Most of us carefully choose how we spend our money. Some of us carefully choose how we spend our time. But few of us carefully choose how we think. Yet, out of these three things, which deserves our most caution and attention?
The common maxim goes:
“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit; reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”
The way we think is analogous to the operating system of a computer: It is the invisible foundation of everything that the computer can do. Computers with a better operating system will achieve better results, while computers with bugs in their operating system will encounter problems. People who have a good system of thinking will be very happy and successful, while people with bugs in their thinking will encounter many struggles and failures. Most of us could use an upgrade!
The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus said,
“The first and greatest task of the philosopher is to test and separate appearances, and to act on nothing that is untested.”
In other words, we should test our thoughts to see whether they produce good results, and we should only keep the thoughts that prove to be effective. But coming up with new thoughts to test and creating a system of thinking is not easy. This is where philosophy comes in.
Why Philosophy is Awesome
We don’t have to start from scratch to create a good thinking system. The great philosophers of the past have already done it for us! We can learn their system of thinking, which has been validated and passed down through time for thousands of years. When we use the thinking system of past sages instead of our own unproven and untested ideas, we will become more happy, free, successful, and effective in life.
Now, you’re probably wondering where to start with philosophy. Everyone has different affinities and preferences; what works for one person may not be suitable for another person. Therefore, you can start by dabbling in a variety of philosophies and seeing which one resonates most with you.
The philosophy that resonates most with you is the one that you personally have a deep liking for and can understand easily. The more you study it, the more you want to study it, and the more results you get in life. After you find a philosophy that really resonates with you, commit to learning that way of thinking thoroughly and patiently.
Personally, I am still in the exploration stage, and I have not committed to studying one philosophy deeply yet. So far, I’ve explored Stoicism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. I’ve found that
- Stoicism is excellent for eliminating negative emotions. I recommend The Daily Stoic or The Obstacle is the Way to start.
- Confucianism is very practical for daily life and great for cultivating positive emotions. I recommend The Guide to a Happy Life to start.
- Daoism nurtures the spirit and body. I recommend The Dao De Jing or The Treatise on Response and Retribution to start.
- Buddhism cultivates tranquility, wisdom, and compassion. I recommend starting with The Ten Virtuous Conducts or Liao Fan’s Four Lessons to start.
Although on the surface, different philosophies and proper religions have their differences, they are all the same at the core: They all teach wisdom (time-proven and effective ways of thinking) and compassion (unconditional love for all).
How to Learn Philosophy
When learning philosophy, the focus is not on memorizing knowledge to show off to others. The focus is on using it in your life and seeing if it is helpful for you. In other words, you have to be both “The Thinker” and “The Doer”.
If you use act on philosophy correctly, it should bring you more happiness and effectiveness no matter what your situation. If you use it incorrectly, then you would get no benefit.
Another important thing is that we must concentrate and dedicate our efforts to one book at a time and not start a new book until we’ve thoroughly learned the current book. For example, I spent all my free time for many months learning The Guide to a Happy Life, then many months learning The Treatise on Response and Retribution, then many months learning The Ten Virtuous Conducts.
Lots of people might just read a book once and think they’re done. But if you cannot recall the teachings in daily life and use them in daily life, then you have not thoroughly learned that book. I read those books hundreds of times, each time reflecting on how I can better use its teachings in my life. That’s why I was able to derive benefit from them.
In the past couple of months, now that COVID restrictions have loosened in my area, I reconnected in person with many friends whom I haven’t seen in a while. Many of them commented that I seem to be very happy and wondered what changed for me. I reflected that it must be because I’ve been immersing myself in philosophy over the past year and a half, and now I’m able to recall and use those teachings in my daily life. As a result, things that used to be problems for me get solved easily and effectively now.
Here are 10 common situations that I’ve applied philosophy to:
- Re-selecting life values and goals
- Choosing happiness over pleasure
- Controlling negative emotions
- Responding to people’s bad behavior
- Whose opinions to care about
- Time management and priorities
- Choosing a restaurant
- Food and eating
- Leisure time and influences
- Not being afraid of problems
1: Re-Selecting Life Values and Goals
Before learning the philosophies of wise sages, I used to care heavily about money, prestige, fame, and physical appearances. I felt ashamed if I didn’t earn as much money as others or look as good as others. I looked up to people who were famous and prestigious.
When I was learning Stoicism, I came across this quote by Will Rogers:
“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.”
I realized that was me! I wanted more money to buy things I don’t really need to impress people that don’t really care. My life values and goals were dumb, and they were causing me a lot of unnecessary unhappiness. All the philosophies teach that kindness and helping others is what makes a fulfilling life.
- “Life is short — the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” — Meditations (Stoicism)
- “Whatever abilities I have, I should not be selfish with them.” — The Guide to a Happy Life (Confucianism)
- “View others’ gains as my own gains. View others’ losses as my own losses.” — The Treatise on Response and Retribution (Daoism)
- “Always hold the intention to benefit and comfort others.” — The Ten Virtuous Conducts (Buddhism)
Later, I changed my life goal to helping others. But compassion needs to be balanced with wisdom. Buddhism teaches us to not be attached or greedy for anything, and that includes helping others. Therefore, I am not greedy to help anyone and everyone, but instead, I wholeheartedly help the people around me who truly need my help. I help them with whatever abilities I have, to whatever degree I can. After I started using compassion and wisdom as my guiding values in life, I felt a lot more happy and at ease.
2: Choosing Happiness over Pleasure
Before learning philosophy, I thought pleasure was the same thing as happiness. I often thought about eating delicious food, going on vacations, watching some emotionally riveting TV shows, and playing video games. These things all stimulate the brain with pleasure chemicals s like a drug, and they result in an emotional low afterwards.
Philosophy gives us true happiness. This kind of happiness is long-lasting and does not bring a low afterwards. The analogy I gave a friend is “You are riding an emotional rollercoaster. You have high ups and deep lows. It is quite stressful! I decided to get off that rollercoaster and instead ride this boat on this smooth and peaceful river.”
For example, playing video games is pleasure. Before playing, I crave it. I cannot even control my own thoughts and emotions. While playing, I enjoy it. After playing, I don’t want to stop, but I have to or because I need to fulfill my life responsibilities. Then I am not even happy to do those life responsibilities. Seeking this kind of pleasure is extremely miserable.
On the other hand, learning wisdom to improve my thinking makes me happier and more productive and able to help more people without any negative side effects. The more wisdom I learn, the more compassionate I become, and the more happy and free I feel.
3: Controlling Negative Emotions
All philosophies aim to reduce your negative emotions and help you cultivate peace, ease, and happiness. Recently, when my parents accidentally lost my wallet with all my ID cards and bank cards in it, I only got upset for 5 minutes, and then I was able to return to peace after 10 minutes.
I reflected on the teachings of reciprocity, gratitude, and humility, and then I was able to calm down and even feel embarrassed for getting angry at my parents. If it wasn’t for all the philosophy I’ve been practicing, I probably would’ve been very upset and stressed for a long time.
4: Responding to People’s Bad Behavior
Philosophy teaches us to only focus on our behavior and to treat others virtuously regardless of their behavior. After all, I am the person seriously learning and practicing philosophy, not them.
When I covered a class for another teacher recently, one student was extremely obnoxious by spamming the chat and interrupting everyone when they were talking.
In the past, I definitely would’ve been annoyed at this student’s impoliteness and at her parent’s for not teaching her well. But thanks to the philosophy I learned, I thought about how it must be so difficult for her and her parents, so I shouldn’t make things harder for her by getting upset at her and making her feel bad. Moreover, me getting angry will set a bad example for the other students, so I need to maintain a calm composure and smile to set a good example to the other students.
One of the people living next door likes to smoke on the driveway. Afterwards, he just drops the cigarette butt on the ground. When the wind blows, many cigarette butts will come to my driveway. My mother was very annoyed at this. She felt like the neighbor should know to be more polite and to clean up after himself. But I learned from philosophy to not expect others to be good because they never learned philosophy. I’m the one who is learning philosophy, so I need to be the master of my own emotions rather than letting the outside control my emotions.
Philosophy is also practical. Confucianism teaches me to lead by example. Daoism teaches me to repay mistreatment with virtue. So I went and picked up all the cigarette butts on my driveway, then all the cigarette butts on my neighbor’s driveway. While I was cleaning up their driveway, the smoker’s daughter happened to see me and then came out and apologized, saying she will ask her father to put the cigarette butts in a garbage bin in the future. The problem was solved without anyone feeling any resentment towards each other!
5: Whose Opinions to Care About
In the past, I cared a lot about everyone’s opinions, including my parents, grandparents, friends, colleagues, and even strangers! Later, I learned that we should only care about the opinions of wise sages because they truly want the best for us AND have the wisdom to know what is best for us. If we follow their advice, our life will get better and better. But if we care about anyone and everyone’s opinion, then we set ourselves up for failure and unhappiness.
My grandpa often tells me to keep busy and work lots and make more money. Philosophy teaches me to focus on cultivating my kindness and wisdom. Hence, I now work enough to earn enough money, and I also make use my work to help others. But I don’t take on extra part-time jobs anytime. Instead, I use all my leisure time to study philosophy or to help the people around me. I also communicated with him about helping others is a much better life mission than simply making money.
Many of my friends have plenty of money and think it’s normal to spend their money on pleasure such as restaurants, games, and vacations. I remember talking to a friend recently and explaining how I’ve been practicing the virtue of frugality; my monthly expenses are now extremely low, so I have very little financial pressure. He thought I was quite strange.
In the past, I might have felt embarrassed or pressured to not seem strange in front of a friend, but now I’m perfectly happy with it because I know the sages would be proud of me. Why? Because my purpose for being frugal is to save natural resources for the Earth and to make more time for study. My purpose is not selfishness.
When our meal was over, I went to pay the bill without letting him know, and he was pleasantly surprised. He learned that people who are frugal are actually quite considerate, which is why they don’t waste money or resources, and they are very willing to spend money to help others.
6: Time Management and Priorities
Before, I often felt bad saying no to people who asked me for help. But like everyone else, I’m very busy!
Later, I learned from Confucianism that I should fulfill my responsibilities to others in the order of most gratitude to least gratitude. Parents have most gratitude because without them, I wouldn’t be here. Work leaders comes second because without them, I wouldn’t be able to support my current life. Friends probably come next because we’ve known and helped each other for so long. Everything else goes after. Therefore, I first make sure my parents are happy, then my work boss, then my friends, then everything else.
Before, I prioritized work over family. As a result, I had a lot of conflict in my personal life, and I was not happy. Now, if there’s a conflict between work and family, I pick family first. As a result, my personal relationships are great, and I can bring that sense of happiness and peace to my work, which allows me to do a better job!
Another time, a friend of a friend asked me for help. I refused in good conscience. Firstly, this person is very far away from me. I barely have enough time to serve my family, work and friends, so I should not take on this extra burden, which would reduce my ability to serve those closest to me. Secondly, this friend of a friend does not truly need ME to help him. His problem is not dire, and he can find others to help him.
However, another friend of a teacher asked me for help. They were actually in dire need of help, and I was the only person they knew who could help them. I then communicated with my parents, and they agreed that I should help them to the best of my limited ability. Hence, I agreed to help them with a big favor while also sincerely communicating the limits of my abilities. They could feel my good intentions without having unrealistic hopes towards me.
7: Choosing a Restaurant
All philosophies teach us to be considerate towards other people. Although I choose to eat vegan, I make sure to not be demanding or judgmental towards other people who are not vegan. After all, to be kind towards animals but not to my own family or friends would be very hypocritical.
So when I go out for meals with family or friends, I always let others choose the restaurant. If they happen to choose a vegan restaurant to accommodate me, then I make sure to pay. Or if it is their birthday, then I will pay regardless of the restaurant they choose. If it is my birthday and they want to pay, then of course I will let them have the joy of giving.
Philosophies also teaches us to love all people equally and to let anyone feel mistreated. One time, my father wanted to go out for a meal, while my mother wanted to stay indoors. On the surface, it looked like these two options are incompatible, but philosophy teaches us to think win-win. How can each person get what they want?
I asked each person why they want what they want. My mother said COVID is still serious outside, and she doesn’t feel comfortable going out. My father said it’s a special day, we ought to get some good restaurant food to celebrate. After I understood their motives, I proposed we order quality food from a restaurant and then eat at home. They were both happy with the solution, and no one felt wrongfully treated.
Example 8: Food and Eating
Before I learned about philosophy, I used to be quite picky with my food. I picked my foods based on taste rather than on health. I also indulged in unhealthy snacks. After I learned Confucianism, I learned that having a healthy body is the first requirement for being a good person because a good person wouldn’t make their parents worry, and parents often worry about their children’s health. Therefore, I started learning about healthy eating and encouraged my parents to eat healthily with me.
Another bad habit I had was eating too full because the food tastes good. Confucianism emphasizes something called the Middle Path, which basically means finding the optimal degree. Too much is just as bad as too little. When it comes to food, we should eat about 80% full. At first, I was worried I might get hungry between meals if I eat less, but once I tried it, I realized not only did I not get hungry between meals, I also felt better and more focused!
I also learned that my food choices greatly impact climate change and the future of our Earth. Since I eat three times a day, I can help the Earth three times a day. Whenever I buy groceries, I first look for organic and local foods. Although they might cost more money for me, they are much healthier for planet Earth and us consumers of the food.
Example 9: Leisure Time and Influences
Philosophers all teach us to choose our surrounding people and influences very carefully. We need to surround ourselves with virtuous and positive influences and get rid of negative influences.
In the past, I used to spend my leisure time playing video games, watching TV and Hollywood movies, and scrolling social media. Later, I realized that most of these things were teaching me vices like selfishness, arrogance, anger, indulgence, and rudeness. People who expose themselves to this kind of content everyday will think it’s normal, and they will encounter lots of problems in their life.
Once I realized that I was consuming negative content, I decided to replace it with positive content. I deleted the negative influences on my social media and replaced them with positive and inspiring ones. Instead of watching Hollywood movies, I watch YouTube videos on philosophy. Instead of playing video games, I read about philosophy and write articles to share what I learned with others. After I chose to spend my leisure time around virtuous influences, the rate of my growth accelerated greatly.
Example 10: Not Being Afraid of Problems
I used to get really annoyed and unhappy when I faced problems and hardship in life, especially if it involved other people. I remember thinking life would be so much easier if I could just live alone by myself and not have to deal with anyone else’s problems. That kind of thinking is a result of my lack of wisdom to effectively handle problems.
A key idea in Stoic philosophy is that the obstacle is the way. Without challenges and problems in life, we would never advance or improve ourselves. It’s just like how we need to lift heavy weights at the gym to grow our muscles. Therefore, we can view problems positively and productively by seeing them as a necessary challenge for our growth.
All philosophies also teach us to stop complaining about the things outside our control, which includes the outside world and other people. Instead, we must focus on what we can control, which is only our mind. The matter itself is not the problem, but how we view the matter is the problem. If we view a matter as unfair and an annoyance, then that attitude is what makes us suffer. If we instead view this “problem” as a gift or a lesson trying to make us better, or as an opportunity to practice philosophy, then we will happily embrace the problem and be determined to resolve it. Through solving problems, our wisdom, ability, and self-confidence will grow.
When I got a painful canker sore in my mouth, I viewed it as a chance to practice the virtue of “enduring hardship”. I worked very hard to make sure I didn’t get angry at the people around me due to the pain in my mouth. Therefore, this painful canker sore is here to help me grow.
When I have a difference of opinion with others, or when people in a group all have differences in opinions, I used to get annoyed and not want to deal with people’s dramas. But now, I view it as a chance to use philosophy to find a solution that everyone can be happy with. Therefore, these interpersonal conflicts are here to improve my abilities.
If you want to improve every aspect of your life, then improve your thinking. If you want to improve your thinking, then learn philosophy. Find a philosophy that resonates with you, and then set aside a large period of time (such as a few months to a year) to learn one book from that philosophy. Read and reflect on it every day until you can use its teachings naturally in your daily life.
If you do this properly, you will surely feel more happiness, peace, and effectiveness in your daily life!