Another great article. Life without a purpose is not worth living.

    Mark, if you have not read it yet, I highly recommend this book: Resilience by Eric Greitens. Eric is a Rhodes scholar and a Navy SEAL (that is one unique combination). He knows a thing or two about resilience and a big fan of the Stoics.

  10. This should be a required class in a high school. So many young people live the opposite of all this. Everything is a big deal, everything is worthy of getting emotional about, not having 24/7 access to a cell phone is a national emergency. Talk about soft. And resilient? It seems no one teaches young people resilience anymore. Everything is a crisis, which is an awful way to live.

    1. The two words, “Buck up,” are no longer in our cultural vocabulary. I am a 70 yo man and I now see that I wish I had heard them more. I think this is especially important for males, Mr. Grok didn’t have time to stop when the going got tough when he had a village to feed.

  11. Way to go Mark (sarcasm).

    Not only do you espouse an eating plan that works for me and I follow religiously (in other words, most of the time with lots of cheating). Now you go and start
    speaking my language when it comes to a way of life.

    I suppose I must edify you now and put your bust on the wall. (my wife is very tired hearing me say “Mark Sisson says this, MS says that…).

    (All above said with a deep sense of sarcasm and a smile on my face).

    By the way, your initials are the same as mine, which I have told my wife. I think her eyes rolled right out of her head on that one.

    Love your stuff. Keep it up.


    Michael Smit

  12. Great post. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were two of my favorite authors growing up.

    Ironically after two years of Primal living and eating it’s hard for me not to be in the present. I just have this natural focus for the here and now and being aware.

    I’d also like to say I read a lot of books and blogs in the ancestral living world. Mark’s the best or in the very top in terms of writing. Great writing once again Mark. You convey thoughtful and interesting ideas very well.

  13. I read the book after Mark mentioned it the last time. It does a fantastic job of putting things into perspective and truly illustrates the benefits of a “philosophy of life”. Life is so much more than the things we surround ourselves with, the relationships we build and the lives that we can enrich and the things we stand for, or against, mean so much. I think Mark did a great job of capturing the essence of the book to share with us. Thanks Mark for the post and for turning me on to the book in the first place.

  14. Superb! Absolutely first-class! Id like to emphasize that a “side effect” of this Stoic approach is GREAT JOY.. (I graft Christianity onto this foundation, but that’s personal.)

  15. This really helped me today, especially the part about listing what you can and can’t control. Of course the serenity prayer that AA teaches is very similar: accept the things you can’t change, change the things you can, etc. So much distressing stuff happens in our world that we can’t change, but yet we agonize over it. It’s ok to feel the grief and pain, but also to accept our powerlessness over the behavior and attitudes of others (frequently). As a nation we need to set some limits on guys with guns, obviously, part of the “boundary-setting” that this article talks about.

    I also liked the first part of this article about purpose. It’s somewhat embarrassing for me to admit this, but I care the most about my garden. For a long time I wouldn’t admit this to myself b/c it sounded silly or trivial, even though my garden is mainly a food garden. But now I am essentially unemployed, at least for a while, and I can spend all the time I want in my garden. As it turns out, this is what I’ve been wanting to do for years and just wouldn’t admit it to myself or other people. It may be a small “purpose” but it’s my purpose.

  16. Great post,Mark! I plan to read Irvine soon, very compelling in our modern world.

    I feel very grateful and joyful to have been blessed with a kind of intuition that has always helped me follow what I can now identify as my “purpose” in life.

    It was a hard struggle when I was young because I was under the impression that one’s purpose had to be lofty enough to earn the title. I finally realized that what keeps one person centered and healthy, truly alive as opposed to “mis-living” may look very different for someone else and that’s ok! Not exactly how I was raised.

    I’m sorry to say that there was a lot of invalidation for my perspective as a youngster, but my time is now my own, literally and I’m enjoying and being thankful for every second of it that is left. Thank you so much for the support and wonderful reminder!!

  17. Love this post! Right up my alley. I’ve forwarded this post to several friends, ordered the book, and might even start a book group for it. Thanks!

  18. Issue du jour: controling what goes in or comes out of my mouth! Food in and words out! Living in the present will allow me control. Old habits and the quick fix are from slipping into mind auto-zone. Awesome post!

  19. This is a small thing but this article made me think of it. When I designed our house, I purposely made the garage detached from the house. I knew it would force us to walk outdoors through the garden in all kinds of weather. We get a glimpse of the stars at night, a variety of scents from the plants and experience air temperatures in the different seasons. Sometimes we have to run through the rain or experience a snowfall or get soaked with the hot sun.

    I guess most would consider this an inconvenience but I believe we seek comfort to our detriment at times.

  20. The book about stoic joy has now become my guide for living. Thank you, Mark, a million times the square root of 144 for introducing this book to your readers. Everything about it resonated on a very deep level for me. It integrates all of my other readings on how to live a good life. I think I am a good candidate for embracing this way of thinking, since the discipline of going primal and giving up the foods I used to love was not a great trial for me, due to previous self-discipline practices. I hope others will find it of similar value. 🙂

  21. Thanks Mark! I’ve been reading Echart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hahn who are all about presence and mindfulness. This is an awesome post, please keep ’em coming!

  22. All of philosophy can be summed up in two words — “shit happens”.

  23. When i tried to summarize the article for my journal, It started sounding like the alcoholic anonymous thing. Stoic anonymous ehh 😉

    “Purpose for who i need to be. Boundaries for those that can wait. Gratitude for what I have. Control for what can be controlled. Resilience for what I May lose. Detachment for what I hope. Life as on loan.”

  24. Beautiful article. I read this book a year or two ago and really appreciated the succinct review and reminders. Thank you for writing!

  25. A few years ago my son-in-law was being buffeted by The Second Republican Great Depression. He lost a long time job, managed to get another. (He’s an engineer.) Lost that. It wasn’t just the matter of income it was the soul draining experience of being unemployed.

    One night at dinner my daughter asked one of the kids, “What made you happy today?” followed by “What are you thankful for?”

    That is now tradition in that family, the one being asked, then asks another.

    It almost embarrasses me that I spent three years and lots of money getting a masters degree in theology. She zoomed right around me.

  26. After sharing this with several friends, and reading Irvine’s book, I also got re-reminded of Maslow’s concept of the self-actualized person. There is tremendous overlap, if not outright duplication of the Stoic/self-actualized person.

    Here’s a quick read about what constitutes such a person. And it mentions the Stoics.https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sze/maslow-the-12-characteris_b_7836836.html

    My best male friend, and my best female friend concur that I am solidly self-actuated. I’m 70, and I have spent many decades doing formal theology/philosophy studies, lots of reflection, writing. I never decided one day I was going to study Stoicism or set a goal of attaining S-A. I just arrived, as it were. This begs the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg.

    My best female friend hits eleven of the twelve points of the S-A person, but is severely lacking in gratitude. And overall, she’s happy. It’s not that she’s a whiny, natively ungrateful person, but that some life circumstances have really kicked her in the arse.

    She’ll get there.