Damien Cosset's Blog

An introduction to Stoicism: Part One

July 06, 2017

Introduction

I wanted to write something about Stoicism for some time. At first, I thought one post would be enough, but then I realised it would be way too long. So, I will break it down in several smaller posts.

This series will NOT talk about programming. Stoicism is a subject that can affect every single area of your life, not just programming. If you come up with something related to your programming career, as I have, that’s great. But, you can also find something useful for other domains than your job. So, I decided to let you do any parallels with your own experience, if you are tempted to do so.

What is Stoicism ?

Stoicism is a philosophy of life. It was invented around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium in Athens, Greece. Athenian culture at the time allowed many different schools of thoughts to flourish, like Cynism, Epicureanism, Skepticism… When Athens came under the power of the Roman Empire, Romans became more interested in such philosophies. Famous early Stoics include Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Young, Seneca, Epictetus.

Stoics studied the way to live a good life. They came to the conclusion that we should learn to understand what is under our control, and what is not. They understood that the world is unpredictable and that nothing lasts forever. We are only here for a flash of a second. Stoics believed that we should do what we were designed to do. Particularly, we have reason, therefore, we were designed to be reasonable. We are social creatures, therefore, we have a duty to humankind. Of course, this is just scratching the surface here, but I think this is enough for a quick intro.

But Stoics didn’t just have complicated theories about life. They came up with concrete psychological exercices to help us achieve a good life in our daily struggles. In this article, I’ll expand on negative visualization.

Negative visualization

What is the worst that could happen?

Stoics identified three reasons to think about bad things. The first is rather obvious, because we all do it. We spend time thinking about the bad things in order to prevent them from happening.

  • I spend time thinking about diseases. I go see my doctor to get vaccinated.
  • I think about people breaking into my home. I lock my door when I leave.

But, no matter how much you try to prevent them, bad things always happen. According to Seneca, a second reason to think about the bad is to lessen the impact they will have on us. If we live our lives thinking that nothing is perishable, we will feel a great deal of pain and distress when those things are taken away from us. Your possessions, relationships, social standings… are perishable, they could all be gone tomorrow.

There is a third and more important reason to think about the worst. We, as humans, are insatiable. We always crave for something new, different. When we get that something we work hard to get, we lose interest in it. Then, we must form some new, grander desire to fill the gap.

Psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein gave it a name: hedonic adaptation. Didn’t we all experience some sort of hedonic adaptation? We get our dream job thinking that it will makes us happy, but before long we grow dissatisfied. We work to get a certain item that we convince ourselves we can’t leave without only to get bored of it after a few days or weeks. It may even happen to you regarding relationships.

Hedonic adaptation puts us on a satisfaction treadmill. How do we stop this? Or slow this process down ? We have to prevent ourselves from taking the things we have, or the people in our lives, for granted.

To Stoics, the easiest path to happiness was to learn how to desire the things you already have. Easy to say, but how do we do this? Stoics advocates negative visualization to achieve this.

Stoics spend quite some time contemplating death. As we are all mortal, we must remind ourselves from time to time that there will be a last time you kiss your child goodnight. When you say goodbye to a friend, it may be the last time you see this friend. When you call your mother, it might be the last time you ever talk to her. Understanding that you do not own people, and that we are all here for a moment only, Stoics thought, will not make us take them for granted. Furthermore, we will probably derive more pleasure from our relationships this way.

Stoics thinkers like Seneca and Epictetus also advises us to contemplate our own death. You may have heard countless modern day self-improvement gurus say: live this day like it was your last. Seneca takes this a bit further by saying: Live this very moment as if it was your last. What Stoics had in mind was: periodically, pause and reflect that you will not live forever and that this day might be your last. This simple realisation will make you appreciate how wonderful it is that we can do whatever we happen to be doing.

The same thinking can be applied to the loss of our possessions. Instead of contemplating the things we do not have, reflect on all the things you do have. Because, there is always at least one thing you can be grateful for.

I believe that, in our modern societies, we constantly try to be happy in the future. We chase things and people believing that they are what we need to achieve happiness. We all want reasons to be happy in the present and stay there. But, we all have reasons to already be happy where we are.

If you’re reading this, you have a device that allows you to surf the Internet. Therefore, you have access to an infinite amount of knowledge at your fingertips. A thing that would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. Isn’t that already a decent reason to feel happy about your circumstances ?

And what about this platform? What about dev.to ? Isn’t it great to have a safe space where people sharing the same passion for programming can exchange their ideas, their fears, their knowledge, without the fear of being inadequate ? What is the worst that could happen if I change published to true for this article ? Yeah, nothing that bad.

I realise that to some people, it might feel a bit depressing or morbid to contemplate things such as death. But to me, realising the impermanence of the world around us can make life a lot more enjoyable.

Is negative visualization something that you have tried? What are your experiences with it ?

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Damien Cosset

Written by Damien Cosset. I'm a freelancer working with Javascript and Java technologies. Follow me on twitter!