Stoic Philosophy in 5 minutes

Stoic philosophy (Stoicism) flourished amongst Romans and Greeks until about the 3rd century. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence it would be

Shit happens, and when you can’t do anything about it, look for the best way to improve the situation

A slightly more elegant way of putting it is in what is known as the Serenity prayer

Lord, grant me the Serenity to accept things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Wikipedia sums Stoicism up rather well as

“a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.”

In some ways Stoicism was a product of its’ time – life could be blatantly unfair and dangerous – slavery, disease, war, violence could all make life unpleasant or end it all together. However, amongst all of this, hard work and grit could help people succeed, – slaves could become prosperous free men for example. The principles of Stoicism described above are applicable to the modern as well as the ancient world. No matter what happens to us, the only choice is to move forward, and hard work, reason and trying to make positive changes in our lives and those of others seems the most sensible way forward to me.

There is a lot more to Stoic philosophy than I have covered here. I currently have “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, a noted Stoic, on my desk to read and Derren Brown’s book “Happy – Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine” has a good section and discussion on Stoicism. (His book is another one of the list I thinks I would like to write about).

 

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Creating Positive Emotions

Many people think emotions are something we have little control over – that they are something we have to put up with experiencing. However, there are a number of different ways we can change our emotion states short term and long term.

It is also worth acknowledging that negative emotions have value. Fear, for example, can encourage us to be cautious in appropriate circumstances, anger when focused constructively can be used as motivation, while sadness, is an appropriate way to express loss; from a physiological point of view crying can be a good way to relieve stress.

Over the years I have learnt a number of different techniques to shift into useful emotional states. Some work better for me than others, but you may find different ones work better for you.

 

1) Use the Mind/Body connection

Most people understand that our mind controls our body, however, fewer people are aware that this connection works both ways, our bodies affect our minds. You can see this yourself if you use the following example which increases confidence.

Imagine a thread attached to the top of you head being pulled upwards. As it pulls upwards your back straightens, your shoulders move roll back and your chest puffs out. You should now feel more confident. Research clearly shows that this sort of visualisation/straightening of the body boosts our emotions. I have similar examples where people imagining angel wings unfolding from from their backs causing their bodies straightening and chests expanding as the wings expand. (Seriously what could give you more confidence in any situation than have wings ūüôā )

You can also demonstrate the reverse effect by hunching your shoulders into a slouch – feeling less confident and even a little depressed – it’s simple physiology.

 

2) “Fake it till you make it”

I’ve heard many a successful person make this comment. As well as moving into a confident posture, focusing on a confident tone of voice and confident gestures can boost your confidence. I know one prominent public speaker who overcame her shyness and discomfort with public speaking by creating a stage “persona” which she shifts into when speaking in public (Twelve Questions: Dr Michelle Dickinson aka “Nanogirl”).

 

3) The Power of Music

This is one that works exceedingly well for me using specific music playlists when I need a boost of confidence/energy or need to relax. Personally, I favour high tempo music for energy and confidence, and slower music to relax. Some of my favourites (please don’t judge!) are listed below. If you want to put together your own lists, you can find suggested songs by searching in Youtube and Pinterest for example.

Also, because I am quite a visual person, if I am using Youtube, I will often select versions of these songs which have strong visual themes.

For Energy/Confidence

Never Back Down, Dragon Rider, Freedom Fighters and Ride to Victory – Two Steps from Hell

What Heros Do – Thor Ragnarok Soundtrack

Fight Song – Rachel Platten

Holding Out For A Hero – Bonnie Tyler

Unstoppable – Sia

To Relax, Calm Down

Carribbean Blue, Book of Days, The Celts – Enya

The Dance – Colm Keegan

Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

Happy Mood Music

Moana – Alessia Cara

Can’t Stop the Feeling! – Justin Timberlake

Age of Aquarius – The 5th Dimension

On Top of the World – Imagine Dragons

 

4) Recognise and filter that “little voice” in your head

Most of us will recognise that “little voice in our head” which gives us a running critique on what we are doing and what we should or shouldn’t do. For most of us this is quite a fearful and risk-averse voice which tells us things like

“don’t ask a question in class, because everyone will think you are stupid”

“don’t assert yourself, people will think you are pushy”

This little voice makes some silly assumptions, for example, that everyone else is constantly watching us and judging us. Most of the time they are too busy worrying about their little voice and looking stupid themselves. By acknowledging that this voice is often wrong and overcautious is one step towards becoming more confident in oneself. By consciously challenging these assumptions and then acting confidently, through practice we can develop more confidence.

 

5) Visualisation

Visualisation has developed a bit of a bad rap from all those who claim that ALL you need to do for good things to happen is to visualise them. Visualisation is a good way to get our minds focused on what we want or need to do, so long as it is followed by actions which support your vision.

One way I have seen visualisation shift to positive emotional states is start by visualising all the times you have succeeded just before you do something that you want to succeed in.

Another approach is to think about all the times you have done something well or been successful and while doing this carry out a small action (e.g. by tapping the back of your hand). By doing this repeatedly, your mind connects success (or another positive emotion) with this movement. After a while, all you need is the movement to shift state.

I use this sometimes when I need to put aside my natural shyness and speak up about things important to me, I have a small action which reminds me of my four core values.

 

6) Understanding Emotions

Knowledge is power, and the more I have learnt about how emotions and people “work” the easier I have found it to shift into positive emotion states. For example, understanding that most people tend to annoy others out of misunderstanding and not malice has help me understand that it is pointless to get angry, particularly if they are going to have no idea what I am angry about. Far better to focus on working out what the problem and solution actually is.

One of the things I have found most helpful in this area is reading about different philosophies. In particular Stoic philosophu has been most helpful.

The list above is not an exhaustive list, simply techniques I am aware of and have tried myself. As I learn more I will add to this list.

Also, don’t assume from this post that I can always control my emotions. Like most people, I have periods of sadness, depression, and anger. What the techniques described above have helped me do is shorten these periods, and spend most of my time in a positive emotional state.

 

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Understanding our Brain

Unlike a new computer, our brain doesn’t come with an operating manual. Fortunately, over a century of research in biology, psychology and related fields has provided us with some understanding of how the human brain (and mind) works. In the same way that we get the most out of a new computer by reading the manual and understanding how it works – by understanding how our brain works we can learn how to make the most of ourselves.

The following are things I have learnt about the human brain which have helped me better understand how people think and why they behave in different ways.

 

1) The Balance of Reason & Emotion

Studies of the human brain show that it can be divided up into different areas which have different responsibilities. Here I’d like to focus on two specific areas which have very different contributions to how we think (and act).

At the core of the brain, near the brainstem which connects the brain to the rest of of body is the limbic system. This is one of the oldest parts of the brain, and is responsible for our instincts and emotions. It has been an important part in our survival as a species, allowing us to react rapidly to threats.

A more recent addition, from the point of evolution, is the frontal lobe. Located at the front of our brain, this is where reason and logical thought take place. We know this because studies of patients who have damaged frontal lobes show that that they lose the ability to think logically.

When we compare these two parts of the brain and the behaviour they produce there are some interesting differences.

When we react emotively – our emotions come effortlessly, they are fast, instinctive and they drive us to action.

When we react with reason it takes more effort and is much slower. It takes conscious effort to reason and think logically.

So how does understanding this help us?

First, knowing that when we experience a new, challenging situation it is helpful to understand that typically the first thing we experience is an emotional response. By knowing this we can train ourselves to wait for our more logical thinking to kick in when we need to make an important decision.

Advertisers are well aware that our emotions respond faster than our logical thinking to new stimuli. This is why many advertisements will start with images and sounds which appeal to emotions (e.g. fast cars, attractive people, intense feelings) to try and sell their product, only introducing facts towards the end of the ad, if at all.

Second, because our emotions are more driving – we can use this to motivate ourselves. For example, people have more success losing weight when they use visualisation techniques to imagine how they good they will feel if they lose the weight.

Reason AND emotion, when understood, work together to help us flourish. While reason can help us work out what the best course of action is in any situation, our emotions can help us to drive and motivate us when things get challenging.

 

2) Brain Power is a Limited Resource

Our brains are constantly receiving massive amounts of information both from our senses as well as processing our various internal thoughts and feelings. In order to cope with all of this information our brain filters out only that information which is deemed to be important and ignores all of the rest. This is why, for example, many people have difficulty remembering the details of an armed robbery for example, because most brains are too busy processing the intense fear and trying to work out how to get out of the situation alive, rather than remembering what the robber looked like or which way the getaway car went.

The information our brains decide to process is based on a wide range of factors – what our current goals/motivations are, the environment we are in, and our previous experiences.

This filtered experience of the world leads to a number of interesting behaviours which can be useful or produce challenges. For example, when we want to prove a point we focus on the information that supports our position and ignore that which doesn’t. Similarly when someone is newly in love they focus on all that they love about the other person and are completely oblivious to the things that may later provide challenges in the relationship. On the other hand the ability to focus on specific input and discard the rest is what enables a brain surgeon or sportsperson to do achieve success.

 

3) Type 1 and 2 Thinking

Because our brain has limited resources, this can lead to two different types of thinking.

System One thinking is essentially our autopilot mode. It relies on things that we have previously learnt and experienced to make quick, instinctive decisions without occupying too much intellectual resources. For example, when we make our usual coffee order or answer “what is one plus one?” most of us will answer automatically, without much thought or effort.

System Two thinking is what we reserve for the important decisions in our lives (or at least what we decide are the important decisions). Different people will assign different importance to different decisions, for example, a bride engage in far more System Two thinking than their husband to be (at least according to common stereotypes).

We cannot spend our life analysing every situation so system one thinking is important, however, it can cause problems. If we are trying to break a habit (e.g. reducing sugar in our coffee) these automatic responses can be problematic. Automatically using a money machine without noticing it looks slightly different due to the addition of a scam card reader, is another example of where this can work against us.

One of the techniques I use is to every now and then take the time to re-evaluate what I am doing and/or take time out to actually take in the world around me. It is amazing the things that you don’t notice.

 

4) We ALL Experience a DIFFERENT Reality

If our brains filter and interpret information based on our different priorities and previous experiences then we essentially experience a different reality, or at least a different perception of reality. Imagine the different people that might visit a bar one evening. A single man and a happily married man will have different priorities and therefore a different experience. Someone who is introverted will have a different experience from someone who is extroverted. A person new to town will likely have a different experience to a regular. A firefighter might be distracted by violations to the fire code while a chef may critique the venue based on the food. We all look and, indeed, remember different things.

If we were to ask everyone who attended the bar about their experience the following day, we would hear a wide range of experiences based on the information they filtered and how they interpreted events based on previous experiences. Some of the experiences may sound so different that it may seem they weren’t in the same place.

When we remember a particular event we typically create a story in our head about it, but typically we have gaps. Our brain is very good at filling in these gaps by extrapolating information. The problem with this is that sometimes our brains just make stuff up to try and create continuity for the stories in our head. Our memories can also be influenced by others. When a friend describes something they thought happened at the bar, your brain may try and integrate that information into your recollection of the event. This is one of the reasons why accurate eyewitness testimony can be difficult as witnesses can unconsciously “rewrite” their memories when they are questioned.

The fact that we all experience a different perception of reality is something to be very mindful of. In my experience the major cause of conflict is not because people are being purposely hurtful or careless, but because they are interpreting the same situation differently based on the information they are filtering and how they are interpreting that information based on their previous experiences.

 

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Understanding Self – What are your Values?

What do you value? Family? Wealth? Fun? Adventure? Recognition?

Understanding what we value most is key to understanding ourselves and understanding how we can flourish. If you are consistently pursuing goals and activities which do not match your core values, then you may find your achievements feel empty rather than deeply satisfying.

One step towards flourishing is identifying your core values. Below is a list of common values. Take some time and identify the values which are most important to you. Most people identify between three and five.

I completed an activity like this about twelve years ago as part of a leadership course which completely changed my outlook on, and my direction in, life. Aligning your actions and goals to your values is deeply satisfying. So don’t rush, take some time to think through what really brings your joy and satisfaction in life.

 

Core Values

Authenticity              Friendships                     Poise
Achievement            Fun                               Popularity
Adventure                Growth                         Recognition
Authority                  Happiness                   Religion
Autonomy                 Honesty                      Reputation
Balance                     Humour                      Respect
Beauty                       Influence                    Responsibility
Boldness                   Caring                          Inner Harmony
Integrity                   Security                       Self-Respect
Compassion             Justice                          Service
Challenge                 Kindness                     Spirituality
Citizenship              Knowledge                  Stability
Community             Leadership                  Success
Competency            Learning                      Status
Contribution           Love                              Trustworthiness
Creativity                Loyalty                         Wealth
Curiosity                 Meaningful Work       Wisdom
Determination       Openness
Fairness                   Optimism
Faith                         Peace
Fame                        Pleasure

 

Looking through the list you will probably see values which seem quite foreign to you. That’s ok, it makes it easier to zero in on your core values. Others may seem ok others may seem almost but not quite right, but look for the three to five that really resonate with you. If you you still are having problems identifying your core values what are ask yourself the following questions

What gives me the most satisfaction? What would I struggle to live without?

For example, learning is one of my four core values as I couldn’t imagine not learning something new every day (hour?) of my life.

Once you have established your core values write them down somewhere, and whenever you need to make a decision consider which of your options best aligns with your list.

 

Further Resources

Understanding core values is an activity which I have seen included in a number of fascinating books, including Total Leadership by Stewart D. Friedman. (Hopefully I will get time to talk about more of Stewart’s book in another post).

 

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