Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. It hasn’t come yet? Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. Act this way with children, a spouse, toward position, with wealth - one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods. Epictetus
There is a lot we can take from this short passage by Epictetus. I wouldn’t be surprised if several platitudes spring immediately to mind:
- Be patient, good things come to those who wait
- Don’t be greedy
- Everything in moderation
Whilst we hear similar phrases all the time we don’t necessarily internalise them. Then again, our modern life doesn’t lend itself to making it easy either. We’re bombarded with advertising and the perfect lifestyles that we see celebs and others leading through our social media feeds. We want to keep up with those Joneses too.
But we’re not any happier. If anything, we’re less much less happy even though as a society we have so much more than we’ve had in the past. We’re comparing ourselves to others who appear richer and more successful and we are left feeling wanting or hard-done-by. We have forgotten that there are plenty of others who are far worse off than we are.
In my article about gratitude I wrote about the orphanage of Ugandan children. They had life-threatening illnesses, were away from their families with only dirty, old clothes on their backs. They have minimal money or possessions yet they were joyous with what little they did have. Can you say the same about your own life? We all have our own troubles but I expect they pale in insignificance by comparison. We’re more troubled by what we don’t have — a new phone, a new car, a bigger house, nicer clothes, fancy holidays in exotic locations.
Before we go further, let’s be clear — it’s ok to have some desires and goals. After all it’s how we, as humans, have progressed by desiring to see and make [hopefully good] changes to our world. They give us drive and motivate us. My point here (and a Stoic principle in general) is that we need to manage our desires and not allow them to control us.
Digesting Epictetus’ metaphor a little more, he’s describing the essence of Stoicism. To live a virtuous life is to be patient, be ready for opportunity but don’t be greedy. Act with decorum towards others and don’t burn with desire for material worth or reputation. Act this way and you will be content and fulfilled, more able to ride life’s ups and downs.
I find it interesting that they understood this aeons ago and only now we’re finally proving it with science.
Since Stoicism is a practical philosophy we shouldn’t stop at abstract thoughts but consider how to put it into practice.
Here’s where reflection and journaling can help. Take a few moments to think about what you’re grateful for, those things can be big or small. Write them down in a list. You don’t need to do it every day. In fact science1 suggests that the beneficial effects are lessened because our brain quickly gets used to it or becomes “bored” by the monotony. I tend to do my five minute journal every few days and a gratitude “round-up” once a week as I reflect on the past week.
Stem your impulses
If your kids are anything like mine, it’s a constant stream of
requests demands for the latest fad or toy that’s crossed their eyeballs. Whether in a TV advert, a magazine or on the shelves of a toy shop. They must have it. Now.
To help teach them patience and delay gratification I created a list. When they want something they have to add it to the list with the current date. Then they must wait at least 30 days before they can consider buying it. In the meantime, if there’s something else that they decide they must have then they have to make a decision. Replace the item on the list with this new item and the 30 day period is reset or the original item remains. Once 30 days have passed, they need to see if they have enough pocket money to buy it. I try to follow this process myself or set the purchase as a goal reward. Training yourself to delay gratification in this way is a valuable life-skill. Other research2 has shown correlations between those who are able to do this and improved life outcomes.
Time to get off the hedonic treadmill
If we want a life of more contentment and fulfilment we need to get off the hedonic treadmill. We must reduce our levels of desire and increase our gratitude for what we already have. In doing so, we’ll want for less and feel less need to compare ourselves with those who have more.