Read time: 6 minutes, or get to the point.
Stoicism is defined as “the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint”. That, I’m assuming, sounds awful to most people. Why would anyone want to practice feeling pain and not displaying emotion? I’ll be honest with you, the “not displaying emotion” part sounds pretty boring, but the pain and hardship part is actually pretty useful, and it can even save you a lot of money, but let’s start with why it sounds so bad in the first place.
It is completely natural to be a hedonist. We’ve been evolutionarily trained to seek out pleasure because the default mode of life is (or was) discomfort and pain. Early humans were surrounded by predators and had to fight tooth and nail just to get a meal every once in a while, so it makes sense that our minds would be trained to seek the pleasure-filled experience of eating. It also makes sense that we desire sugar and fat because these things were hard to come by in the wild.
Unfortunately, two major things have changed in the relatively short period of time since our minds evolved to work this way. For one, what we need has drastically changed over the years. Fat and sugar used to be hard to come by, but now they’re hard to avoid. We need other nutrients more, but our brains are still trained to want those.
Secondly, we have developed all kinds of shortcuts to get straight to pleasure by cutting out the middleman. The middleman, in many cases, is the whole reason our brain was seeking that pleasure to begin with. For example, early humans probably craved sugar because fruit was good for them and it was hard to come by. In modern times, we can get straight to the pleasure from the sugar and skip the middleman, fruit. As seen in the scientific diagram below.
Early humans desired sugar because they needed fruit, they desired fat because they needed meat, they desired entertainment because they needed social interaction, and they desired relaxation because they needed to recover. In modern times, we’ve come up with “genius shortcuts” for almost everything that gives us pleasure: we can have sugar without fruit, fat without meat, entertainment without social interaction, and relaxation without needing to recover from anything.
If our brains could be evolutionarily reprogrammed now, we would probably be re-wired to feel pleasure from things like not eating as much, eating vegetables, working out, and helping people. This is where things get interesting, because we actually CAN get pleasure from a lot of those things. Ask anyone who loves working out, intermittent fasting, eating healthy, or helping people. These things actually can bring you pleasure, but our brains usually don’t expect them to. Our brains are trying to find the shortcut to pleasure, but there is no shortcut to the pleasure you can feel from working out. You just have to workout. You have to work hard to feel the pleasure you get from working hard. You have to help people to feel the pleasure you get from helping people. This is where stoicism comes in.
It’s tempting to think of stoicism as the opposite of hedonism. If hedonism is seeking out pleasure, and stoicism is seeking out hardship, they seem like they would be opposites. That is, until you consider that the hardship you seek out in stoicism can also give you pleasure. In reality, hedonism leads to pleasure in the obvious ways, but stoicism leads to pleasure in the non-obvious ways. To really experience all kinds of pleasure, you need both. With stoicism, you add the “middleman” back into your pursuit of pleasure by making things intentionally difficult. Plus you get the added benefit of a sense of accomplishment. See below.
To be clear, I don’t think stoicism is the end-all-be-all philosophy of life. You need a healthy balance of hedonism mixed in with your stoicism in order to experience all of life’s pleasures. But, stoicism is the non-obvious path that some people miss out on.
If you’re interested in practicing some stoicism in your own life, here are two tenets of stoicism that can help you do that: intentional discomfort and negative visualization. Intentional discomfort, also sometimes called voluntary discomfort, is exactly what it sounds like: doing something that sucks. I’ll admit, when I first heard of this I just thought: “Wow, that’s dumb. Why would I do that?” Well, I’m glad I asked. The reason to do stuff that sucks is to remind yourself that you don’t have to do it normally. It seems like imagining doing that sucky thing would be enough, but trust me. Nothing drives home the fact that a warm shower is an amazing amenity that you should never take for granted than taking a cold shower. It sucks, but you’ll be so grateful for your next hot shower and you’ll appreciate it much more.
Now, let’s talk about how stoicism can save you money. Imagine you are thinking about getting a new phone because the one you have now is old. If you buy a new phone, you’ll probably be happy with it for a little while until it’s a couple months old and then you’ll want another one. So, you buy another phone in a year and repeat the process. Eventually, you’re not really any happier and you’ve spent potentially thousands of dollars over the course of a few years.
What if instead, you actually went without your phone once a year for a few days. You would experience that same burst of happiness when you got your phone back, except now it’s bigger because you were completely without a phone before and now you have one. That’s got to be more exciting than just going from an older phone to a newer phone that has a couple more features.
Instead of adding a new thing every year that costs money, you’re subtracting something for a little while, and then adding it back. This process gives you the same burst of happiness you would get from upgrading your phone, except it’s free, and it could potentially save you thousands of dollars!
Believe it or not, this works for more than just phones. It actually works for everything. You can always subtract things from your life, even things you can’t afford to add. Take your house for example, maybe you can’t afford to buy a new house, but you can get that same happiness boost of getting a new house by simply going camping for a couple days and coming back to the one you already have. You can also experience this happiness boost with computers, furniture, appliances, cars, and clothes (you probably shouldn’t try living without clothes though). This is the stoic principle of intentional discomfort.
Another stoic principle is called negative visualization. It’s the process of imagining yourself without something you take for granted. It could be an object like your phone or something like your eyesight. The point is to meditate for a while on what your daily life would be like without that thing, and then when you come back to reality, surprise! You have it that thing! I imagine negative visualization to be kind of like a mild self-induced nightmare. The other night I had a nightmare that my cat had become evil and was breaking everything in the house. It felt so real, but when I woke up I quickly realized that my cat was normal and it felt like such a relief!
That feeling has probably happened to you if you had a dream that all your teeth fell out, or all your hair, or you were back in school taking a test you hadn’t prepared for. It’s always such a good feeling to wake up from these nightmares and feel grateful that they aren’t real. This is the same feeling of gratitude you get from practicing negative visualization.
This practice also goes hand-in-hand with intentional discomfort. If you’re going without your phone for a few days, it’s even more effective if you spend the time imagining that you don’t have a phone and you’ll never have a phone in your life. Instead of thinking about how much you miss it, imagine what you’d do without a phone: how you would communicate with people and get to places. Then, when you get your phone back, it will feel like an even bigger relief.
Here are a few practical exercises in stoicism that I’ve tried and which gave me a boost of happiness:
- Give up entertainment for 24 hours
- Give up food for 24 hours (coffee doesn’t count)
- Go without alcohol for a weekend
- Take a cold shower
- Turn off the heat / AC for a few days
Going without these things and knowing that you can still be happy without them is empowering, and knowing that you can afford to have these things in your life will make you more grateful.
If you feel like something is missing in your life, but you just can’t figure out what it is, then you’re probably not missing anything. You might just need to practice appreciating what you already have. Stoicism is a good way to hit the reset button on your gratitude. You can save money by practicing stoicism before you go out and buy something that you think will make you happier. It will probably make you realize you don’t need to buy that thing and it wouldn’t have made you happier anyway. Two good ways to practice stoicism are intentional discomfort and negative visualization. As with most things, stoicism should be practiced in moderation. Also, my cat is not evil.