top of page

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Great self-help book on stoicism. This book teaches what stoicism is and how to live a better life by using the principles of stoicism.

Stoicism is actually a very old practice but surprisingly it is not talked about enough or taught very much these days.

An important idea I learned from stoicism is that we must control our emotions and one of the greatest causes of our negative emotions is our desires.

The more desires we have, the more letdown we will end up feeling because we didn't get what we want. The Stoics try to identify what they can and can't control, and then they focus on the things they can control, while, not getting overworked about the things they can't.


This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life……. In other words, this book offers advice on how people should live.

The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions – including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy – will not be a good life. They therefore become acute observers of the workings of the human mind and as a result became some of the most insightful psychologists of the ancient world. They went on to develop techniques for preventing the onset of negative emotions and for extinguishing them when attempts at prevention failed.

The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to vanish negative emotions.

According to Seneca, what Stoics seek to discover is “how the mind may always pursue a steady and favorable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy.”

There was agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.

Let me describe here in a preliminary fashion some of the things we will want to do if we adopt Stoicism as our philosophy of life. We will consider our goals in living. In particular, we will take to heart the stoic claim that many of the things we desire – most notably, fame and fortune – are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the stoics called virtue.

We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control.

[Practicing stoicism] requires us periodically to reflect on our life, but these periods of reflection can generally be squeezed into odd moments of the day, such as when we are stuck in traffic or – this was Seneca’s recommendation – when we are lying in bed waiting for sleep to come.

Although much has changed in the past 2 millenia, human psychology has changed very little.

[The Stoics] thought people should enjoy the good things life has to offer, including friendship and wealth, but only if they did not cling to these good things. Indeed, they thought we should periodically interrupt our enjoyment of what life has to offer to spend time contemplating the loss of whatever it is we are enjoying.

Stoicism has 3 importance components: (1.) Logic (2.) Physics (3.) Ethics

Their ethics was concerned with having a good spirit or living a good, happy life.

[Humans] differ from animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. [My note: Zeno asserted that this ability to reason was the function that people were designed for.]

The primary ethical goal of Greek Stoics was the attainment of virtue. The Roman Stoics retained this goal, but we find them also repeatedly advancing a second goal: the attainment of tranquility.

[As a Stoic] we must be ready to give up the good things without regret if our circumstances should change.

Seneca explains how to pursue tranquility. Basically, we need to use our reasoning ability to drive away “all that excites or frights us.”

Someone who practices Stoic principles “must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.”

Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offender’s ignorance of what is good or evil.

Any thoughtful person will periodically contemplate the bad things that can happen to him. The obvious reason for doing this is to prevent those things from happening…. Misfortune weights most heavily on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.” “We should keep in mind that all things everywhere are perishable.”

We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.

Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. They start taking their new Ferrari and mansion for granted just as they took their rusted-out car and cramped apartment for granted.

The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have. [How do we do this? [The Stoics] recommend that we spend time imagining that we have lose the things we value – that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our jobs.

As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity.

Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have. We would be much better off, Marcus says, to send this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours. Along these lines, we should think about how we would feel if we lost our material possessions, including our house, car, clothing, pets, and bank balance; how we would feel if we lost our abilities, including our ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe, and swallow; and how we would feel if we lost our freedom.

A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him.

Marcus Aurelius argues that the “flux and change” of the world around us are not an accident but an essential part of our universe.

We should keep in mind that any human activity that cannot be carried on indefinitely must have a final occurrence. There will be – or already has been! – a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch. There will be a last time you hear the sound of snow falling, watch the moon rise, smell popcorn, feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms, or make love. You will someday eat your last meal, and soon thereafter you will take your last breath.

Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.

The Stoics argued that the best way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy whatever desires we find within us but buy learning to be satisfied with our life as it is – by learning to be happy with whatever we’ve got. We can spend our days wishing our circumstances were different, but if we allow ourselves to do this, we will spend our days in a state of dissatisfaction. Alternatively, if we can learn to want whatever it is we already have, we won’t have to work to fulfill our desires in order to gain satisfaction; they will already have been fulfilled.

To help us advance our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.

What is the primary function of man? Our primary function, the Stoics thought, is to be rational.

Vices, Seneca warns, are contagious: They spread, quickly and unnoticed, from those who have them to those with whom they come into contact with.

We can also, Marcus suggests, lessen the negative impact other people have on our life by controlling our thoughts about them. He counsels us, for example, not to waste time speculating about what our neighbors are doing, saying, thinking, or scheming. Nor should we allow our mind to be filled with “sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other sentiments” about them that we would blush to admit.

[Marcus Aurelius] adds that if we detect anger and hatred within us and wish to seek revenge, one of the best forms of revenge on another person is to refuse to be like him.

Anger, says Seneca, is “brief insanity,” and the damage done by anger is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.” Because of anger, he says, we see all around us people being killed, poisoned, and sued; we see cities and nations ruined. And besides destroying cities and nations, anger can destroy us individually. We live in a world, after all, in which there is much to be angry about, meaning that unless we can learn to control our anger, we will be perpetually angry.

This is the downside of failing to develop an effective philosophy of life: You end up wasting the one life you have.

Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear, and various other negative emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence.

bottom of page