Why Aren’t You Happy Already?

Stoic explanations of unhappiness and what to do about it

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus accosts us:

How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him?

Epictetus, Handbook 51

Why aren’t you happy already? It’s a simple question, but a deep one – why isn’t everyone happy all the time? It’s up to us whether or not we’re living well, yet we choose to live poorly.

Acquiring answers to these questions can help us live better.

Of course, answering it fully requires a full book – or several. But I can share how the Stoics thought about this. It will give you something to think about and, more importantly, do for the day.

First, society tells us to value status, wealth, power, and pleasure. We listen. But we’re bound to have our desires for each of these frustrated. Such things are ultimately not up to us. Culture calls us to invest in the ingredients of our unhappiness and we reinforce its message through our behavior:

Nevertheless, even though we have heard these ideas, because of the corruption which has been ingrained in us all the way from childhood and because of the wicked behavior caused by this corruption, we think it a bad thing when pain comes on us, and we think it a good thing when pleasure comes.

Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Fragments

Second, we cannot change instantly. Our decisions and judgments are up to us, but they’re shaped by who we are. The fact of the matter is that we all have histories of making poor decisions and judgments. We’re broken machines fixing ourselves with worn-out tools. Now, this isn’t a message of fatalism or a recipe for guilt. The past is gone. It is no longer up to us. We must transform ourselves now, choice by choice.

What does this mean for today?

Craft how society influences you intentionally. Turn the natural ability to copy others to your advantage. Surround yourself with excellent people. Consume media from people who are flourishing. This doesn’t entail that we should cut all existing ties. Many of us are already partners in rich friendships. Make those as good as you can. We often find that by becoming better ourselves and treating others better, they start to do the same to us.

Do not forget that each decision shapes who you are. The little things are the big things. Keep Epictetus’s words in mind:

When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.

Epictetus Discourses 2.18

Living well is a matter of a lifetime. There’s not a moment to waste.

🎯 Action

Use the human tendency to imitate intentionally. Fuel the right fires.

🔗 Resources

💬 Epictetus’s line about the fire is one of my favorite ones. I also cited it in this letter on self-transformation too. I also love Marcus Aurelius’s distinct use of the fire metaphor:

A good blaze appropriates everything that’s tossed into it and uses it to produce flame and light.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.31

👥 The French philosopher, René Girard, developed memetic theory – a way of understanding the nature of the desire through the human tendency to imitate. It’s an exceptionally useful frame for thinking about how our hopes and dreams are formed:

Girard hypothesized that our disposition to imitate others is the source of our misery. We don't just copy others' actions, we copy their desires. In this picture, desire is not a two-part relation between you and the object of desire, it’s a three-part one. The fundamental ingredients of desire are you, the object of desire, and the role model. The role model teaches you what to want. You don’t own your desires, instead, you want through others.

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