What Is Stoicism? 5 Ways This Ancient Philosophy Can Improve Your Life

This Ancient Greek school of thought may hold the key to happier, stress-free days. 

If you never studied Greek philosophy, chances are you'll need an introduction. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy dating back to 300 B.C. that focuses on reframing the mind to not react to what we cannot control.

Today, it's often used by people to help with their personal and professional development and is referred to as Modern Stoicism. While you might not be familiar with the names of the best-known pioneering Stoics like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, you probably know many of today's practitioners who study and apply Stoic philosophies: people like Bill Clinton, Tom Brady, Lupe Fiasco, and Jack Dorsey, along with historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

It stands to reason that a school of philosophy that can hold as much appeal for former presidents as it can for a tech executive, rapper, and athlete potentially has something to offer all of us. Here are five lessons and principles we can learn from Stoicism, and how to incorporate them into our own lives for a better outlook, more emotional control, and less stress.

01 of 05

Accept what you cannot control.

One of the most common things kids say is "that's not fair!" Even before they fully comprehend what 'fair' really means, they know they don't like it. Feeling like we got the wrong end of the stick is one of life's great frustrations, so it's an unfortunate truth that, as the expression goes, life is often not fair.

"When you get good at defining what's an 'external factor' that's out of your sphere of control, you don't waste as much energy trying to fight what's unfair, and life feels markedly less stressful," says Meg Gitlin, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York.

Getting really clear on what falls into this category is life-changing. "For example, during the pandemic, maybe you've felt frustrated and angry when your child has had to 'attend' school remotely. It may totally derail your own productivity, mess up their schedule, and lead to a bunch of unpleasant or unforeseen situations. However, regardless of how unfair and inconvenient it has felt at times, there is really nothing anyone could do to change the reality."

She goes on to underline that any efforts to do so likely leads to more frustration and the feeling you get when the wheels are spinning. "Stoics believe that once you accept that life is going to be hard and frustrating, you can lead a more balanced life that allows us to recognize both strengths and limitations."

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02 of 05

Recognize what you can change and be meaningful in your actions.

While Stoicism encourages you to let go of what you cannot control, it's anything but a laissez-faire philosophy. Instead, it encourages you to focus on the flip side, namely on the things you can control, and approach them with rational thought and activism.

"For example, if you know that you grew up with limited parents who were unable to be there for you emotionally, you may logically realize that you'll need additional layers of support when the time comes for you to be a parent yourself," Gitlin says.

"Perhaps this means you read more or seek out professional guidance to support you as you create attachments with your child, or maybe it means believing in your own intuition when it comes to parenting. By accepting that you cannot change your own childhood, you also are defining what you can and would like to change—which is your relationship with your own child and ability to form a healthy and secure attachment with them."

The idea with this tactic, according to Gitlin, is that when you recognize the things you can change and are strategic in how you do it, it's more likely you'll feel satisfied and less stressed overall.

03 of 05

Break out of binary thinking.

Stoics were skeptical of things being all good or all bad. "When you strive to be 'good-ish' you are breaking out of this kind of black-and-white thinking," says Gitlin. "This creates space for a more helpful, balanced voice. When you speak to yourself in this way, you feel less stressed because the stakes for everything are lower. You recognize that you can make mistakes and still be a good person, and alternatively, be good at one thing and need improvement in others."

This makes sense in theory, but can be tough to put into practice. How often have you been given many compliments along with one criticism, and all you can do is focus on that one criticism? Not allowing one side to overshadow the other is an important practice for healthy human development.

"When something is solely good, you risk shattering your carefully constructed sense of self when you are criticized or fall short. When something is only 'bad' you risk missing out on parts of life and may feel less inspired or confident to pursue change or worthy goals," says Gitlin.

04 of 05

Be skeptical of your own thoughts.

Perception isn't always reality. This principle of Stoicism asks us to challenge whether or not what we're thinking is actually a reflection of reality. "We tell ourselves a lot of things in the course of a day, many of which aren't true or helpful," says Gitlin. "This can sound like 'I'll never meet someone' or 'I did a terrible job at my meeting and now my team hates me.' When we accept these thoughts as truth, we limit ourselves and feel stressed and unhappy."

How do we challenge these thoughts? Gitlin suggests reframing and asking questions like, "How true is this from zero to one hundred?" or "What would I tell a good friend if they told me this?" The idea is to look for faults in your own argument. "Once you treat the thought (e.g., 'I'm not good enough') as a question, as opposed to a truth, it often becomes clear that they're founded in emotion, and not logic."

05 of 05

Write it down, then act on it.

Stoicism encourages turning words into work. "Perhaps, this is in the form of journaling that fosters reflection then action, or even an active to-do list," says Gitlin. "As a therapist, I always encourage clients to take notes because studies support that it encourages them to remember and make meaningful change. Getting into the habit of writing anything down that feels meaningful, centering, inspiring, or helpful will push you to actualize these thoughts."

Gitlin also notes that the act of writing things down fosters a connection with our inner voice and can help us clarify what we really want in life. "This kind of intentional living aligns us with our values which promotes inner happiness."

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