What do you want out of life? You may say a good job, a nice house or a beautiful wife. But these are the things you want in life. These are your little day to day goals of your life. My question is instead about the grandest goal of them all - the purpose of your life. Why is that important? Because a grand goal in life is the first step towards attaining a good life. Once you decide on your grand goal, the next step is to come up with a strategy for attaining that goal. I would like to call this strategy as a philosophy of life. Now you may wonder why it is important to even have such a philosophy. After all most of us live our lives without any such embellishments and seem to be doing perfectly fine!
If you don't have a philosophy of life, there is a great chance that you might mis-live. You will end up getting sucked up by the trinkets and diversions that life has to offer. This has become all the more easier in today's technology mad world where your attention is constantly assaulted by Facebook posts, Twitter tweets and instant messages. Before you know it, you will be on your deathbed filled with regret that you thoroughly wasted your one chance at living.
In the ancient world, philosophy was developed to help you live your life well. In Greece and Rome, a number of philosophy schools existed for this purpose such as the Epicureans, Cynics,Skeptics and Stoics. I will concentrate on Stoicism and elaborate on their guide to the Good Life. In my opinion, a good life should be meaningful and fulfilling. However the Stoics realized that our lives are often plagued by negative emotions such as anger, fear and grief. They thus aimed for a tranquil life where negative emotions were curtailed or even prevented from happening in the first place. Several of the greatest philosophers of ancient Rome and Greece were Stoics including Epictetus, Seneca and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius whose diaries became known to the world as the Meditations.
How does one attain a life of tranquility? The Stoics provided a number of exercises that one could perform in your day to day life. The most important exercise was on negative visualization. You should spend some time every day trying to imagine the worst thing that could happen to you. You may have a good job or a nice house or a beautiful wife that your are quite proud of. Now imagine what will happen if you were to lose your job, lose your house in bankruptcy and your wife were to divorce you? Close your eyes and visualize yourself in such a scenario. How would you feel? You may counter by telling me that all this negative visualization is indeed pushing you away from a tranquil life. Far from it. By looking at the worst case scenario, you will be preparing yourself for the nightmares of your life. The next time a real catastrophe strikes you, Fate's sting will carry much less pain. Remember all these things will happen eventually. You may not lose your job, you house or your wife. But there will come a day when you will breathe your last breath and all that is close to your heart will be lost to you forever.
Negative visualization also protects you from the effects of hedonic adaptation. We all think that we would be happier if only we could attain our dreams. But if you look around you realize that you are already living your dream. The job that you have now and the house that you live now once used to be your dreams. You had spent many a sleepless night working for it. Maybe you can still remember the pleasure on the day when you got your dream job or house. But the pleasure soon evaporated and you were back to climbing the treadmill seeking for more, not unlike a heroin addict craving for his next fix. How does one cope with hedonic adaptation? Negative visualization makes you become aware of the riches that you already possess in abundance. Thus instead of clamoring for more and more, you learn to cherish the little that you have.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can take this a step further by engaging in voluntary discomfort. Instead of merely imagining the worst case, experience it in small doses. Maybe you are afraid of losing your job and being left to live on the streets. How about skipping a meal to see how real hunger feels like? By experiencing hunger in small doses, you will end up gaining a new respect for your job and the security that it provides.
Remember that building self control is similar to physical exercise. Practice these Stoic exercises daily and you will be able to cheerily face what life throws at you. In the memorable words of the Scottish philosopher Thomas Browne
“I am the happiest man alive.
I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity,
and I am more invulnerable than Achilles
Fortune hath not one place to hit me.”