Stoicism: How This Ancient Philosophy Can Empower You to Improve Your Health and Your Life

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive– to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

There is an ancient philosophy that can help you find the strength and stamina to gracefully handle the challenges of everyday life, improve your health, and experience true happiness.

This philosophy is called Stoicism. It is an eudaimonic philosophy. Eudaimonia is a term that means a life worth living, often translated as “happiness” in the broad sense, or more appropriately, flourishing.

I’ve only recently started learning about Stoicism. I wish I’d known about it years ago. In the short period of time I’ve been studying it and applying its teachings, I’ve made significant positive changes in my life…changes in the way I think, in the way I handle setbacks and obstacles, and in the way I manage stress and anxiety.

My study of the philosophy began when I came across this quote somewhere on the Internet:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. – Marcus Aurelius

How profound.

Recognizing the obstacles before you, assessing them, and preparing to overcome them…well, there’s power in that.

Every challenge we overcome makes meeting the next one with grace and determination easier because our self-confidence is strengthened.

Here is the full quote from Marcus Aurelius:

Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Epictetus wrote,

In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.

Stoicism teaches us to embrace problems, accept them, prepare to challenge them, and take action to overcome them.

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You might be wondering what Stoicism has to do with nutrition or health or weight loss and why you are reading about it here.

The answer is…it has everything to do with those things. 

Consider this passage from professor William B. Irvine’s article entitled The Stoic Two-Step Program for Better Living:

People who lack a philosophy for living will, after all, make very little progress in life. One day they will try to achieve one goal, and the next they will abandon it in favor of some other goal. They will be like a ship captain who randomly changes his course every hour. He is unlikely ever to reach land. He will instead spend his life literally at sea, which is the metaphorical fate of anyone who tries to go through life without a philosophy for living.

This is why it is important for you, whatever your age and your station in life may be, to spend time and energy choosing a philosophy for living — and to spend that time now, so that you can benefit from your philosophy in the days of life remaining to you. Wouldn’t it be tragic if, on your deathbed, you finally figured out the point to living?

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Now, let’s explore Stoicism a bit more.

We will begin with an overview from Philosophy Basics.

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy (developed by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C.) which teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.

It does not seek to extinguish emotions completely, but rather seeks to transform them by a resolute Asceticism (a voluntary abstinence from worldly pleasures), which enables a person to develop clear judgment, inner calm, and freedom from suffering (which it considers the ultimate goal).

Stoicism is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, but rather a way of life, involving constant practice and training, and incorporating the practice of logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, and a kind of meditation aimed at training one’s attention to remain in the present moment.

Please do not confuse Stoicism with stoicism (in the common sense of the word). Stoics do not seek to be unaffected by emotions, as philosophy professor Dr. Massimo Pigliucci explains:

…the Stoics do not seek to be impervious to emotions. Rather, they work toward improving their judgments about externals, in order to re-align their emotional spectrum, de-emphasizing unhealthy emotions and nurturing and developing healthy ones.

In this video, Dr. Pigliucci provides an entertaining overview of Stoicism.

Stoicism is a vibrant, action-oriented, paradigm-shifting way of living. It is an ideal philosophy for those seeking the Good Life.

Living life mindfully and deliberately.

Being clear about our intentions, thoughtful in our choices, simple in our desires and content in our days.

Resisting the expectation of being comfortable all the time…

…those are some of the goals of Stoics.

Can you accept forgoing pleasure to a certain point in order to avoid feeling entitled to it all the time? How can you embrace cultivating mental strength and physical resilience?

“Food is the best test of self-control and temperance because it’s presented to us every single day and in the modern world at any hour of the day,” writes Philip Ghezelbash in The Philosophy Of Stoicism: Five Lessons from Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Zeno of Citium:

Musonius Rufus was a Roman Stoic philosopher who in his two part discourse on food said:

“That God who made man provided him food and drink for the sake of preserving his life and not for giving him pleasure, one can see very well from this: when food is performing its real function, it does not produce pleasure for man, that is in the process of digestion and assimilation.”

Although the pleasure of food is experienced on the tongue, it’s clear that the purpose of food is revealed when it assimilates with the body through digestion.

The lesson here is similar to what Socrates once said which is that we should eat to live rather than live to eat.

Because anxiety and fear can significantly influence our eating habits and weight loss, let’s explore how Stoicism can help us improve our mental outlook.

In the article Stoicism, the Original Cognitive Therapy, Jules Evans explains how Stoicism helped him overcome anxiety and panic attacks:

But what finally helped me return to health and happiness was not a lifetime of anti-depressants or expensive treatments, but a 2,000-year-old philosophy called Stoicism, which forms the basis of cognitive behavioural theory today.

This philosophy first emerged around 350 BC in Athens where the Stoic philosophers would teach (among the Stoa, or colonnades of the marketplace). Their immensely practical teachings aimed to cure the soul of emotional suffering. When we think of being stoic today, we think of stiff upper lips and emotional avoidance, but the philosophical truth is different.

Stoicism is about learning to understand and control our emotions, rather than simply stifling them. It is about learning to feel in control again, when our negative emotions seem to overpower us.

Dr. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joywrites that CBT is the branch of psychology that is most in tune with the advice on living given by the ancient Stoics.

He explains how psychologist Albert Ellis, a pioneer in CBT, used it to overcome his fear of women:

He conquered this fear by giving himself the assignment of hanging out at the Bronx Botanical Garden and introducing himself to a hundred of the women he encountered there. No lasting relationship resulted from this experience, but he overcame his fear of talking to women. He taught himself that being rebuffed by a woman isn’t the end of the world.

That approach can help people overcome other fears. Dr. Irvine provides an example:

A fear of public speaking can be overcome with a similar strategy. You start out by offering a few words before a small and friendly group. Thus emboldened, you move on to bigger audiences. Then the day comes when, as you are speaking before a large and important audience, you realize, much to your amazement, that you are not afraid! (This, at any rate, was my experience.)

He adds:

In some cases, we fear something because we fear for our health or life. In other cases, what we fear is failure. It is a fear that many people are haunted by, and it is a fear that can severely limit their ability to succeed in life.

People often make the mistake of thinking that successful individuals owe their success to their ability to avoid failure, when in fact the opposite is usually the case: successful people succeed because they do not fear failure and therefore can embrace it. In other words, it is their tolerance for failure that enables them to succeed.

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If your endeavors never fail, it could be because you are very good at what you do. It is much more likely, though, that the reason for your “success” is that you are afraid to fail and are therefore systematically avoiding doing difficult things.

Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of missing out, emotional eating, lack of self-control…these things can be resolved (or at least, reduced) with the consistent practice of Stoic philosophy.

Stoicism provides far more than “life hacks” because it is a coherent philosophy for living, Irvine says:

Rather than spending their time thinking about how to improve aspects of their life, the Stoics were interested in figuring out how to improve their life itself. To this end, they came up with the following two-step program:

Step #1: Figure out what in life is worth having.

Step #2: Devise an effective strategy for attaining that thing.

“The Stoics concluded that tranquility (by which they mean the absence of negative emotions; they have nothing against positive emotions such as joy) is the thing in life most worth having,” Irvine writes. “Stoics recommend, for example, that we practice negative visualization: we should allow ourselves to have flickering thoughts about how our life could be worse.”

Negative visualization sounds like, well…a negative thing to do, but it is actually an intellectual exercise, as NJlifehacks explains:

Negative visualization is a thought exercise. We imagine bad things to happen so that we’ll be better prepared for them when they actually occur. It’s important to remember that for the Stoics external misfortunes were not actually negative but indifferent. And only their reaction to the events could be good or bad. They trained themselves mentally to be able to respond well when adversity hit them. Thinking about negative scenarios does not make you pessimistic, but rather optimistic. You will appreciate the things you have much more when regularly imagine bad things to happen.

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If you would like to learn more about Stoicism, I highly recommend the website Daily Stoic, and the accompanying  book, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.

For various exercises that you can do to develop a Stoic outlook on life, please check out 10 Insanely Useful Stoic Exercises by Emanuele Faja. All of these exercises have been around for thousands of years and the reason that they are still applicable today is because they are grounded in common experience and in common sense. In other words, they work.

And, for more on how to use Stoic principles to improve your life, please see Five Powerful Ways to Change Your Thoughts and Habits and Reach Your Goals.

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I’ll leave you with a compilation of quotes from Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. 

Quotes from Epictetus

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.”

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”

“Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.”

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. ”

“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests. ”

“Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals. How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer. Put your principles into practice – now. Stop the excuses and the procrastination. This is your life! You aren’t a child anymore. The sooner you set yourself to your spiritual program, the happier you will be. The longer you wait, the more you’ll be vulnerable to mediocrity and feel filled with shame and regret, because you know you are capable of better. From this instant on, vow to stop disappointing yourself. Separate yourself from the mob. Decide to be extraordinary and do what you need to do – now.”

Quotes from Marcus Aurelius

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.”

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”

Quotes from Seneca

“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.”

“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”

“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.”

“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

“To wish to be well is a part of becoming well.”

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About the author

Lisa Egan

Lisa is a researcher and writer who lives in the outskirts of D.C. She has a BS in Health Science with a concentration in Nutrition. Lisa has worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist and is a certified hypnotherapist. She enjoys helping people learn about how to improve their health.

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