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The Wisdom of the Ancients

When I became a parent, I got some advice:  Don’t try and make your children happy; help them be resilient.  I took this to mean that “happiness” is derivative—not a thing in itself but the result of how well one copes with the vagaries of life.   

Psychologists have a term for it: The “hedonic treadmill”. It is the idea that humans will always return to their baseline level of happiness, no matter what good or bad befalls them. In other words, intense feelings of joy (and despair) are temporary.  Just how temporary they are is a function of the person’s ability to maintain a love of something or shrug off the loss of it.

It turns out that many of us are too-often stuck in a position of being disproportionately devastated by a bad turn of events. Perhaps worse, we also have difficulty being able to maintain our appreciation of that which gave us joy; it loses its luster.  We take it for granted. We get bored.  And so we keep chasing things that we think will make us happy, and even if we get them, they don’t satisfy for long.

Philosopher William Levine calls this treadmill effect the “Gap Theory of Happiness”, in which there exists a perpetual gap between what we have and what we want. The key to being happy, he claims, is simple: Want what you already have.

But that’s tough to do, especially when we see the lives of our friends unspooling in a constant stream of awesomeness on their Facebook pages. We see pictures of their vacations, read about the achievements of their children, and we can’t help but compare what we have with what they have—and we invariably want more than we have.

So how do we break this cycle? Levine suggests taking a page from the Stoics. In his book, The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient, Levine makes the distinction between “stoic” and “Stoic”; the former being a condition of quietly, emotionlessly accepting the  blows of life and the latter finding a sustainable joy in learning how to condition yourself to not succumb to them. This posture—active not passive in its orientation— is what governed the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome.

He suggests a number of strategies for channeling our inner Stoic:  anchoring (seeing that whatever position you find yourself could, in fact, be much worse), negative visualization (imagining the loss of something you value), and developing an emotional immunity to failure (by giving yourself plenty of chances to experience it).  Engaging these exercises, Levine claims, will enable us to find an enduring joy because they will lead us to Want What We Already Have.

There are, of course, applications of this philosophy in the college admission process. I call it “loving your likelies”; if you want the colleges that you know are going to accept you, then you are guaranteed a happy ending in your process.

But there are so many broader (and bigger) applications: nurturing a marriage, appreciating family, job satisfaction.  When we appreciate what we have—when we want it— we are able to maximize the joy we get from it.  

The Stoics demonstrate that it is up to us how we react and respond to challenges--The power is ours.  Let’s grab it!

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