Mind over Matter

Writer Graeme Park | May 4, 2017

It may be a brief moment during a hectic work schedule or part of a luxurious week-long activity, but as well as beauty and relaxation, most spa treatments ultimately promise some level of happiness.

But massages, haircuts and even the most decadent treatments offer only a fleeting taste of the good life. True enlightenment comes from within – something Buddhists and practitioners of yoga have known for a long time. But, real talk, yoga studios aren’t crowded with men looking for enlightenment, though perhaps they should be.

Although the World Health Organisation points out that more women experience depression than men, four times as many guys are likely to be suicidal as a result. And stress is the most common cause of depression among men. Numbers and stats aside – a routine trip to the barbers is not going to cure depression and it’s certainly not the path to authentic, lifelong joy.

Happiness is a tricky business, but perhaps the long-standing practice of stoicism can help. “When people think of stoics, they think of suppressed emotions,” says Dr Gregory Sadler, founder and president of the philosophical consultancy ReasonIO and editor of Stoicism Today – the digital hub of the modern stoic. “But the classic stoics don’t teach suppression of emotions. Stoicism is about regulating our negative emotions to live a more fulfilled life.”

Anger, explains Sadler, is an example of an unfavourable emotion. Instead of trying to hide it, stoics look at what causes the problem to understand and prevent it. “If a misplaced sense of entitlement is making you angry that you didn’t get a seat on a crowded subway, then being a little more mindful of the situation and your place within it will help keep that emotion in check.”

Unlike many self-help principles, stoicism does not claim to offer a quick fix to anger, stress or other issues that result from modern living. “There has been something of a trend for so-called ‘lifehack’ stoicism,” says Sadler. “Normally it will be an article in a business magazine about how stoic principles will make you a better worker or boss, by giving you control of your emotions. Now, that’s all true, but there can be a lot more to it.”

Sadler explains that for most people, applying stoic principles to your life will have a positive effect. It should be considered as a lifelong guiding principle toward a blissful life. If that sounds like hard work, it should. Living a truly fulfilled life is not something to be taken lightly and approaching the practice should be treated like any other exercise. Very few people, for instance, can walk into a gym for the first time and bench press their own bodyweight. It will take practice, dedication and knowledge that failure is part of the road to success.

“It’s important to measure your own progress,” says Sadler. “If you’re practising mindfulness techniques and taking stock of each day from a stoic perspective at night, then consider how your reactions to difficult situations change over time. It’s good to share stories with other people in the community, and there’s a large group of stoics out there.”

But where do you start? Well, testament to their staying power, classic works of stoic philosophy by thinkers such as Ancient Greece’s Epictetus and the second-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius are still in print. For the newcomer, however, such tomes may prove to be a difficult entry point so Sadler recommends starting elsewhere. “There are a number of popular authors who have done a good job of putting stoic thought into a non-academic, approachable format that is still faithful to the original principles,” he says and recommends Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, by Donald Robertson, for beginners.

As an alternative, Stoic Week is a week-long annual event during which participants live like a stoic for seven days, while tuning into videos, podcasts and online workshops. In 2016, the course had more than 3,000 participants and almost 90 per cent reported that taking part had helped them reduce anxiety and handle adversity better.

Stoic Week typically runs in November, but if you can’t wait that long to start living better, and are happy to go it alone, the previous year’s course notes and video seminars are still available online (www.modernstoicism.com).

For those who need a little more support, Sadler points out that stoicism has a large and increasingly global following. “There is a large online community where people can ask questions and find out more,” he says. And while the stoic life may be one that leads to contented living, it is important to remember that it’s not a shortcut hack – leave that to the barber. “A lot of this is gradual,” says Sadler. “A person doesn’t have to jump into it whole hog and place unrealistic expectations on themselves. But if you approach it well and with an open mind, stoicism can be a good way to a clear, coherent way of living.” 

It’s good to share stories with other people in your community, and there’s a large group of stoics out there
~ Dr Gregory Sadler