Were the ancient Stoics happier people or were they just better at controlling how they reacted to what happened to them? How do we win the paradox of choosing happiness while not reacting to the irritating people, jobs, and environment as we suffer along joylessly?
Happiness experts tell you to work out and exercise. To connect deeper with people and community. To love what you do more and stay present. But what if that feels like suffering?
The paradox of happiness is profound to me. I think I’ve simplified it to my one very, simple mantra: without fighting through suffering, we can’t understand or appreciate the other end of the dichotomy — joy.
I wonder if one of the most famous Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman emperor, would actually smile happily and grit his teeth when he woke up to face his day and charge off to battle to lead the Roman empire. Did he actually feel true joy in these moments of suffering?
Were the Stoics able to find moments of joy in everyday life or were they just really good at suffering without complaint?
As an aspiring happy stoic, when the alarm goes off in the morning, I feel like life is being sucked out of me like an armadillo puckering its asshole before a fart.
I hate alarms. The lack of sleep brings me the least amount of joy in the world. But really, my thoughts about morning may make me just as a tough as a soft, steaming, warm turd on a summer day. Ironically, I love to feel simple joys in the morning. The warm taste of espresso, the hilarious view of my dog fetching his stick with unabashed fervor, and engaging in the slow, tepid morning routines that turn my day into creative assaults on middle Earth.
Yes, of course I want to be happier. I desire to laugh and connect more, to fall in love, to create joy, but paradoxically, this disdainful attachment to my morning alarm makes me ask, “Why can’t I just pop out of fucking bed and feel like the happiest man in the world?”
Do Americans really find joy or is everyone just faking it with their fake-ness, alcohol, smart phone addictions, and medications?
I have struggled with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. I’ll probably always battle it, but it has gotten better for me over time. And my reason my happiness levels have gone up and my anxiety levels have gone down is this: I realize humans that work or live in solitary confinement doing something that doesn’t give them much meaning for a paycheck will not sustain itself. Humans that live detached from nature, or devoid of joyful moments, aesthetics, or connections designed into their lives, won’t live happily or joyfully without help.
In my opinion, Americans that suffer in poverty, laziness, obesity, addiction, anxiety, depression, misery, and sadness are also the ones that must learn the path of self-knowledge that eventually free themselves. Even the toughest of Stoics — Seneca, Aurelius, Epictetus, and Zeno — would probably practice habits that created moments of joy and design environments that create awareness of joy and sustainable long-term happiness than misery and suffering.
In fact, I’d imagine in today’s distracted, fast, busy, and polarizing world, the philosophers of Stoicism would demand it.
So the real question is how do we find or design our life to have more joyful moments?
Are Americans depressed, sad, and anxious because of this lack of self-knowledge to change our environment?
Yes, certain days, I suffer and want to crawl into a little armadillo ball and not go out into the world. I mean, why would I want to go out there?
America, as a society, has done a shitty job of allowing the space and time to design joy into our lives.
Americans cannot stop to smell the roses when there are no roses around us, nor when we have neither the time nor awareness to do so. This is a sad realization, even if you are one of the happier people out there.
So, what is the joy recipe?
If happiness is the measure of how good we feel over time and joy is how we feel right now, it would make sense to add more good, joyous moments in our day to day life.
Applying this simple self-knowledge would create higher happiness levels. But without self-awareness, we cannot become more aware of what joy is and how create it for ourselves.
This is the paradox of paradoxes because no one chooses sadness, or depression, or anxiety, or a lack of self-awareness. Self-knowledge is key. I read the two biggest indicators of happiness in life are the deepness of our relationships and the mastery of our own self-knowledge — of who we are, what we need, what we like, what is good for us, and how we should go about becoming who we want.
Seneca, at the end of the day would write down what stole his happiness, what irked him, what pushed him to anger or sadness, or created irritations inside him. He would remind himself that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but rather us around it.
If you expect the world to always give you what you want, you will always be unhappy.
The higher versions of ourselves — the ones that want to live, love, explore, play, laugh, work, and connect — will never find more joy if they don’t design joy into their life. We will all suffer. Some more than others (says the white guy). But stoic happiness is available to all of us. To the line cook. To the garbage man. To the single mom. I like to think of happiness as a big wall clock. The hour hand is happiness, the second-hand is joy. To get my second-hand ticking up, every possible moment, I need to be in the path of joy.
My second-hand clock is working out. Writing. Running. Shooting hoops. Teaching kids. Executing my startup to-do list. Being with friends. Taking time to reflect. Speaking about leadership. Investing money in passive income streams. Learning about happy people and traveling to happier cultures to see what their habits are. Having bright colors in my house. Round shapes (these are proven to create less anxiety). Playing with my dog. Creating things to create them because I like to be maker. Traveling with loved ones.
Americans have designed joy right the fuck out of their lives.
Just look around. You won’t have to look far. People are too busy to connect. To laugh. To suffer together. Our office buildings aren’t colorful or round shaped. They are boxes of death. They are intimidating. Businesses don’t team build, they isolate. Strangers look away from eye contact. Co-workers don’t smile. Americans don’t get enough free time to enjoy nature, to reflect, to connect while they suffer through life, and reshape their identity with self-growth.
I try to practice what I preach, but it’s always hard.
If our American environment doesn't invite you to feel joy, it’s up to you to make it happen. I believe that’s how an ancient Stoic would do it, they would make it happen, and suffer to find joy on the other side.