I've got several stacks of books in my office that I've read, found interesting, but haven't yet written a blog post about. So I'm going to make a start on them by picking the one on top, "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" by William B. Irvine.
Well, I decided to check and see whether I'd written about Irvine's book and it turns out that I had last June, in Past and present are outside our control. So here's my second post about the book.
Irvine, a philosophy professor, wants to make Stoicism relevant to us in the 21st century. He succeeds in that, offering up a bunch of tips about how to live life in a Stoic fashion.
Which definitely doesn't mean unhappily, or with a suck-it-up attitude -- the usual way "Stoic" is viewed by people who know just a little about Stoicism. That's why Irvine made his subtitle The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Stoics don't want to be, well, stoic. At least not in the usual sense of that term. They want to be happy, to be joyful.
Here's some passages that illustrate the Stoic approach to happiness.
We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.
The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Lowenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation. To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams.
It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. They start taking their new Ferrari and mansion for granted, the way they previously took their rusted-out pickup and cramped apartment for granted..
...As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill.
They are unhappy when they detect an unfulfilled desire within them. They work hard to fulfill this desire, in the belief that on fulfilling it, they will gain satisfaction. The problem, though, is that once they fulfill a desire for something, they adapt to its presence in their life and as a results stop desiring it -- or at any rate, don't find it as desirable as they once did.
They end up just as dissatisfied as they were before fulfilling the desire.
One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process. We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.
And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job.
This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it.
In other words, we need a technique for creating in ourselves a desire for the things we already have. Around the world and throughout the millennia, those who have thought carefully about the workings of desire have recognized this -- that the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.
This advice is easy to state and is doubtless true; the trick is in putting it into practice in our life. How, after all, can we convince ourselves to want the things we already have?
The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question.
They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value -- that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique -- let us refer to it as negative visualization -- was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus.
It is, I think the single most valuable technique in the Stoics' psychological tool kit.
...But what about those individuals who clearly aren't living the dream? What about a homeless person, for example? The important thing to realize is that Stoicism is by no means a rich person's philosophy.
...Consider the person who has been reduced to possession of only a loincloth. His circumstances could be worse: He could lose the loincloth. He would do well, say the Stoics, to reflect on this possibility. Suppose, then, he loses the loincloth. As long as he retains his health, his circumstances could again be worse -- a point worth considering.
And if his health deteriorates? He can be thankful that he is still alive.
It is hard to imagine a person who could not somehow be worse off. It is therefore hard to imagine a person who could not benefit from the practice of negative visualization. The claim is not that practicing it will make life as enjoyable for those who have nothing as it is for those who have much.
The claim is merely that the practice of negative visualization -- and more generally the adoption of Stoicism -- can take some of the sting out of having nothing and thereby make those who have nothing less miserable than they would otherwise be.
This fits with the many stories I've seen on our local TV news about people who lost their homes in the recent devastating wildfires here in Oregon. When interviewed, typically they say how sad it was to have their beloved house destroyed. However, they usually add something like, "But we're alive. We have each other. And the help we've gotten from total strangers has been so wonderful."
So they envisioned an even worse thing than having their house burnt down -- having a loved one die, or themselves die. That took some of the sting out of their tragedy.
On a smaller scale, I felt something similar in the days after we lost power during the high winds that caused the wildfires to spread so rapidly. Living out in the country, surrounded by large firs and oaks, along with a lot of brush, I was happy that our neighborhood didn't have a fire.
A few days ago I got up on our roof and removed leaves and other debris from our gutters with a backpack blower. It isn't a fun job, being somewhat dangerous. But I enjoyed it more than usual because I'd spent so much time wondering if our house might burn down, as hundreds did throughout Oregon.
Negative visualization does seem to work.