You can thank the ancients for everything from democracy to libraries, the alphabet to zoology. What do they say about happiness?
My world shrunk to four walls during a recent
period of bedrest as I lay, propped up by pillows
and turned at intervals, like a chop on a grill.
I had what doctors termed a “high-risk geriatric pregnancy” (thanks, science) and became incapacitated, developing sores on my hips and tailbone and an overwhelming sense of melancholy. As a happiness researcher and writer, this was a challenge. I reminded myself that my predicament was temporary—that I was ridiculously fortunate, in many ways—and that in the history of the world, this was nothing. But I didn’t quite believe myself (I’m a skeptic like that). So I proved it by immersing myself in history and going back to the wisdom of the ancients—surrounding my bed with books and using modern technology to put experts on speed dial.
Ideas From the Ancient World
Ancient Greeks, I learned, saw rest as a gift, the pinnacle of civilized life. In our modern world, in thrall to the cult of busyness, this felt promising. The Greeks and Romans were also among the first to promote physical health and the idea of mens sana in corpore sano—or “healthy mind in a healthy body”—a pretty good life goal. So could it be that the ancients were the first self-improvement gurus?
“In a word, yes,” says Donald Robertson, the author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and a psychotherapist who specializes in the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern psychotherapy. “Ancient Greek philosophy is very much about self-improvement.”
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius arguably wrote the first self-help book in The Meditations. “On the occasion of every individual thing that you do, pause and ask yourself if death is a dreadful thing because it deprives you of this,” Aurelius wrote. It’s a way of asking whether the thing we’re doing right now really matters. Netflix and chips? Not so much.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca recommended that we imagine losing everything and everyone we love, regularly, to make us grateful for what we’ve got. Rather than viewing this as morbid, Stoics maintained that since none of us can avoid death, we might as well face it head on.
Of course, there’s a fine line between preparing for the worst and catastrophizing—a term modern-day psychologists use to describe a cognitive distortion that prompts us to jump to the worst possible conclusion. “There are unhealthy ways to prepare for the worst,” says Robertson, “like exaggerating the probability and severity of threat and underestimating our ability to cope. And then there are healthier ways that the Stoics preferred, like visualising or imagining things more patiently and realistically.” So planning ahead? “Exactly.”
Ancient Greeks, I learned, saw rest as a gift, the pinnacle of civilized life.
The sixth-century BCE poet Cleobulus of Rhodes lived by the motto metron ariston, or “moderation is best.” Balance may not be exciting, but it is important for happiness.
“Moderation is everything,” says Dr. Funke Baffour. “It all starts with balance as a baseline, then a psychologist can work more effectively. Because excess in any form is symptomatic of unhappiness.” We all know by now that bliss is unlikely to be found at the bottom of a bottle and that food, drugs, or sex won’t make us happier. Ditto shopping. Trying “add to cart” as a way to buy happiness creates what’s become known as the “loop of loneliness.” Feeling sad makes us shop, and shopping actually makes us sad.
What can make us happier is putting pen to paper. Journaling was first described by the Greeks in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras back in sixth century BCE. The Meditations was Marcus Aurelius’s own personal notebook.
Epictetus, a former slave turned Stoic teacher, counseled preparing for each day by asking what we need to fulfill our potential for the day. Then, before bed, he recommended asking: “What have I done well today? Where did I go wrong? What can I do better next time?”
“There is a therapeutic release to journaling,” says Dr. Baffour. “Five minutes is long enough, morning and evening—even if you have to do it sitting on the toilet (and everyone has five minutes on the toilet!). Some guided questions for mornings could include: ‘What am I grateful for? What happened yesterday that made me smile? What am I looking forward to today?’ At the close of day, take another five minutes of reflections and thinking ‘What can I do better tomorrow?’ Then, sleep it off and start the day fresh, aware of your expectations of yourself and what you can and cannot control.”
The Stoic Epictetus urges us to see the world how it is, not how we might want it to be. “He was realistic about the fact there are limits on how much of our external world we can control,” says Robertson, “and this is the basis for cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT.”
CBT is the leading evidence-based form of modern psychotherapy. Albert Ellis, the psychotherapist who developed early CBT, would quote Epictetus to his students, saying: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” Aaron T. Beck, the other founder of CBT, paid homage to Marcus Aurelius in Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders with the quotation, “If thou are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs thee, but thine own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.”
What can make us happier is putting pen to paper.
The influence of the Stoics can even be seen in The Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s and made popular by Alcoholics Anonymous: “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Dr. Baffour says, “Although we don’t have control over everything, we do have control over what we think. So it’s a wonderful approach.” Clinical psychologist and mindfulness advocate Dr. Scott Symington also uses tenets from the Stoics, adding: “There is a detachment piece, a stepping back to help us not to be overwhelmed by feelings and desires. Because the aim for a happy life is to be settled internally, anchored, and not whipped about by external events. We are not avoiding problems and pain. We are thinking, ‘Given the current challenge, how can I go forward with purpose in the midst of this hard thing?’ Thoughts are part of who we are, but they don’t have to define us. And the Stoics seem to get this.”
But not everyone is a fan. Tad Brennan, professor of philosophy at Cornell University and author of The Stoic Life, advises approaching the Stoics with caution. “The emphasis on personal autonomy, on controlling your internal thoughts, has value,” says Brennan, “but what about the cost it incurs? How much do we sacrifice when our primary goal in life is maintaining serenity and equilibrium? If we avoid losing by never playing the game, then we’ve paid too high a price, in my opinion,” he says, adding: “It’s no good to get to the end of life and have nothing to show for it but undisturbed tranquility. Mood management is highly overrated.”
Also: Stoics had some blind spots. “When your teachings emphasize that you can insulate yourself from society’s injustice through the mere control of your own thoughts, then you sideline critique of the injustices in that society,” says Brennan. I wonder aloud whether any of the ancients get it right here. Brennan thinks that Aristotle does a bit better on this score. Ah yes, that guy.
According to Aristotle, a good life is about achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the good stuff—like health, wealth, knowledge, and friends—that lead to enrichment. This requires us to make choices, some of which may be difficult, and most of which can go wrong. “When we get out of our head and participate in the world, we can’t guarantee our own success by merely controlling our own thoughts,” says Brennan. Aristotle’s idea of what it means to live well isn’t just a matter of how we feel inside—although that does play a role—it’s about doing something worthwhile, finding what has real value, and living with purpose.
We should enjoy the respect of others—not fame or glory, but having our qualities recognized by others—and we must be engaged. The good life is one in which we cultivate and exercise our rational faculties by, for instance, engaging in scientific inquiry, philosophical discussion, artistic creation, or by doing something. Ideally, for someone else.
Altruism has been proven time and again to be good for us. Studies show that doing volunteer work makes us feel better. Helping others improves our support networks and helps us to be more active. Giving our time to someone else, counterintuitively, makes us feel as though we have more time. In a study from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, and Harvard, researchers compared spending time on other people to spending time on ourselves, having a windfall of free time, and even wasting time.
They found that spending time on others increased feel- ings of time affluence, hands down. The economist James Andreoni has developed a whole economic theory known as “warm-glow giving” to describe the emotional reward of giving to others. MRI scans show that our brains literally light up—glowing with the pleasure of giving.
“Aristotle’s views come closest to common sense, I think,” says Brennan. “He places the greatest value on action and engagement with the world. The preservation of a state of mind is not a noble goal for a human life. What matters is being thoughtful, brave, and fair-minded, and putting these qualities to use in your involvement with your society.”
There’s one more piece to Aristotle’s joy-jigsaw that feels particularly important to note in these days of endless tomes telling us that if we just try hard enough, we can manifest our way to happiness. “In Aristotle’s view, our happiness is not entirely within our control,” Brennan points out. “It depends partly on the world’s cooperation.” Aristotle points out, pretty accurately from my own experience, that any life can be rendered unhappy by tragic loss or misfortune. And that doesn’t mean that we’re not trying hard enough. It means that we cared enough to make ourselves vulnerable to the world. The price of admission to a life that really matters is accepting the risk of loss.
“In Aristotle’s view, our happiness is not entirely within our control,” Brennan points out. “It depends partly on the world’s cooperation.”
According to Aristotle, the goal for all of us should be to reach eudemonia—best translated as fulfillment. And what distinguishes happiness from fulfillment is pain. It is perfectly possible to be fulfilled and—at the same time—under pressure, suffering physically or mentally, overburdened, and tetchy. Possibly due to bedsores.
As Dr. Symington says: “Life is beautiful and joyful but it is also painful and dark at times. So happiness for me is about two things. Firstly the inner experience of wellbeing— and this can ebb and flow. And secondly, it’s life satisfaction—it’s about whether the broader structure of life still is purposeful and meaningful.”
The first is the Stoics. The second is Aristotle. So I’m taking my ancient prescriptions from both of them.
Reader: I had my babies. Plural. As in twins. Turns out life is indeed beautiful and joyful and painful and dark and that’s okay—that’s a good life. That’s happiness.
Helen Russell’s new book, How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned About Being Happier by Being Sad, is available to preorder now and is in stores October 5, 2021.