After my ice bath yesterday, I felt a great sense of satisfaction at reaching the halfway point of my Stoicism month. It’s rare that I stick to any pursuit for any period of time, so I was proud of myself.
I learned to feel great pleasure when my body stops shivering post-ice bath. The muscles are able to relax, and that cup of peppermint tea tastes and feels really good.
My mood has been stable. Very few things have upset me, and the dread I normally feel walking into the office has diminished significantly.
I managed to take the time to wake up early every weekday, write every day, and make all my gym sessions in the morning (even when it was 5 degrees out!).
I couldn’t imagine a better start to 2014.
But I realize all the activities I just mentioned (waking up early, exercising, writing, taking ice baths), would seem boring and potentially even painful to most people. Excluding the ice baths, this might be the schedule of an old retired person!
Many of my peers have very different ideas of what a successful life looks like. They would make a ton of money, travel the world, have the most interesting career, marry the most attractive man or woman, and eat the best food.
That idea of success is very compelling. After I wrote that sentence I began fantasizing about that type of lifestyle myself!
Because that lifestyle is so compelling and attractive, shouldn’t we be pursuing that vision of success as opposed to the Stoic vision of success? Isn’t that more fun?
No, it only seems like it would be more fun.
The material luxury of the modern vision of success is not bad per se, but it has some terrible flaws.
The first is that you are unlikely to attain that level of wealth. I know we live in America where everyone is a potential millionaire, but it’s just not going to happen for most people. It can, but it won’t.
The second flaw is that pursuit of that lifestyle would train you to never be satisfied, so that once you attain it, you won’t magically become happy. You’ll want more. Your desires will be insatiable.
Contrast that with the Stoic goal of mental tranquility via only desiring the things within your control.
First, you will always be in possession of your mind. No one can take that away from you. You will always be you. You can work on you. You is always available. Consider these words from Seneca
For I have made trial of my spirit on a sudden —a simpler and a truer test. Indeed, when a man has made preparations and given himself a formal summons to be patient, it is not equally clear just how much real strength of mind he possesses; the surest proofs are those which one exhibits off-hand, viewing one’s own troubles not only fairly but calmly, not flying into fits of temper or wordy wranglings, supplying one’s own needs by not craving something which was really due, and reflecting that our habits may be unsatisfied, but never our own real selves.
Second, by definition, wanting what you have will always leave you satiated. Instead of altering the “what you have” part of the equation, you work on the “what you want” side. The Stoics tell you what you should want, and those things are always within your control (to be virtuous, to live with dignity, to treat others well, etc.).
You cannot imagine how much pleasure I derive from the fact that my weariness is becoming reconciled to itself; I am asking for no slaves to rub me down, no bath, and no other restorative except time. For that which toil has accumulated, rest can lighten. This repast, whatever it may be, will give me more pleasure than an inaugural banquet.
The modern version of success is not within our control and probably won’t be as a fun as we think it will be, while the Stoic version of success is within our control and will train us to take pleasure in the things we have. But it does require training.
We are attracted by such things as riches, pleasures, beauty, ambition, and other such coaxing and pleasing objects; we are repelled by toil, death, pain, disgrace, or lives of greater frugality. We ought therefore to train ourselves so that we may avoid a fear of the one or a desire for the other. Let us fight in the opposite fashion: let us retreat from the objects that allure, and rouse ourselves to meet the objects that attack.
So yes, Stoicism can be fun and pleasurable, but it requires that you put in the work to find joy and pleasure in the things you can control. Stoics can find joy in any circumstances, while the aspiring millionaire can only find joy in being a millionaire. If he achieves that soon status, he will soon grow accustomed to it and become an aspiring billionaire.
While the Stoics are not against improving your circumstances, they advocate learning to be satisfied regardless of your circumstances.
Once you are satisfied with your circumstances, then you can really start having fun.