A Guide to the Good Life by Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life is a life-changing book. It presents a coherent, simple, and sensible approach for dealing with the questions, temptations and issues that everyone encounters, including like anger, grief, materialism, and existential crises.

Summary

The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.

Introduction

  • People need a philosophy of life — a plan for what they want to get out of living.
  • The first requirement of such a philosophy is to have a grand goal for living. Without such a goal, there’s a risk that you will mis-live your life. That is, you might enjoy parts of it or even most of it, but spend the end wishing you had done things differently.
  • The second requirement is to have a strategy for reaching you grand goal. Your strategy will guide you through each day, telling you what you should do to get closer to your goal.
  • Today, to be stoic means to banish emotion from your life. For the original Stoics, however, the goal was not to eliminate all emotions, but to eliminate negative emotions.
  • In ancient Greece, the Cyrenaics advocated pleasure and taking every opportunity to experience it, while the Cynics advocated an ascetic lifestyle of wanting nothing. The Stoics were in the middle, suggesting that we should enjoy life’s pleasures, but not be attached to them. In fact, even while we are enjoying life, we should occasionally step back and contemplate the loss of whatever we are enjoying in order to appreciate it more, and to not be wholly unprepared if it ever goes away.
  • The Stoics advocated tranquility, which they saw as the absence of negative emotions like grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, like joy.

Negative Visualization

  • It’s valuable to occasionally visualize the bad things that can happen to you: you can lose your health, the people around you, your material possessions, and so on. One value of such visualization is that it helps you protect yourself from some possibilities. For example, if you imagine someone breaking into your house, you might start thinking of ways to make your house more secure. Another value of such visualization is that it helps you brace for bad things, some of which you’ll eventually encounter in the course of your life. Seneca, a famous Stoic, says misfortune weights most heavily on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.”
  • Most people are running on the hedonic treadmill: good and bad things happen to you, you temporarily become more or less happy, and then you get used to your new status quo and revert to your natural level of happiness. Using negative visualization helps you maintain an appreciation for the good things in your life so that you don’t become used to them and numb to their positive influence.
  • “The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.”
  • We should occasionally think about losing the people close to us due to death, falling out, etc. “When we say goodbye to a friend, we should silently remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. If we do this, we will be less likely to take our friends for granted, and as a result, we will probably derive far more pleasure from friendships than we otherwise would.”
  • When the Stoics advocated living each life as if it were our last, they didn’t mean that we should change our activities, but that we should change our state of mind as we carry out our activities.
  • Many people spend their idle time thinking about things they want to but don’t have. We would be much better off thinking about how much we already have, and about how we would miss what we have if it were gone. [Personal side note: there have been numerous studies that show that periodically enumerating the things we are grateful for is one of the few activities that consistently improves happiness.]
  • It’s not a matter of optimism or pessimism, or the glass being half empty or half full; it’s about appreciating having water, and having a glass, and even appreciating the fact that something as convenient and useful as a glass exists, and so on.
  • Negative visualization is somewhat akin to people having near death experiences. On the one hand, these experiences are tragic, on the other hand, people typically emerge with a zest for living and an appreciation for the smallest things in life. The nice thing about negative visualization is that you don’t have to actually experience a catastrophe in order to appreciate life more.
  • An important thing to keep in mind is that one should not spend ALL of his time contemplating things that can go wrong. It’s good enough to remind yourself of how much you have a few times per day or per week.
  • The goal of negative visualization is not to worry but to contemplate. You should try to intellectually consider things that could happen without letting that affect your emotions.
  • Kissing your lover or watching a movie with your siblings or driving your car might be unremarkable, but if you know you’re about to experience one last kiss or one last movie or one last drive, the experiences can hit you with a surprising emotional intensity. The goal of contemplating the impermanence of what you have is to give everything a greater intensity and significance.

The Trichotomy of Control

  • The key to happiness is only wanting things that you already have or that you can be certain of obtaining. Instead of changing the world to fit your desires, change your desires.
  • The only way you can be certain of obtaining something is if you have full control.
  • There are two kinds of desires: things that are under our control (e.g. eating less) and things are that are not under our control (e.g. less rain in Seattle).
  • If we want things that are not up to us, we will be upset when things don’t work out and we don’t get what we want. We also feel more anxious during the pursuit of something we can’t control because we know that we can do everything possible and still return empty-handed. This anxiety manifests itself regardless of whether we end up getting what we want.
  • In addition to things where we have full control or no control, there are also things where we have partial control. For example, if we want to win a tennis match, we don’t have control over our opponent or how they play, but we do have control over how hard we train and how much effort we make during the match.
  • Generally, we should spend our time and energy focusing on things where we have control. Some of the things we have complete control over include our goals, our values, and our character.
  • It’s foolish to spend effort on things we can’t control at all because our effort won’t make any difference.
  • For things where you have some control, it’s important to focus on the pieces that you can affect. For example, with the tennis match example above, the best chance of winning a match is to play as best as you can. However, the outcome is not in you control, so you should not worry about it or focus on it. If your goal is to win, you will be anxious during the game and disappointed if you lose; if you focus on playing your best, you will be happy as long as you played your best.
  • An interesting example from the book is how to concern yourself with your husband or wife. The author suggests that you should want your spouse to love you, but that when you do concern yourself with his/her love, you should focus on what you can do and how you can behave to make yourself as lovable as possible. You should not focus on whether or not the love is actually there because you can’t control another person’s feelings.
  • Another example from the book is that of an aspiring author. They obviously want to get published, but their goals should only be regarding things under their control, like how hard they work on their novel or how many times they submit it to publishers.
  • By focusing on things that you can control, you might not actually change your behavior (i.e. you’re still behaving as if your goal was to get published or to win a tennis match), but you will be more tranquil as you go through life, and you will increase you chances of achieving the external goals where you only have partial control.

Self-Denial

  • In addition to occasionally contemplating bad things happening, we should occasionally live as if they had happened.
  • For example, turn your phone off for a day or eat a meal that’s simpler and cheaper than what you’re accustomed to. This is like a vaccine: exposing yourself to a little discomfort makes you more immune to it.
  • Other benefits of self-denial include cultivating appreciation for what you already have and gaining the confidence that you can withstand discomfort.
  • One way to practice self-denial is to do things that make you feel bad (like being underdressed for cold weather). Another way to practice is to not do things that feel good like having ice cream or getting a massage.
  • Practicing stoicism develops your willpower and helps you gain more self-discipline and self-control. [This is definitely true. See my notes on the Willpower book]
  • Ironically, self-denial can be quite pleasurable. If you’re contemplating a candy bar, deciding to eat it would lead to pleasure, but deciding to abstain will give you pleasure in your ability to hold back.

Meditation and Reflection

  • It’s useful to reflect occasionally — perhaps daily — on how your stoicism practice is progressing. Where is it working and where can you show improvement?
  • More advanced stoics will speak more with actions than words. A beginner will give up wine for water and then tell her friends about her self-control; an advanced stoic will drink the water and let her action speak for itself.

Advice on Duty

  • A stoic should help others without expecting praise or indulging in the feeling of helpfulness. Help someone, then move on to helping someone else.

Advice on Social Relations

  • Other people are the sources of some our greatest joys, but also of many sorrows and frustrations. Other people have a great ability to disturb our tranquility.
  • A potential dilemma for stoics is that embracing people puts tranquility at risk, but shunning people keeps us from performing our social duty.
  • One part of the solution is to associate yourself with good people who share your values.
  • If you have to deal with annoying people, remember that some people find you annoying, too. By being empathetic you will become more tolerant. Being annoyed would only make things worse for everyone.
  • When people behave inhumanely, we should not feel toward them as they feel toward others. If you feel the need to be angry at someone or seek revenge, remember that the best revenge against a person is to refuse to be like him.

Advice on Insults

  • Most people become angry (and less tranquil) when insulted.
  • One way to maintain tranquility is to analyze whether the insult is true. If it is, then there is little reason to be upset.
  • Another strategy is to consider whether the insulter is will-informed. If he is not, we can calmly set him straight.
  • Consider insults to be like a dog barking at you. When the dog barks, you make a note that it might not like you, but you certainly don’t argue with the dog or get upset by it.
  • Epictetus says: “what upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgments about these things.”
  • Specific ways to address an insult are to ignore it or to laugh it off. Laughing it off shows that you are not concerned with what the insulter thinks, and that is much more effective than a counterinsult.

Advice on Grief

  • That stoics never grieve is a misconception.
  • When you have lost something, instead of thinking about what you have lost, try to think about and be thankful for what you had.

Advice on Anger

  • Stoics think of anger as “anti-joy”.
  • The best way to fight anger is with laughter. By treating something as funny instead of outrageous, you can convert an event from angering you to being a source of amusement.
  • Another strategy for dealing with anger is to reflect on an events “cosmic insignificance.” Something that seems big now will hardly be remembered in 5 years.
  • Life is too short to spend on anger. Why experience anti-joy when it’s in your power to be joyful?

Advice on Fame

  • The price of fame is much greater than its benefits.
  • Stoics avoid things that give others power over them. Being famous means you are controlled by others: you have to do things to keep your status, avoid things that will cause you to lose you fame, and so on. Fame enslaves us.
  • To maintain our freedom, we should be indifferent when people approve or disapprove of us. This advice is consistent with not concerning ourselves with things that are out of control.
  • It’s hard to give up wanting admiration. It’s helpful to realize that in seeking admiration, you have to do what other people define as good, instead of what you define as good.
  • Ironically, not seeking people’s admiration will make you more admirable because of your self-confidence.

Advice on Luxury

  • Not needing wealth is more valuable than being wealthy.
  • If you expose yourself to a luxurious lifestyle, there’s a danger that you’ll lose your ability to enjoy the simple things in life.
  • You should eat to live instead of living to eat. Food is a particularly challenging temptation because we face it daily.
  • In addition to a simple diet, we should favor simple clothing, housing, and furnishings.
  • Ironically, not caring about wealth and living frugally makes it more likely that you’ll end up wealthy. If this happens, you are free to enjoy your wealth thoughtfully, keeping in mind that it may disappear, and being careful not to let it undermine your ability to enjoy a simple life. [Personal side note: there are many pleasant ironies in this book.] The school of Cynicism encouraged its adherents to live in abject poverty; the school of stoicism believes wealth is fine as long as you are not attached to it.

Advice on Old Age

  • When death is close, instead of being depressed, you can appreciate what you still have. While the young don’t value time because it seems unlimited, the elderly don’t take anything for granted.

How to Become a Stoic

  • Don’t boast or advertise to people that you’re going to become a stoic. Just work on it quietly.
  • Don’t dwell on the past. Seneca asks, “[What point is there in] being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy?”
  • Don’t try to master all of the techniques at once. Negative visualization is a good place to start. Try to practice at least once a day, if only for a few moments.
  • After negative visualization, move on to the trichotomy of control, which helps you manage anxiety.
  • Part of stoic joy is not just joy in a particular thing of event, but joy in life itself.