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

A few weeks ago, I shared some thoughts [1] on one of my favorite books of late, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy [2] 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 [3]? 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 [4]. 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 [1] a few weeks ago, the Stoics were all about appreciating simple pleasures [5], 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 [6] 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 [7].

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 [8]. 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 [9]. 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 [10] 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 [11].

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 [12] 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 [13], it obliges us to get real about our choices [14] 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 [15] 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 [16] 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 [7] – 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 [17] 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 [18] 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 [19]. 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 [20] 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 [21] 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 [22]. 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 [8]. 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 [23], lifting, shivering, sweating [24] 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 [25], cold water therapy [26], 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 [27] 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 [28] 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 [29] 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 [30]. 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 [31] 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 [32] – or even the laws of evolution. Grok and his crew were subject to forces larger than themselves [33], 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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