Cultivate Joy: The Stoic Way

"A man is happy when no circumstance can reduce him." - Seneca

Joy as Serene Attention

The topic of joy is always a worthwhile reflection. Recently, I heard an interview with Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-rast, known for his Ted talk entitled: Want To Be Happy? Be Grateful. He defined joy as "the happiness that does not depend on what happens." Those familiar with the Stoics, an ancient school of Greco-Roman philosophy, will recognize this sentiment as explained by its greatest exponents including Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

Most people define happiness as the good feeling that arises when good things happen. Even when good things do happen, they never quite seem to fulfill their promise of happiness. By waiting around for good things to happen, or by leaning into an imagined future happiness, we miss almost everything that is occurring in our lives in the present moment. To not be present is to miss meaningful connection with others. On the contrary, to practice a serene attention is to see beauty and goodness all around us in both nature and in humanity.

To practice joy is to understand the nature of time. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is chronological or sequential time. Kairos, on the other hand, signifies the capacity to see through time's chronology and into its heart-essence. Hidden within the chronology of time is the opportunity for meaningful experience which seems to manifest in concepts such as connection, understanding, gratitude and awareness. In Greek Mythology, Kairos was a bald man with a simple long forelock, who would run swiftly everywhere. He could only be seen or even seized by practicing a "serene attention" to all that arises. Ben Franklin was fond of saying, "grab time by the forelock."

In ancient times, the ability to perceive what is going on around us was known as "gnosis" or "knowing". Knowing is an openness to everything that occurs and the realization that all that occurs does so because nature has designed it that way. This is the Stoic concept of Necessity. One of the key ideas of Necessity is that anything can happen at any time. Marcus Aurelius said, "The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception."

The "gnosis" or knowledge of the impermanent nature of things is essential for the development of joy. But how does one attain joy and what must we do every day to have more joyous lives? One of the key doctrines of Stoicism is the idea that you must never look for your happiness in aspects of your life which are not within your power to control. Events are of two kinds: some which are in your power to control and others which are not. 

What You Can Control

There is really only one thing that is in your control. This is what the Stoic teacher Epictetus described as "the power to make correct use of external impressions." Simply stated, it is the ability to perceive everything that happens exactly as it is, without viewing it through the lens of expectation, regret, anxiety, desire or benefit.  For Epictetus, joy is the cultivation of a kind of equanimity in the face of all that happens in your life. We cannot control events but we can control our response to events. We can practice a serene attention to all that arises in our consciousness.

How do we cultivate equanimity? By observing Nature. Nature is the great teacher of equanimity. Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, asked, "what can befall an ox that it is not proper to an ox?" One should not be surprised to realize that life is beset with what appears to be surprises, misfortunes, and tragedies. Yet, everything that happens to an ox, or to a human being, is meant to be that way because it is according to its nature. The realization that anything can happen at any time, does not bind one to the despair of future events. It frees us from an unnatural and irrational view of the world. The false view, that happiness depends on things going perfectly well, is the cause of so much of our suffering. 

Like Buddhism, Stoicism teaches that 100% of your happiness is the result of your mind. Marcus Aurelius wrote, "Your ability to control your thoughts - treat it with respect. It's all that protects your mind from false perceptions - false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It's what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine."

What You Cannot Control

Nature teaches us that inner peace and tranquility are within the reach of every human being. Stoic investigation into the mind can more readily be accomplished in nature than in a library.  Everything in nature, whether a tree or an animal, practices a ceaseless adaptation to its environment. In the same way, when events occur in our life that are out of our control, we should simply accommodate our lives to the events. When it is cold outside, we should wear a coat. To set sail on a boat, we must consider the direction of the winds. In this way, it is possible to turn an obstacle into fuel for action. You cannot control the weather, your height, the score of the game on television, the journey of a meteor in space, or the thoughts of others about you. Therefore, to worry about these things is futile.

To Live with Joy

Living with joy is largely a matter of not being deceived by our own mind. A window can be a vehicle to see the world and its wonders. But when we are only thinking about ourselves, a window becomes just a faint mirror. A life spent obsessing about events which are beyond our control is a life of deception. At the same time, a life spent developing moral values such as compassion, generosity, awareness, and courage is a life filled with joy.

Another form of joy is found in the Stoic concepts of unity. All beings are connected by a shared mind and a "share of the divine." When people act with dishonesty, jealousy or arrogance, it is due to their ignorance of our inherent connection to each other. Joy is to see all beings as a fellow creature of the same divine substance, "similarly endowed with reason" as Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations. Joy is to recognize all beings as companions on the path of wisdom. 

- David Hirschorn





Choose Hope, Not Nihilism

In Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, a young boy named Alvie Singer stops doing his homework because “the universe is expanding.” As his mother pleads with a cigarette smoking psychologist, Alvie declares, “what’s the point?” Alvie's frantic mother declares that the expanding universe is "none of his business" and that in any case, "Brooklyn is not expanding!"

This hilarious scene might owe some of its amusement to familiarity. Most people will agree that nihilism in any form is an unproductive and possibly destructive approach to life. Yet, we ourselves may fall into nihilistic tendencies or attitudes when confronted with the problems of the world and our seemingly inability to solve them. The sense of hopelessness which many people feel about the world, as well as their lives, frequently leads to apathetic attitudes and "subtle" forms of nihilism. 

It seems easier to fall into apathy than open oneself to hope. After all, world history is filled with unhappy endings. Cultures die, as people do, and we are hard pressed to find a historical culture that does not end in decline. Failure is much more common than success. Wrong answers tend to outnumber right ones. Today, the news is filled with stories which reflect the worst of humanity and some social media algorithms privilege "outrage" which sends negative stories to the top of our newsfeeds.

Despite the despair many feel, there are still extraordinary examples of hope, courage, wisdom and compassion. It is important that humanity's best examples form a vibrant part of our consciousness. Survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings report perfect strangers, not medical professionals, who heard the blasts and ran towards the danger, providing life-saving emergency assistance. At times, the best examples are found in the worst situations. In a natural disaster, we are struck by the suffering of those affected but we should also give our attention to those who provide assistance to those in need. 

Are we hard-wired to be pessimistic? Buddhist views on the nature of the human mind may be instructive here. The mind left to its own devices tends to fall into past thoughts of regret, future thoughts of anxiety, and present thoughts of an unproductive and unhealthy comparison to others. This is why Buddhist thought emphasizes the cultivation of watchfulness and awareness as the way to freedom, peace and the development of a generous disposition. Pain and suffering are never pleasant but they tend to act as vehicles for awakening and compel us to examine the causes of our suffering. As such, pain and suffering are vehicles of conscious awareness.

Another feature of Buddhist psychology is that awareness, referred to as Right Attention in the Buddhist Noble Eight-fold Path, makes one conscious of the uniqueness of every moment. Right Attention opens us to the needs and suffering of others. It manifests as an immediate response of generosity and compassion. If we wait too long to respond to these "higher impulses" they become derailed by more self-serving thoughts such as regret, anxiety and apathy. 

Nihilism, as an approach to life, tends to deny three essential aspects of the human experience: denial of meaning, denial of relationship, and denial of knowledge. It is rare to find people who are 100% nihilistic. It is far more common to find "subtle" forms of nihilism in others and in ourselves. Nihilism, in any form, is a source of unhappiness for ourselves and others. Let's examine these destructive forms of nihilism and their anecdote: HOPE.


Emily Esfani Smith, in her Ted talk, There's More To Life Than Happiness, suggests that fulfillment does not come from happiness but from meaning. Happiness comes and goes. Meaning is more enduring and serves something beyond ourselves. Nihilism is a rejection of meaning. Pure nihilists do not seek or accept meaning as a byproduct of lived experience. As such, they also reject the value of experience. Even though it is doubtful that any of us are pure nihilists, we sometimes fall into nihilism's shadows when we see experience purely as good or bad. Viewing experience through the extremes of good or bad produces a dismissal of the value of the present moment and a continuous "leaning into" the next and "hopefully better" next moment. All experience, including personal tragedy, produces meaningful transformations in our lives. Meaning is simply the opening to all experience as a revelation. This revelation need not be of a religious nature at all. It simply means that experience has given us some new knowledge of the world and of ourselves which is beneficial.

Hope is a warm embrace of both experience and meaning. Hope moves us to act for the future without abandoning the present. Hope is not an abandonment to fantasy but an embrace of the human imagination and the knowledge that human experience has meaning and something to teach us.  Hope is an openness to having one's mind changed, and an openness to polishing up one's own philosophical lens by which we view the world.  


Nihilism is a rejection of relationship and the interpersonal. All moral philosophies embrace a recognition of the other as a meaning seeking being whom we must relate to as a Thou. Nihilistic tendencies reject the notion of relating to another is any meaningful way. A common "subtlety" of modern nihilism sees the other as a statistic or a news story. Martin Buber drew a clear distinction between the I-It and the I-Thou. The I-It is a common form of nihilistic belief which, as Roger Scruton explains, "is a falling away from the moral life; of people who take some gratification in reducing others to mere It." Scruton goes on to explain how I-It helps explain some of the great crimes of the 20th century such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and unfortunately for more episodes to list here.  Joseph Stalin is reported to have said that "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."

Hope recognizes the interpersonal relationship as an intrinsic good. Immanuel Kant viewed hope as an essential element for the "improvement of the human race as a whole." Hope involves the establishment of the I and Thou journey which consists of recognition, relating and empathy. The I-Thou experience is the very essence of ethical living. 


Nihilism rejects knowledge as an inherent good. Nihilism also rejects investigation as a vehicle for knowledge and in turn the very notion of asking questions, and seeking answers. The abandonment of questioning is an inevitable result of the rejection of knowledge and the idea that knowing leads to more conscious and understanding human beings. The essence of knowing is embodied in the Pre-Socratic phrase "know thyself." Many philosophical traditions note that human happiness and fulfillment seems to be analogous to the degree to which we know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, virtues, vices, etc...

Hope embraces the inherent relationship between knowledge and human happiness, both for ourselves and others. The philosophical experience as "love of wisdom" cannot occur without the quality of Hope. The philosophical journey always begins with a question and hope allows us to clearly see the inherent relation between questions and answers, and between answers and the very actions which make the world better for everyone. Plato, in his Symposium says that all things seek to be re-unified with that which created them out of a primordial Love. In this way good answers are the offspring of good questions. Knowledge is a form of Love. 

Pandora's Box and Hope

The term Pandora means "all gifts." Zeus gave her husband Epimetheus a sealed casket with a demand that it should never be opened. Pandora could not resist the temptation and opened the box, releasing all the forms of suffering in the world. Frantically, Pandora rushed to close the box, keeping HOPE from fleeing. Hope contains within it, "all gifts" needed to mitigate and eventually eliminate all the suffering of the world.  Seeking Hope is not simply a form of optimistic thinking. Hope is an essential way of training the philosophical mind, to live a good life through meaning, relationships and knowledge.

- David Hirschorn