What Is the Happy Life?

Stoic happiness is an activity, not an emotion

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

Everyone wants to be happy. But happiness has different meanings. Modern psychologists distinguish between momentary and remembered happiness.

Momentary happiness is how you feel in the moment. Remembered happiness refers to satisfaction and how well your life is going as a whole. These do not always align. Someone may feel terrible running a marathon, but it could provide a lasting source of fulfillment.

Stoic happiness is different from both.

It is not an emotional state, but an activity. You’re happy when you’re living in harmony with the world and do the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time.

Attaining Stoic happiness demands that we transform ourselves and what we value. Many of us crave wealth, status, and pleasure. The Stoic is only satisfied by the greatness of the soul. They deprioritize momentary experiences. Ironically, doing so brings calm. You don’t feel happy at the moment? That’s ok. Release that craving. You don’t need to.

The Stoic path is a joyful one.

The small things naturally bring happiness when they’re used well. Our virtuous achievements are a source of meaning. Completing a marathon is a big deal because it shows discipline. The medal and social credentials are nice, but not ultimately important. More significant still, are other ways we create happiness with others – by making excellent decisions and judgments in our social roles.

As Seneca wrote:

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquillity. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached. How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of truth, by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness, and a will that is inoffensive and kindly, that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration.

Seneca, Moral Letters 92

The Stoic picture of happiness is optimistic. All it requires is that we do what happy people do – make excellent choices and decisions. We don’t need to wait. We don’t need the world to change.

🎯 Action

Bring to mind one virtuous action today and do it. No matter how small or big.

Need ideas? Think of how to exemplify justice, courage, discipline, or prudence in the circumstances that could arise today.

🔗 Links

✈️ Do you still need summer plans? Here’s one option: a Men’s retreat in Rome this July. Can’t attend that? David Fideler, author of Breakfast with Seneca, is running a Renaissance program in Florence, Italy this November. I will not be at either but can vouch for both hosts.

💬 Let’s end with a quote from Confucius:

Is goodness really so far away? If I simply desire goodness, I will find that it is already here.

Confucius, Analects 7.30

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1 Referral — Cheatsheet on The Most Important Stoic Concepts— get access to our list of the most important Stoic concepts with links and instructions for putting each into practice.

3 Referrals – The Stoic Training Program PDF — in this 10-page guide, we share the three main ideas and practices that ground a Stoic approach to life.

5 Referrals – Five Stoic Meditations get five downloadable meditations to go deeper into your practice.

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