Philosophy can be practical. Throughout history, some of the world’s greatest minds used stoic philosophy to endure high pressure situations and make the most of tough times. Best of all, they’re still relevant today.
Before we proceed, I’d like to make one thing clear — I’m far from a philosopher. However, two books have helped me enjoy each day a bit more, and also got me through some of my most trying moments and most stressful decisions: Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.
You can’t simply consume philosophy. You need to practise it and constantly have it on your mind in order to benefit from it. As Marcus Aurelius, ruler of the Roman Empire for nearly two decades, wrote in Meditations:
Doctors keep their scalpels and other instruments handy, for emergencies. Keep your philosophy ready too — ready to understand heaven and earth.
Here are a few ideas that can help you forget about your worries and make each day a bit more enjoyable and meaningful.
Remember Your Opinion Of Yourself And Dissipate Self-Consciousness
It’s easy to get self-conscious when you’re dealing with office politics or surrounded by successful people. You can remove this anxiety by remembering that people’s opinions are temporary.
Of course, it’s perfectly normal to care what other people think, and we all seek approval from our peers. However, if you find it constantly nagging your mind, remember that you’re more than how other people define you. Consult your own values and think about your view of yourself. Marcus Aurelius shares:
It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.
Keep this principle in mind. The more you remember it and use it, the easier it will be to compare yourself less against others, and stay true to your goals and values.
You Own Your Things, Don’t Let Them Own You
Even if your possessions bring you joy and pride, they ultimately serve a function. Owning the most powerful horse in the world is a prestigious thing, but it won’t get you to work faster or more comfortably than a car. Seneca, a stoic philosopher and advisor to Emperor Nero, observed that the rich were often more worried about their lives than those living in poverty despite their seemingly more comfortable lifestyles. He writes in Letters:
We in our crimson luxury toss and turn with worry, stabbed by needling cares. What soft sleep the hard earth gave those people!
As much as possible, keep your self-worth from being tied to your possessions. As Seneca writes later, this isn’t a self-righteous thought, but one to preserve your own ego and happiness:
However much you possess there’s someone else who has more, and you’ll be fancying yourself to be short of things you need to the exact extent to which you lag behind him.
By remembering what possessions are actually for — to remove pain or bring pleasure to your life — you will be happy with what you have.
Resting May Not Be Restful, And Work Can Be A Blessing
Even when you’re idle, your brain may be going a mile a minute. You’re not really relaxing or resting up. You’re getting more stressed out. Seneca talks about this in Letters:
The fact that the body is lying down is no reason for supposing that the mind is at peace. Rest is sometimes far from restful.
Physically lying down isn’t always the solution to mental exhaustion or stress. Instead of indulging in rest and relaxation, relax less than you think you need to. It could help you perform better. Of course, the act of work could also melt away your other worries, which your brain has a greater chance to create and ruminate about when it has the free capacity to:
People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish. And there is nothing so certain as the fact that the harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity.
That’s not to say you should use work as an escape for your life’s problems. However, work can be an outlet for you to channel your brain’s energy, which might otherwise have created obstacles for itself to solve. Seneca reminds us of this as well, when he writes, “For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a haunted mind.”
There’s a difference between spinning your wheels and actually getting your work done. Working hard produces better results when you take time to prioritise, consider the most appropriate plans, and prepare properly.
Pick Your Friends Carefully, And Be Slow To Judge Others
Whether they’re colleagues, peers or friends, the people who you associate with inevitably influence you. That’s why Seneca is adamant that you should be friends with people that can make you better. In fact, you should also be able to improve them in some way:
Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those who are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.
No matter how much friends improve you, they will also occasionally let you down or do something you disapprove of. Whenever you find yourself disappointed in someone else, Marcus Aurelius suggests thinking:
When faced with people’s bad behaviour, turn around and ask when you have acted like that.
How many traits do you have that would make a lot of people glad to be rid of you?
You’re not going to have these people in your life forever. People move around the world, or go through different life stages, or might get involved with a different set of friends. Seneca reminds us of how temporary friendship can be, and how abruptly it can end:
Let us therefore go all out to make the most of friends, since no one can tell how long we shall have the opportunity.
One of the greatest joys in life is to experience things with friends, so don’t take them for granted. Remember, even if your friends aren’t perfect or as available as you’d like them to be, that you’re far from perfect as well.
Stoic philosophy brings the calm analysis to the tumultuous journey of life, and advises us on how to best conduct ourselves through it. There are many deeper themes that both books explore, but bother off advice for our modern workplace, on possessions, and on work and rest. These timeless principles are just as, if not more, relevant today than they were thousands of years ago.