The Philosophy of Happiness

We’ve already reviewed a couple of months focused on happiness.

First, we looked at the science of happiness. Then we dove into the intersection of money and happiness.

Both of these journeys took us deep into the world of studies and statistics. But not all of happiness can be summed up in numbers.

While I tend to favor statistics and studies, sometimes it is worth venturing into more abstract territory. That is what we did in July when we explored happiness through the lens of philosophy.

Being Less Negative

To start, we dove into the world of Ancient Roman Stoicism to learn about feeling fewer negative emotions.

I learned about Stoicism as a Classical Humanities major in college because I make good decisions. Today, “stoic” means unemotional but that’s not quite right. The Stoics appreciated positive emotions. They embraced joy and excitement and happiness. They just worked to eliminate negative emotions.

The main rationale for this is that no good generally comes out of negative emotions. Frustration with traffic won’t get you to work any faster. Getting angry at your spouse is not going to solve a disagreement.

It’s important to recognize that you can’t prevent yourself from feeling negative emotions. You can, however, limit how they influence you.

The emotions you feel are outside of your control. The way you respond to them is within your control.

Recognize when you feel a negative emotion. Pause, understanding that you act more rashly when upset. Think about whether your next action will help or hurt in achieving your goal.

Feel the negative emotion. Make a plan. Then ditch the emotion.

This is very hard at first but gets easier over time. I used to step away, close my eyes, and breathe deeply until my heart rate slowed down. Now I can do it instinctually and usually with one deep breath.

Controlling your negative emotions takes a lot of work over a long period of time, but it is worth the effort to live a happier life.


Next, we looked at the ideas behind the Serenity Prayer.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

This is an idea that is also featured in Stoicism, but I like the simplicity of the Serenity Prayer.

There are things that are within your control and things that are not.

We can control what we choose to do. We can control how we choose to do it. We can control how we interpret the actions of others. We can control how we view and perceive the world around us.

We cannot control how people react to our actions. We cannot control what people think of us. We cannot control any of the outside forces that are brought to bear upon us.

This may sound trite when phrased that way. It may feel obvious. But recognizing this distinction and having the serenity to accept the things you cannot change is a key to achieving real happiness.

Worrying about things outside of your control is a useless drain on happiness. You are stressed, upset, angry, etc. with no benefit at all.

So how do you implement the Serenity Prayer? Practice, practice, practice. Step one is stepping back and thinking about whether something is in your control or not. Step two is noticing your reactions to things that are outside of your control. Step three is reminding yourself that those negative reactions are counterproductive.

This process can be slow, gradual, and sometimes painful. But it gets easier.

And it will make your life much happier.

Bad Things and Good People

We also looked into the question of why bad things happen to good people.

This is an age-old question and has a million different answers. I like the answer the Stoics gave, because it provides action items within your control.

The Stoic Seneca tells us that “bad things” are not really bad things. They are tools to make you into a better person. And this is coming from someone who was exiled by Nero on false charges.

You can only grow by encountering resistance. This is true for muscles and smarts, but it is also true for your resilience and happiness and ability to overcome obstacles. Every hero of every story is a hero because they have overcome adversity.

Facing adversity teaches you how to be happy while dealing with adversity. You learn how to be happy in good times and bad. People who have not learned this will lose their happiness when the first bad thing happens to them.

The lesson here is not that we should hope for bad things. We should not invite disaster. But when bad things happen to us, we should try to adjust our mindset and make the best of them.

Avoiding Disappointment

Our next article brought us back to Seneca to learn about avoiding disappointment and recovering from loss.

Seneca gives us one tool for making disappointment and loss hurt less and one for recovering faster.

The first is to imagine bad things before they happen. This has multiple benefits.

First, it allows you to brace yourself. It shows you that you could survive whatever is coming. That you are strong enough and that the worst-case scenario is not really that bad. It can also help you plan to avoid the most severe consequences that could befall you.

The second benefit is that it leads you to appreciate the present moment even more. Imagine how you would cope if your house flooded. Think about the irreplaceable things that you could lose. Consider the costs involved in repairing the house or moving. Now open your eyes and relish in your nice dry home. It’s pretty great that you haven’t had to deal with a flood, right?

When loss has already hit us, however, Seneca tells us that we need to create a path forward.

There is no benefit to indefinite mourning. The fact that you have been blindsided by a storm is unfortunate, but you cannot give up. You need to grab the rudder and steer to the other side.

Find productive uses for your time. Take action. Work on projects. Exercise. Play games. Spend time with friends and family.

It will be hard to convince yourself to start, but you’ll feel infinitely better with a sense of forward progress in your life.

Reacting Versus Responding

We next explored the important distinction between reacting and responding.

When something happens to you, you either react or respond. A reaction is instinctive. If a car jumps the curb, you dive out of the way. A response is calculated. If cars regularly jump the curb, you lobby your local government to put warning signs and guard rails.

Reacting is better in life or death situations. Responding is usually better the rest of the time.

Reactions are short-term decisions. We are evolutionarily designed to try to survive moment to moment, and reactions are built for that.

Responding allows us to take a step back, look at the big picture, and make a longer-term decision.

Think of this difference in the context of a relationship. Reactions will help you “win” a fight, often by using hurtful language to cut the other person down. Responses will help you recognize that maybe this fight isn’t worth harming the relationship over.

Like most of what we’ve learned on happiness and philosophy, this all starts with a deep breath and a pause for reflection. We are built for reacting. This means that we need to be able to pause and override our instincts if we want to get the best results for our long term success and happiness.

There is Always a Choice

Following our exploration of responding versus reacting, we learned that there is always a choice.

We cannot control what happens to us. We can always control how we respond.

The most common feeling of not having a choice is feeling stuck, whether you feel stuck in your job, relationship, or situation generally. Change is hard, and our brains are wired against it. But remember that not making a choice is also a choice

Let’s take the example of being stuck in a job you hate. Here are some choices that you have:

  • You can stop showing up. This may not be a good option in that you’ll be fired and not get paid anymore, but it is still a choice that you can make.
  • You can spend an hour a day researching new fields or networking or studying something new.
  • You can choose to cut out some expenses and build an emergency fund so that your paycheck is less important.
  • You can talk to your boss about other opportunities available at the company.
  • You can pick up some freelance or side hustle work to learn a new field or earn some extra cash so that your paycheck is less important.
  • You can choose to keep going to work every day. Maybe you prefer this to all of the other options and decide to do that. Great! Just make sure it is a choice that you want to make rather than the default because you feel like you don’t have a choice.

Seeing everything as a choice can lead to better outcomes. But it is also scientifically shown to make you happier. It develops more of a feeling of control in life that studies have found boosts your happiness by 33%.

So if you want to be happier, start making some choices.

Lead With Love

From there we moved into a more compassionate place: leading with love.

From the Roman Stoics through Martin Luther King Jr., philosophers throughout time have argued that we are all interconnected. We are all part of society. Our actions change the world.

If we want a world with more love and understanding and cooperation, we need to supply it.

This is easy when everyone else is acting kindly towards us. It is more of a challenge when people are acting in hatred and anger. Revenge doesn’t help. More anger just keeps the cycle of anger going. We can put a stop to that cycle by introducing love and kindness.

This does not mean being passive. It means doing the right thing from a place of love. Think of King’s non-violent resistance. He fought against oppression and racism without giving in to hate.

Your day-to-day struggles are probably not on the same level of King’s, but we should remember his lesson and lead with love.

Thinking About Death

After a long month of happiness and philosophy, we ended on a light topic: Death. Specifically, how philosophers suggest we think about death in order to have more happiness while we’re alive.

The big takeaway here is that death is neither good nor bad. It is just a thing that happens.

Death itself is not negative. Fear of death is negative.

Recognizing death allows us to appreciate life. Knowing that we are enjoying a finite time on this Earth pushes us not to take anything for granted and to be grateful for every day that we have. As my grandfather used to say, “Every day that I look in the mirror and see myself looking back is a good day.”

Recognizing the inevitability of death also provides direction to our lives. We have limited time on this earth, so let’s not wander aimlessly.

What do you want your legacy to be after you die? What do you want people to say about you? What do you want people to feel?

Every day that you wake up is another day to make sure you build the legacy that you want.

So take a little bit of time to think about death. Then take a little more time and appreciate your life.

Join the Conversation!

And there we have our journey into happiness and philosophy! Anything that you think we missed? Any favorite philosophical thoughts on happiness? Anything that surprised you? Let us know in the comments!

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