Everyone is working diligently for a happy life, yet so many of us have more unhappiness than joy. I recently came across a quote on this subject by the great Stoic philosopher Seneca:
“Trust me, real joy is a serious thing. Do you think someone can, in the charming expression, blithely dismiss death with an easy disposition? Or swing open the door to poverty, keep pleasures in check, or meditate on the endurance of suffering? The one who is comfortable with turning these thoughts over is truly full of joy, but hardly cheerful. It’s exactly such a joy that I would wish for you to possess, for it will never run dry once you’ve laid claim to its source.”
Seneca mentioned three aspects of stoic joy: not afraid of death, not afraid of difficulties, and not indulgent in pleasures. I reflected that real joy, according to Stoicism, is not surface-level cheerfulness. Rather, it is a deep sense of purpose, inner confidence, and emotional stability.
1: Powerful Purpose — Not Afraid of Death.
Someone with real joy is not afraid of death. Why? Because they have a powerful purpose that is worth dying for, and they live that purpose day in and day out. If they were to die today, they would have no regrets.
So what makes a powerful purpose? Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic emperor, said:
“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short — the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”
In other words, a powerful purpose is to be a good person, to improve our moral character, and to serve the common good.
No matter what our situation is in life, we can do these three things. In doing so, we should avoid being stained by power, wealth, and fame, which can all corrupt our purity and ruin our work. When we constantly live a powerful purpose, day in and day out then we wouldn’t worry about death. No matter if we die tomorrow or decades later, we can be gratified at a life well-lived.
2: Inner Confidence — Not Afraid of Difficulties.
Someone with real joy is not afraid of difficulties and suffering. Why? Because they focus on what they CAN control, not what they cannot control. We cannot control external factors, and we’re pretty much guaranteed to face suffering and difficulties in life. But we CAN control how we respond to our circumstances. Someone with real joy takes pleasure in responding wisely and positively to all circumstances as opposed to becoming emotional and complaining.
“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I’ll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable.”
Stoicism is also very practical. Stoics don’t just tell themselves to not fear difficulty, they also train their tenacity. Seneca explained a simple way to practice poverty:
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”
Seneca was a statesman and an advisor to the emperor, so he had wealth and status. Many people in his position would get accustomed to the comfortable life and fear difficulties. But Seneca practiced poverty, setting aside a few days regularly to eat and dress like a homeless person, all the while reflecting on how it is not nearly as scary as he imagined it might be.
Real joy comes from a sense of confidence that we can handle whatever adversity comes our way. The more we practice discomfort deliberately, the less afraid we will be of unplanned adversity. We base our joy not on receiving favorable circumstances, bur rather on responding properly to all circumstances.
3: Emotional Stability — Not Indulgent in Pleasures
Someone with real joy does not feel the desire to indulge in pleasures. “Pleasure” in this context refers to sensory pleasures, such as touch, taste, and mind (e.g., highs from drugs). Excessive pleasures result in a big low afterwards and can lead to addiction.
Hence, Seneca said,
“It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them…And so they are the slaves of their pleasures…Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached.”
One reason people often seek sensory pleasures is to distract themselves from the emptiness they feel in their soul. This emptiness is a lack of a meaningful purpose. Another reason is to seek relief from stress and adversity.
Therefore, if we have a powerful purpose that fills our soul, and we train our tenacity to be unafraid of adversity, then we naturally wouldn’t indulge in sensory pleasures. Living an emotional rollercoaster is quite stressful. Having emotional stability, constantly feeling a sense of peace and wellbeing, is true joy.
Before I learned Stoicism (and other philosophies such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism), my mood always swung with changing external circumstances. When things were going well, I was happy. When things went against my preferences (which is very often), I got annoyed, stressed, or upset. Then I would seek pleasures like video games, TV, and junk food. Despite my diligent efforts for a happy life, I lacked real joy.
After I learned philosophy, I set a life mission (purpose) that I really resonate with, which is to benefit the world by sharing useful and timeless wisdom.
That also means learning and practicing philosophy in my own life to become a better person and to help others. This mission is so meaningful to me that I am willing to sacrifice sleep and other enjoyment for it.
I gradually and naturally stopped gaming and TV because I feel like I don’t even have enough time for my mission. I have been giving my full effort towards this mission for a couple years now, so even if I were to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel remorse because I feel like I made good use of my life (after I learned philosophy). Hence, I have a sense of peace with how I am spending my life.
To practice tenacity, there were a couple times where I endured painful canker sores without getting upset at the people around me. I also practiced living on the cheapest food for a week, eating mostly bread and vegetable-stuffed buns, and I found it wasn’t a big deal at all. But when I get very hungry or tired, my patience becomes short, so I am currently working on that. All in all, I have a lot more real joy thanks to philosophy.
- Are my diligent efforts in life resulting in happiness and joy?
- What is a meaningful purpose and mission for my life?
- How can I improve my ability to handle adversity? Which hardships can I train for?