I’m A Stoic and I Didn’t Know It: The Philosophy of Stoicism

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy developed by Zeno of Citium who lived in modern day Cyprus in 300 B.C. The ideology argues for the development of self-control, fortitude, clear judgement, and inner calm as strategies for overcoming negative emotions and freeing ourselves from suffering. Zeno saw his philosophy as a way of life that incorporated getting back to nature and meditating as ways of staying in the present moment.

Contemporary stoics like Ariana Huffington talk about ways we can get away from ourselves and the world around us. Huffington says that social media is the easy way we do that. “But the only way to find peace and thrive is to take breaks from the world and make time to regularly renew outselves by reconnecting with ourselves.”

I’ve always considered myself a nature lover. I grew up in a small Canadian town where I spent most weekends and summers at the lake with friends swimming, canoing, trecking in the forest, and having fire-camp conversations. Through these activities I often reflected on the direction of my life and my place in the world. In my early twenties I was pulled towards Buddhism and was introduced to zen meditation through books I read at my University. Buddhism taught me two things: to recognize that life can involve suffering, and to use meditation, self work, and ethical behavior as a way of transcending pain and reaching enlightenment. I always understood the word enlightenment as a way of saying happiness.

I clung to the promise of happiness at a time in my life where I felt anxious, sad, and often frustrated. I later discovered daily journaling was equally as helpful to reconnecting with myself and finding direction. “Journal writing, when it becomes a ritual for transformation, is not only life-changing but life-expanding.” – Jen Williamson

Most philosophies, religious or not, value logic and offer practical strategies for dealing with ethical dilemmas and the material world. But, there’s nothing logic about the feeling of unhappiness. There’s no real way of measuring what your ‘happy’ is other than being aware of your state of negativity and discontentment. The measure can be different for everyone. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to know how to get ‘happy’. It means something different for everyone.

Most people today recognize the benefits of meditation, walking in nature, and journaling for mental health and wellbeing. Research backs this claim. One study at Cambridge University found that journaling improves wellbeing after a traumatic or stressful event with as little as 15 minues of writing. Another found that meditation can improvie focus, concentration, self-awareness, and self-esteem, and decrease anxiety and stress.

Is stoicism a good strategy for feeling better and happier? Stoics believe it is. The view taking responsibility for one’s state of mind as empowering and believe it can help remove psychological blocks to being happy. In stoicism, distress isn’t generated externally but by our emotional reaction to an event. The pain we often feel after experiencing something difficult is justifiable and real. But our thoughts about the event are just ask important because we have the power to change them at any moment and shift our emotional state.

Stoics believe you should focus on what you can control and change. We cannot change the choices and actions of others or the things that have already happened. But, we can focus on the way we react and subsequently act. One thing to consider is that Zeno the Citium came from a wealthy family. Then, one day he lost everything. Did his privileged background make it easier for him to deal with life’s problems? Maybe. He had already been rich and therefore his mind allowed him to believe it would once again be possible. It was how he reacted to the loss that became important. He could have stayed stuck in the feeling of anger and disappointment. Instead, he chose to accept what happen and move forward, taking a calm, neutral, and open approach to what would should be done next. In doing so, he made positive change more likely.

Years ago, I made a decision to find strategies for changing my mindset and began reading authors like Wayne Dyer and Byron Katie. Here is what I found. You have little to no control over forces of nature and other people’s choices, but you have complete control over how your react and what you believe. I also learned that successful people tend to have a higher locus of control, that is, a perception that the causes of events in their life are internal rather than external. This pushes them to take full responsibility for their success and failures.

Epictetus once said that “wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” Does this mean that in order to be happy or well be need to stop feeling like we’re missing things and all become monks with red ferraris? I don’t know. I’ve seen some people become crushed by the weight of their failures or pain over time. What I know to be true though is that we are all capable of changing our perspective and our ability to react to things and people. Accepting when we have no control over something and taking calm, neutral action when we do means having mastery of our reactions. These strategies can increase our happiness and wellness over time. They did for me.

What zen meditation taught me 25 years ago was that I could control my mind and emotional wellbeing through mindfulness, resilience, and personal growth. I didn’t do it over night. Meditation was only the catalyst. It took me years to shift my beliefs about myself and the world. I had to change my self concept and learn to recognize my limits as a person. And yes, I had to stop focusing on what I didn’t have and start being grateful for what I do have. That was the big shift for me. Gratitude. It took other tools and strategies for me to get to where I wanted to be. Even now, there is more I need to do.

Am I a stoic? Sometimes I think I am, and other times I see only the barriers to my success until I take that walk in a park, read that new book, do that morning meditation, and use my journal to find a solution to a problem or question. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what I call it. Like any good philosopher I’ve asked myself on a few occasions, ‘who am I’? I’ve received different answers at various times. The way I have seen and understood myself through my experiences (good and bad) has been foundational for my decisions in life. My self-concept has created moments where I have transcended my early life, gotten in the way of my success, and more recently, propelled me to new places.

I’ve come to understand that my agency, choices, and actions are direct predictors of my success, and my attitude and reaction are up to me. That is ultimately what I can control. I may have been a stoic without knowing I was. What I know for sure is that no one defines your happiness but you.


Published by Coach Michelle

Founder, Authentic World Inc

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