Understanding Stoicism in Under Five Minutes

Stoicism’s Elevator Pitch

Stoicism is a simple idea about living better.

For stoics, right actions are those which create sustainable happiness over the long-term. To achieve this, developing a virtuous character is more important than getting immediate results or experiencing pleasure.

For stoics, it all begins with mindset.

Most things are out of our control. Therefore, stoicism teaches to focus on what we can control: our own thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and actions. In this way, stoicism advocates extreme self-responsibility. We may not have authority over other people or outside events. But we can respond to others and external conditions in a manner that favors our own long-term well-being.

To illustrate stoicism on a practical level, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is wealth an abundance of money, or is it a lack of want? The stoic would answer the latter.
  • If someone cuts you off in traffic, do you get angry? If so, haven’t you surrendered power over your emotional state to that person?
  • Does wearing expensive clothes make you feel better?  If so, why? Are designer clothes noticeably more comfortable, or is your self-perception and happiness based on others’ opinions?
  • If something doesn’t go your way, how do you feel? Do you see it as a personal slight or injustice, or is it simply feedback from an external source? Is your response to get upset, or return to work with more, better information at your disposal?

Everyday Stoicism

Beyond focusing on the controllable (and thereby lessening emotional attachment to the uncontrollable), stoicism offers more practical insights.

  • Measured asceticism is preferred. Happiness, when it is based on things, easily disappears or depreciates. Thus, stoics don’t tie their identity and emotions to possessions. On the other hand, if happiness is based on an absence of things (an extreme asceticism), it is still a happiness based upon external conditions.
  • Stoicism abandons traditional conceptions of morality. Decisions and actions are not inherently right or wrong. Instead, behaviors are either helpful or unhelpful over the long-term. Cultivating internal virtues such as thrift, patience, and discipline will typically pay off, and thus is more preferable than seeking immediate wins based on extravagance, haste, and impulsiveness.
  • Stoicism sees merit in embracing discomfort. Overcoming difficulty creates more satisfaction than avoiding it. Likewise, the courage and skill created by tackling problems are themselves virtues. Obstacles, thus, are something to be grateful for.

Stoic Mental Exercises

Since mindset is a cornerstone of stoicism, mental exercises such as these are fundamental.

  • Practical cynicism

In order to avoid being carried away by feelings of pride and outside attachment, develop a habit of practical cynicism. With regards to an object you like (for example, a phone or vehicle), ask yourself, ‘what is it really?’ Perhaps it is a bunch of plastic and metal assembled in a far away place. Maybe it’s a means for a business to secure revenue. At best, it is likely an object of convenience, one which you might actually be better off without.

  • Remember your mortality

You will die.

This is the truest statement you will ever hear.

Rather than leading to grim contemplation, daily reflection on this fact should inspire you into action. You don’t have forever to accomplish your goals or to become the person you want to be. The present moment is your only guarantee. Don’t waste it.

  • Belittling your emotions

When gripped by a strong emotions, ask yourself, ‘who cares?

Not, ‘who cares about the thing that is making you upset?‘ Instead, ‘who cares that you are upset?

Take a bird’s eye view of yourself. Realize how petty, inconsequential, and ultimately unhelpful many of your kneejerk reactions are.

So that’s it?

Ya, kinda.

There is it a bit more to it. But really, these are the most important and relatable aspects of stoicism.

Personally, while I find stoic ideas helpful, I also think they’re incomplete. In future posts, I’ll discuss the things I feel stoicism is missing. I’ll also suggest which philosophical amendments and additions will best aid men today.

‘Till next time,


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Finally, if you are interested in reading more about classical stoicism, you can’t go wrong with ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius.