Happiness Lessons of The Ancients: EpictetusThe Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
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- 28 Sep 2020
Epictetus was born into slavery and beaten until he was lame... but he became one of Ancient Rome's greatest thinkers by accepting every setback as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Philosophy professor Bill Irvine joins Dr Laurie Santos to delve into Stoicism - an ancient school of thought which urges us to reframe how we view the problems we all face and defuse the negative emotions of anger and envy that can be so harmful to our happiness.
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We all have bad days, our laptops die, our relationships fail, our bosses let us go, I'll freely admit that I sometimes get weighed down by at all, that all those bad events can make me feel like I'm a long way from my goal of being happier. And that's when I try to think of James Stockdale in a particularly bad day in his military career. It was September 9th, 1965, James was flying his jet low over North Vietnam.
Stockdale was hit by enemy fire and had to eject. As he parachuted down to earth, he recognized that he was enjoying probably his final seconds of freedom and that the next five years minimum would be how he was looking at beatings, torture and a long imprisonment.
But as enemy soldiers on the ground took shots of the pilot ripping his parachute, Stockdale gave himself a bit of a pep talk. He whispered, I'm entering the world of Epictetus. Epictetus was born into slavery 2000 years ago. His Roman master permitted him to study an ancient philosophy called Stoicism. Eventually, Epictetus gained his freedom and became one of the most important stoic philosophers in history. His ideas about how to live a happier life have continued helping people long after his death.
In fact, his lessons on how to deal with challenges and how to put setbacks into perspective helped James Stockdale survive more than seven years as a prisoner of war. They've also helped me through some difficult times, and more than two thousand years later, I bet they'll help you, too. So welcome to Happiness Lessons of the Ancients with me, Dr. Larry Santo's.
OK, testing. This is Bill Ervine, testing professor of philosophy at Wright State University.
Yes, I'm recording his latest book. The Stoic Challenge is probably my book of the year.
It's just curious, but it was a great time to launch a book on dealing with setbacks because we had covid come along, which was for a lot of people, a major setback.
I talked to Bill for one of our bonus episodes on the coronavirus, but we were only able to scratch the surface of what Stoicism can really teach us today. So I invited Bill back to school us on Stoicism in general and on my favorite stoic of all, Epictetus.
So stoicism was cobbled together from other philosophies that existed in three hundred BCE by Zino of Sodium. This was in in Athens. It got to Rome in the 1st century B.C. There are the four greatest Roman Stoics and those would be Sinica Miscellaneous Rufous Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius Seneca. Besides being a stoic philosopher, he was also an investment banker, a playwright, counselor to an emperor. People get this idea that the Stoics were just interested in preserving calm at all costs.
But when you look at actual stoic history, you realize that a lot of them were very busy individuals where there was that external success going on. But that wasn't the key thing to them. After Seneca was Mussolini, as Rufus Missoni has had his own school, that was what you did. There were no colleges, so you couldn't get a job teaching in a college. So what you did is you started a school for you to have a successful school.
You needed to have an intellectual product that would draw students someplace where they would get the skills they would need in life skills like how to be a success in politics, how to be a success in law, but how to have a good life was also a component. One of the students was Epictetus. We don't know a lot about Epictetus. He was born in about 50 SEEI and started out life as a slave. You know, he wasn't out laboring in the fields, but he was acquiring basic skills of writing.
Remember, they didn't have Xerox machines, they didn't have typewriters. And apparently at one point he got a beating severe enough to make him a lame slave. So he was spent his life. Lahm finally succeeded in getting his freedom and used it to start his own philosophy school. What made him special? He came up with a lot of catchy sayings that became what was known as the handbook or in Meridian. And it's a short little thing. You can read it in an hour and then you can spend the next decade pondering its contents.
Stoicism continued to rumble along until the twentieth century, when, as far as I can tell, it went into a decline. I mean, so I was a college student starting in 1970, philosophy major, and was not exposed to stoicism because we weren't exposed to philosophies of life because that didn't really matter. And the beautiful thing is right now we're in the midst of a stoic renaissance. So that's that's kind of the back story on stoicism. And that's the kind of the place that Epictetus hands in that story.
One of the maybe twentieth century adopters of stoicism is Admiral James Stockdale. Yes. You know, when his plane was shot down, he saw a report saying that he knew that he was going to be stuck there for five years at least, and he was entering the world of Epictetus. So is the quote that he had? Yeah.
Now, this was the Vietnam War. So he became he became a prisoner. Not at all a very. Pleasant existence, you know, not enough to eat cruelty being beaten, and for him it would have been a complete turn around, you know, just a 180 degree turn in the course of his life because he went from being an airplane pilot, presumably must have been a college graduate that went from this life of of being a star, in some sense, a rock star.
And now suddenly you're the low man on the on the totem pole. And then you wake up and then the question is, what will I find to eat today and will I live till tomorrow? So he was an early adopter of stoicism. But, you know, think how fortunate he was to have been exposed to it before being shot down because it gave him a way of dealing with the things he was about to experience. This is a line from Epictetus.
It isn't what happens to us that has the effect. It's how we frame what happens to it. It's how we interpret what happens to us. And so we may not have a lot of power over what happens to us, but we have considerable power over what we do with what happens to it, with the psychological frame we put it in.
And that was one of the fantastic things about Epictetus, is that he was kind of incredibly practical. I mean, I think it's one of the reasons that Stockdale brought up Epictetus in particular, and not just Stoics in general, which it seems like he'd read, which is that Epictetus was really trying to give us almost like early self-help advice. I think the handbook almost sounds like a self-help book in some ways. But one of the things I noticed in the discourses is he talks about this idea that turning to stoicism is sort of like going to the hospital and like what a stoic, stoic philosophers job is, is to kind of be like a doctor in a hospital.
And he notes that students ought not to walk out in pleasure, but in pain. And I think this is sort of kind of coming to terms with the stoic philosophy. And what it means is, like you kind of have to accept that there are certain things that you can't control. And so the stoic view is that you can achieve harmony in life, you can achieve happiness, but it kind of takes a little bit at work. Yeah.
So Stoicism had several different aspects. So furious, stoic philosopher. You're interested in science. You might be interested in logic because you know, your students are going to have to learn how to reason if they want to be lawyers, if they want to be a politicians. But beside that, you're interested in the philosophy of life. And most people like that. They just go from day to day or they look around at the goals other people are forming and assume that the other people have done their homework.
Usually they haven't. They just been copying their neighbors. The Stoics, though, were very careful to add that on as a component in their philosophy. And they didn't just talk about grand theories and principles and everything else. The question was, is there practical advice that they had to offer? It should have takeaways. There should be lectures that people can come to and then go away from thinking hard not about. Oh, some wonderful principle, but about Woa, the way I'm living my life.
I seem to be making some basic mistakes, so I kind of want to dig into some of that Epictetus insight specifically. One of the ideas that comes out is this Greek term. I'm going to mess up the Greek term, but is this term at the helm something that in our power, it's it's Greek to me, three to you two.
But this is this idea of things that are sort of up to us. Right. And that classically is how Epictetus started his book. Give me a sense of how the handbook starts. And this huge Epictetus brought to people in English, what I call it.
And a lot of people do this, too. They call it the dichotomy of control. So a dichotomy is an either or it's one or the other. And the dichotomy of control is, well, there are some things you can control and there are some things you can't control. And if you spend your day thinking about anxious about dwelling upon the things you can't control, you are the biggest fool on the planet. How come? Because you can't control it.
You're wasting your time. You're wasting your energy. You're causing yourself grief. You know, when you get up in the morning, you should realize that today a number of things are going to happen that simply go against me. And if I expect to get up and go through today without anything bad happening, I'm a fool and I have a choice.
I can't control that. But I do have control over something else. And that is my response to those things that happen. You can control your goals. Can you control whether you achieve those goals? No, no. But you can control what the goals are. You can control your values. What do you value in life? Do you value fame and fortune? Do you value tranquility that's completely in your control? And the stoic insight was if you want to have a good life, No.
One, you need to focus your attention on things you can control. Number two is when it comes to choosing your values, when it comes to choosing your goals, you want to choose values that are going to lead me in the right direction, in its goals that I'm going to be able to achieve. I know so many people. I used to be one of them, and I still am to some extent one of them. But I know this one person I've known for a long time, and he routinely says to me, if only I made X thousand dollars per year, then finally I would be happy.
And then I'll encounter him a few years later and I'll say, how is that X thing going for you? He says, If only I had, why? So this is this hedonic treadmill that we're on. Don't get yourself on the hedonic treadmill because you will never be satisfied. You will always want more. So but back to the dichotomy of control. So there's things you can control, things you can't control. But I have fiddled with it.
And so I've come up with what I call the dichotomy of control. When you say there are things you can control and things you can't control. The phrase the things you can't control is actually ambiguous because there's two different sorts of things you can't control. One of them is things that you have absolutely no control over. And that would be like whether the sun rises tomorrow. I have absolutely no control over that. But there are also things you can't control in the sense that you don't have complete control over them, but you have partial control over them.
What would that be? Well, my weight, for instance, can I suddenly wish that I became one hundred and sixty pounds? Now, can I try to do that? Yep. Do I have some control over that? Yeah, because every day I sit down and eat, I have control over what I do eat and what and what I don't eat. It's this third intermediate category. It's things I have some but not complete control over. So I would argue that that's where as a practicing stoic, you should be spending most of your time.
And I think one way that focusing on what you can control is really powerful is it means that if you get that right, you're never really a victim. Right? Like, you can't be a victim of your circumstances if you're really tracking the things that just don't matter to you. Right. Right.
The notion of being a victim, by the way, that touches on a second stoic theme and that is framing. Sometimes you do have a say in whether bad things happen to you. If you never check the gas gauge in your car, bad things are going to happen and you're to blame and shame on you. But there are other things where a bad thing happens that you couldn't have foreseen. But you do have control over the frame you put around it.
You've got a very interesting choice of whether you're going to play the role of victim or play the role of target. And it's a huge psychological difference because if you choose to play the role of victim, then you're going to feel sorry for yourself. You're going to be asking for people's sympathy. You're going to be probably depressed. If you play the role of Target, then you can rise to that challenge. As a result of doing that, you can gain character and you can change the world.
That difference between feeling like a victim versus feeling like a target was an important distinction for James Stockdale. When Stockdale came crashing down to earth, he badly injured his leg and was left limb just like his hero, Epictetus. But throughout all the pain and cruelty, Stockdale decided that he was game for the challenge. He was ready to take it on. After the break, we'll look at the path that Epictetus has laid out to help us all gain control.
Even in the worst of times. The happiness help turn in a moment. When trying to take control of our own lives, Epictetus suggested adopting a state of mind that he called apathy. We need to become less bothered by the powerful emotions that often cloud our judgment. Apathy. Sounds a lot like our modern word apathy. But that's actually a misperception of stoicism, that it's about turning off our emotions and not caring what's going on around us. So I asked Bill to explain how apathy really works.
The Stoics weren't anti emotion. They were anti negative emotion. They embraced positive emotions. They embraced feelings of delight. They embraced joy. Those are all positive emotions. But they thought what makes us miserable is the negative emotions we experience, like anger, like regret, like feelings of insecurity. They realize that we are essentially at war with ourselves. And I use the roommate analogy. So suppose the only place you could live was an apartment and you realize that moving in you had two apartment mates.
One was this utterly reflexive guy who was either panicking or reacting in dramatic ways to whatever the circumstances were. The other one was just an emotional basket case. You know, whatever happened, he'd be saying this is the worst thing ever or this is the best thing ever. And then there was rational you OK? And the problem is you couldn't escape them. You couldn't leave them. You had to deal with them. How do you accomplish that? And here's where stoic insight comes.
You manipulate them, you use your brain power. I mean, you can simply try as an act of self-control to ignore what they're doing, ignore what they're saying. Good luck with that, because self-control requires considerable energy on your part. If you've ever tried to do meditation, you realize one of the very first things you learn is how difficult it is to just quiet your mind, set there for five minutes in a common environment and don't have thoughts.
And within 30 seconds outside, maybe before that you'll realize, oops, a thought just came into my mind and a lot of my crazy ideas. Because of that, we find ourselves living not in the present moment. And that's kind of been the the ideal is live in the now. It's rather things like so-and-so said something to me yesterday. Is he upset with me? Is he angry at me? Is he going to do something to make me even more upset?
And oh, the electrical bill has to be paid and it's due this evening. Suppose you had a neighbor who every five minutes was showing up at your door, banging on the door and saying you should be angry. Now there's something you should worry about now. You know, you would get a restraining order, except it isn't a neighbor and you can't go to a court of law. It's inside your head. So the Stoics, the beautiful thing was they figured out a way not only to kind of shut down those thoughts in those emotions, but to harness them and use them on their behalf.
And so in their goal to control negative emotions is this notion that we talk a lot about today in modern, effective science, which is this idea of emotion, regulation, this idea that emotions really are in our control and that we can take ownership to kind of down regulate the negative ones. And one of the ways that modern science has figured out that we can down regulate negative emotions has to do with our judgments is to realize that we're in control of how we experience and emotion.
And this seems to fit a lot with what Epictetus talked about when he talked about these impressions. And so what was Epictetus talking about? That when you see something, realize that it's an impression that you can control?
Yeah, when somebody insults us, there are two ways we can respond. One is to get angry and upset and maybe seek revenge, and another is to simply shrug it off. It's just noise. If you're out on a walk and a dog barks at you, you know, if you respond to that by saying, oh, that dog must not approve of me, that dog is so mean now it's just barking. Well, you can treat the things other people say in exactly the same frame of mind because some of them are not fully rational, coherent people.
That's why they're going around saying insulting things. When you're insulted, you should just shrug it off or better still, make a joke out of it and you have it in your power to do that. And if you make a joke out of it, you not only will prevent the insult from hurting you, but it's just almost the worst thing you can do to the person who insulted you. He wants to hurt you. And if you laugh it off, it's proof that he hasn't hurt you.
So one thing I do in class when we're up to this point is I tell the assembled group and it might be 30 people, might be 50 people. I say, OK, I want you to come up with the worst insult of me that you can think of. And then I'm going to do a countdown, and when we get to three, I want you all to shout out your insult at the same moment. So I do one, two, three.
And then the room erupts in this giant insult. And then I just smile and I say, it's just noise. Now, sometimes I'm too clever by half because one of the times when I tried this, there was one student who waited until the noise had subsided and then said in the low voice, Old man. And it's interesting because here I am, a practicing stoic. And yet, yeah, doesn't mean you're perfect. It means you've you've developed your skills.
And yet, you know, you start thinking, oh, that hurt.
Well, so that and this really fits nicely with what we're learning about these different emotion regulation strategies. I think at first when people think about emotion regulation, they think about what you might call like suppression. Right. Like, I just don't want to feel this emotion. But what we're learning now from the neuroscience is that suppression is really bad. It might shut off emotion in the moment. But if you look physiologically, you hook somebody up to a skin response.
You find that that emotion is coming out anyway. Turns out a better strategy is exactly what Epictetus was talking about, which is what neuroscientists are now calling reappraisal. Right. You reappraised that frustrating thing as a test in one study. You get folks to reappraise something bad happening to you as you think about it, how a doctor might think about it or think about it, how you might think about it if you were designing a game. This is just a game in life.
And the research really shows that people who are high on that ability to reappraise naturally, because there's individual difference in this in this people who are high on the ability to reappraise naturally, they tend to experience less depression and they self report that their lives are less stressful. The cool thing is if you teach people how to reappraise in the laboratory, this is some work by James Gross where he shows people these really nasty videos like an amputation or Hiroshima victims.
And he says try to watch this documentary in a way in a very measured way. Right. Like you're a doctor watching this or you're a historian kind of looking at it from afar. And what he finds is that people naturally experience less emotion there. But again, not in a depression way where you're trying to run from the emotions. You just take that new frame and then everything looks differently.
Yeah, the frame makes all the difference. One of the things you can do is simply get frustrated. I was set back. There's something I wanted to do was prevented from doing it. So I'm upset as a result or a different way. You can frame it as a test by imaginary stoic gods, in which case then instead of focusing on the setback, you think about how you're going to overcome that setback and you're going to show those stoic gods who's in charge.
You cannot defeat me. So it's an interesting way. So we aren't just trying to prevent the emotions. We're harnessing them, making them work on our behalf and pay particular attention to anger. It's an insidious emotion, an event that happened to you years before. I can poke itself into your head at 3:00 in the morning and then you find that the person is long gone, not part of your life, and yet you find the anger returning. So one bit of advice that I offer based on Stoics is doing your best to nip them in the bud.
So I describe the three second rule, or maybe it's the five second rule when food falls on the floor. And this is an urban myth, it turns out. But if you pick it up within three or five seconds, it's going to be fine. But anger works that way, too. So something happens and then you've got this beautiful interval, a matter of seconds, but a beautiful interval where you get to very quickly frame it and then how you do that.
But you've got to be quick, because once the anger arises, it it's going to have a life of its own. But then what you do is you say, oh, it's a set back. Are you still with gods? You're shaking your fist at them. They're using this person as part of their mechanism to test me and I should throw this in the stone. Gods are actually good guys and gals because why are they doing this to you?
They're doing it to you to strengthen you like a good coach. You take it as a compliment that they think you're worth the attention. So that's one of these cases where you regard the person just as this fool, this cog in this machine that's being used as part of the test of you.
That gets to the final thing I wanted to mention about Epictetus, which is that he realized that this was going to be work. He realized that this was going to be a path. And in that sense, he was embodying this wonderful psychological principle in the growth mindset. You know, you're not going to be a perfect stoic right now, but you're working towards it in this right way. And so talk about how Epictetus and the other Stoics kind of embodied this idea like but we're not there yet, but we're kind of working towards this goal over time.
Yes. So when life sets you back and I describe these stoic tests, how do you pass this to stoic test? First of all, the Stoics. Do not still gods do not raid you, you don't get an email saying that was a B plus, but here's what you need to work on. So it's all self graded, but you graded according to two standards. First, did you find a workaround? Doesn't have to be a perfect workaround, but did you find the best workaround you reasonably could?
Did you use your cortex to try to think through the possibilities and come up with the workaround? Second and more important component of the grade, did you keep your cool while you did it? That's the most important part of the grade, because when you think about most of life's setbacks, it isn't a setback itself that causes you the harm. It's your response to the setback. It's allowing yourself to get angry, to get upset. That's what causes the damage.
So for the Stoics, it could look to the entire world that the stoic just failed big time in doing something. So, for instance, there was a tennis match and that the stoic lost, he lost. And that's and that's failure. But if you ask the stoic, the stoic could say, I can see how someone on the outside would look at it that way. But my goal was not to win this game. My goal was to train for this game to the best of my ability, come up with the best strategy for playing the game as I could play the game to the best of my ability.
And I did those things. I did not win the game, but it was not a failure. Here's the interesting wrinkle on that.
And that is if you approach life thinking in those terms, you're more likely to have external successes, because if you did the best you could, that's all you can ever do. If you did the best you could and routinely do that, you're going to get better and better. And so you'll actually have not only the internal successes, which is what the Stoics were primarily interested in, but the external successes as well.
Even though it's an old strategy, it's one that still works. I mean, I know again, we started this episode with Stockdale and he had to go through some pretty hard core stoic challenges, but made it through in part because he had this tool.
Yep. And you know what? So there's a lot that's changed in the last two thousand years. But human psychology has changed barely an iota. So what would be surprising if something that worked two thousand years ago in psychological terms didn't continue to work today? I love talking to Bill. He always has a helpful way of reminding me the stoic challenge never ends. We're constantly being tested, constantly being offered chances to gain wisdom and to react with good humor.
In fact, you might have noticed that my side of the interview sounded a bit crappier than usual, and that was because my recorder died right in the middle of the interview. But did I get angry or frustrated? No, because when you think about it, this is a wonderful, stoic challenge. Plus, we had a backup, so we were good. But just to complete James Stockdale story, he was eventually released from captivity in 1973 throughout his entire imprisonment.
He was guided by his understanding of stoicism. His conduct as a prisoner was so virtuous that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Upon his return, Stockdale went on to lecture about his life behind bars. He urged other people to implement the lessons of Epictetus in their own daily lives. Stoicism, Stockdale said, is a noble philosophy that proved more practical than a modern cynic would expect. But there's still one more episode in this current season of Happiness Lessons of the Ancients.
So join me next time when we travel way, way back in time to meet the Buddha. The Happiness Lab is co-written and produced by Ryan Daily, the show was mastered by Evan Yolla and our original music was composed by Zachary Silver. Special thanks to the entire Bushkin crew, including McLibel, Kali Migliore, Heather Fain, Sophie Krein McKibbon, Eric Sandler, Jacob Weisberg and my agent Ben Davis. The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and me, Dr.