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4 keys to happiness, according to ancient greek philosophers

Last week, my new home was ravaged by the storms that have been plaguing the east coast, and I was without power for 5 days in total. 5 DAYS.

Though I could go on and on about the experience, one of things that stood out to me the most was just how hardworking the great minds of yore must have been. Working by candlelight (or in my case, scented-candle-that-I-had-hoped-to-use-for-relaxation-and-not-basic-utility-light) was difficult if not impossible. It certainly looks romantic in movies, but the reality of hunching over a paper to desperately glean the four words written just seconds earlier was too frustrating to continue for more than 10 minute stretches at a time.

Which brought me to my question: how did Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton and all other brilliant thinkers throughout history do it? Did they create solely during daylight, effectively limiting their ingenuity to half the time-frame the average modern human is given? Or were they so dedicated to their work that they minded not the the headache accompanied reading small letters in low-light?

Also, let's not forget the fact that most of them didn't have coffee, which would render my brain to the state equivalent of a 4-year-old's.

Anyway, back to the point of this post, which was the insight of ancient philosophers, specifically the Stoics of Ancient Greece. Despite living 300 years before Christ was even born -- and working in candlelight -- their advice on how to be happy is not only wise, but also has been officially verified by modern science, 2,000 years later.

Here are their four suggestions:

Key #1: "Negative Visualization"

Though it sounds dire, try imagining the worst that could happen in a situation. This can be scary -- no one wants to think about losing a job, family, or friends. But thinking about it removes the unknown aspect of your fears, making it easier to tackle.

"It’s what the Stoics call, 'the premeditation' – that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated," explained Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Plus, realizing how much you have to lose can remind you just how much you have.

"At spare moments in the day, make it a point to contemplate the loss of whatever you value in life. It can make you realize, if only for a time, how lucky you are — how much you have to be thankful for, almost regardless of your circumstances…" per A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

Key #2: Being Angry Is A Waste of Time

The Stoics believed that anger was detrimental to progress. Moreover, they had a trick for offsetting those negative emotions: act calm, and you become calm.

"When angry, says Seneca, we should take steps to “turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.” We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated," again per A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

This is a suggestion that has since been supported by scientific research. Individuals who were asked to make happy facial expressions in a study reported feeling happier than participants who had other tasks.

Key #3: Self-Denial Makes The Good Stuff Better

Though I'm far from advocating from hypothermia, the Stoics used to deliberately walk around on cold days without a coat. Or skip meals to become hungry.

They believed that denying yourself things made rewards even more fulfilling in the long run. Again -- this has turned out to be supported by science today.

"If you love, every day, having the same coffee, don’t have it for a few days. Once you have it again, it’s going to be way more amazing than all of the ones that you would have had in the meantime…It’s not “give it up forever.” It’s “give it up for short periods of time, and I promise you you’re going to love it even more when you come back to it," explained Michael Norton, author of Happy Money.

Moreover, denying yourself things helps increase will-power and discipline.

"People have said for centuries that you can build character by making yourself do things you don’t want to do, that by exerting self-discipline you can make yourself into a stronger person. That does appear to be correct," via Roy Baumeister's Willpower.

Key #4: It's Okay To Mess Up

The Stoics understood that mistakes were a necessity of progress.

"The Stoics understood that they would encounter setbacks in their practice of Stoicism: Thus, Epictetus, after telling his students what they must do to practice Stoicisim, went on to tell them what they should do when they failed to follow his advice. He expected, in other words, that novice Stoics would routinely backslide. Along similar lines, Marcus recommends that when our practice falls short of Stoic precepts, we should not become despondent and certainly should not give up our attempts to practice Stoicism; instead, we should return to the attack and realize that if we can do the right thing, Stoically speaking, most of the time, we are doing pretty well for ourselves," per A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

In other words, be kind to yourself. You're probably doing pretty well.

This post relied heavily on the brilliant work of Eric Barker's Barking Up The Wrong Tree, and his original post on this topic can be found here. The header image is credited to Marc Babin, and the one above to Fleur, both available on Unsplash.


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