The ancient Stoics have much to teach us about satisfying and fulfilling lives. The modern consumer would benefit from understanding what truly makes us happy and that endless consumerism is not the way to lasting happiness. Combine it with the increasing number of inhabitants of this planet, shrinking resources, and the notion of environmentally sustainable life, and we can conclude that a bit of a restrain and self-control may not hurt.
Since the early days of economic theories, hedonic well-being has taken a prime spot in our effort to achieve happiness. It is the notion that infinite growth is necessary for society to prosper. If you want to live a better life, you need to produce more and consume more. You don’t consider the depletion of natural resources.
The so-called eudaimonia, as promoted by the Stoics, puts a bigger emphasis on living in accordance with who we are and on the well-being of everyone in the universe. It promotes prudence, self-control, courage, and justice as tools to get there. All that we need to achieve happiness is hidden within us. This thinking appears significantly more sustainable as it doesn’t require infinite growth for everyone to flourish. There is an interesting paper on the topic written by Kai Whiting, Leonidas Konstantakos, Angeles Carrasco, and Luis Gabriel Carmona.
The term eudaimonia, first popularized by Aristotle, doesn’t have a direct translation to English. It is commonly translated as a combination of fulfillment, flourishing, well-being, and happiness. In short, for the Stoics to achieve eudaimonia means you live a life worth living, and as a byproduct, you achieve happiness and tranquility.
How do you do it? You live a virtuous life. The ability to act virtuously is not dependent on your social status, gender, economic power, or anything else external. It is available to everyone. All that it requires for you is to live by the Stoic principles.
The fundamental differences in the most popular ancient philosophies and their path to happiness can be described in this way:
- Epicureans (hedonic well-being) – propose that you obtain well-being by maximizing pleasures and minimizing pains. We may argue that it is pretty close to how many people live their lives today.
- Peripatetics/Aristotle (eudemonic well-being) – propose that well-being is achieved by means of virtue. But one has to be also well educated, wealthy, healthy, and even good looking to get there.
- Stoics (eudemonic well-being) – propose that virtue is the only necessary component to achieve well-being, and it is available to everyone. I would argue that even though it may not be particularly attractive at first glance as it looks like a lot of work and even some pain, it is a way to go if you want to achieve true sustainable happiness.
Hedonia (seeking pleasure and comfort) and eudaimonia (seeking to use and develop the best in oneself) are often seen as opposing pursuits, yet as the authors of several studies showed, they may be both valuable as they contribute to well-being in different ways. Results indicated that hedonic pursuits are related more to positive affect and carefreeness, while eudaimonic pursuits are related more to meaning.
As Veronika Huta and Richard M. Ryan researched, people whose lives were high in both eudaimonia and hedonia had higher degrees of most well-being variables than people whose lives were low in both pursuits. The findings show that hedonia and eudaimonia occupy both overlapping and distinct niches within a complete picture of well-being, and their combination may be associated with the highest well-being.
This is fine for the ancient Stoics as they didn’t shy away from luxuries, fame, or riches if they got it. They didn’t seek them on purpose, but if as a byproduct of their efforts they got famous, it was fine with them. They accepted it and used it for good. In fact, many Stoics had a great deal of power and influence in their times.
Why is self-control so important?
Everything needs to be taken in moderation, even the luxuries. Which, not surprisingly, is one of the cardinal virtues promoted by the Stoics. By practicing self-control and self-restraint, you can derive the same amount and even more enjoyment from life than by the pursuit of purely hedonic pleasures.
For example, let’s say you love chocolate. If I offer you a chocolate bar and you accept, you will have a brief moment of enjoyment. On the other hand, if you refuse and deny yourself this desirable treat, you will find another type of pleasure. You exercised a strong will, you were able to resist, and you feel good about your self-control. Moreover, eating sugar is not healthy anyway, and lastly, when you at some point in the future decide to grab the chocolate bar, you will enjoy it twice as much because you can say it has been ages since you had it, and you love chocolate. The cost-benefit analysis of this example is in favor of restraining yourself even if it brings a bit of short-term pain.
And it is not just chocolates. The benefits of self-control and moderation are numerous. Let’s consider some of the most obvious ones:
- Lower costs – living with moderation in mind leads to less waste, less consumption, and ultimately lower costs of living.
- Realistic desires – practicing self-control teaches you to manage your cravings and helps you to understand what is realistic to achieve and sustainable to hold.
- Simpler life – it leads to a simpler life. When having fewer possessions, you also have less worry about losing them.
- Less stress – it eventually leads to less stress as you remove the need to pursue more and more of everything. It gets you comfortable with what you have.
- Better balance – it helps you to find the right balance in your life between looking into the future longing for more and living in the moment, enjoying what you have.
- Sustainability – it allows you to do your part in making the world a better place by limiting the amount of resources you consume.
- Resiliency – it gets you more resilient and prepared for any misfortunate that may befall you.
- Increased enjoyment – ultimately, it helps you to focus on what is truly important and enjoy even the small things in life.
One example that illustrates all of these is eating out. I guess now is the time to get controversial. You can argue that the Stoics believed you should live as simple a life as possible by using as few resources as practical. This is all fine and good with me, except for one area, food. I love good food. I used to live to eat rather than to eat to live. However, consider that for you to enjoy a couple of minutes of gastronomic pleasure, tons of expensive ingredients, lots of labor, and lots of transportation costs from faraway areas are involved. And why? By eating in a fancy and expensive restaurant, you won’t get any stronger or better than eating simple food. It is a pure epicurean enjoyment that is not necessary. The responsible thing to do is to eat things that are easy to obtain yet healthy and nutritious. You should eat to live, not to live to eat. And if you comment that it is an excellent way to bond with friends, I’m sure you find other similarly good ways that don’t require this level of complexity and waste as eating out in fancy restaurants. And yes, I’m guilty of this too.
If this whole premise sounds ridiculous to you, try fasting for a couple of days, or spend a week in places without restaurants and without an excess of food. Go camping or hiking in the mountains. Travel to places where you can’t get a real meal for a while. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was in the wilderness of Papua. After a week-long trek through the jungle, a plain noodle soup, actually just boiled noodles, tasted a hundred times better than the fanciest food in the fanciest restaurant in the world.
Are there any drawbacks?
What are the drawbacks of getting more self-control, simplifying your life, and practicing moderation? A couple of things come to mind, and in the grand scheme of things, none that matter.
It can be painful – saying “no” to something you like can be painful. Knowing when to stop and to exercise self-control requires some focus and effort. It is, especially at the beginning, a drain on your mental and emotional reserves. And to counter that, it builds resilience. When you get through the difficult beginnings, you will become more resilient to any misfortunes that you may encounter.
Not having the latest gadget – if you accept that material possessions and luxuries are not important for happiness, you should be able to live without the newest gadget, without clothes from fancy brands, or without eating in fancy restaurants.
Perceived lack of status – this begs the question, why do you buy the latest gadgets in the first place? Why do you spend your hard-earned money every year on a new phone when the old one is still in perfect working condition? Ego and status. By buying things you don’t really need, you show to others and to yourself that you can. You get social status and popularity. And that feels good. Until next year when a new phone comes up. You are caught in an endless loop of wanting more things you don’t need. Luckily, social status and popularity are not required for living a happy and satisfying life. And if you worry about influence, consider what I wrote in this article. Likability is a much more powerful way to win friends than status and popularity. And you don’t need the latest gadget to get it.
Putting it all together
Practicing self-control may sound like a lot of effort and pain, and even denying yourself happiness, but when practiced regularly and when combined with moderation, the opposite is true. You will become much more satisfied with your life and much more accepting of the world and your place in it. By pursuing self-control and moderation in everything you do, you reach a better balance. And if you add the other Stoic virtues of practical wisdom, courage, and justice, you may be on a path to eudaimonia, a life worth living.
What are your thoughts on the topic? In a modern world, is the idea to refrain from enjoying every pleasure available smart one? Or would you say that restrain and moderation is a better way to achieve a happy life?
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