Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism: Ancient Philosophies For The Modern Soul

As a life-long student of philosophy, I often turn to the subject in times of uncertainty or despair. Often the subject of philosophy, thanks to academia, gets a bad reputation for being pedantic, obscure, overly abstract, and even elitist. However, this bad reputation is totally unfair. Philosophy, perhaps more than any other subject, has the ability to teach us the most about life and how to live it. In particular, the converging (and often heavily over-lapping) philosophies of Stoicism, Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Pessimism, when combined, offer a unique and rather simple set of strategies for living a good life.

I will not go into the fine details of each philosophy here, I merely want to highlight some basic tactics that these philosophies offer us with regards to how a human being should live their life in order to squeeze the most happiness (or at least the most contentedness) out of it.

Lower Your Expectations

Coming mostly out of the Pessimist tradition, this idea is as simple as it is effective. Too often in life, especially in our modern American culture which inculcates in us from an early age that we are special and “can be anything we want to be”, our expectations grow out of proportion with our reality.  We are often raised to expect a morally-uplifting and meaningful career, a happily-ever-after romantic life, a comfortable income, etc. However, all too often, these things fail to pan out as we would have hoped, and the disparity between our expectations and our realities can cause us serious despair and even self-loathing (as if its *our* fault that these expectations haven’t come to fruition).

However, by being conscious of these overly-optimistic expectations, and bringing them down to more reasonable levels, we reduce the inevitable disappointment that results when we realize that life is a lot harder and shittier than we were brought up to expect. This does not mean that we stop trying, or that we give up. To the contrary, we should still try our hardest to find a career we enjoy, a partner we want to grow old with, and enough financial resources to provide for ourselves and our families. But by lowering our expectations as low as we can, we can be happily surprised when things go well, while never being overwhelmed with disappointment when things go badly. The truth is, most of us won’t have jobs we love, our relationships with our loved ones will often be strained and difficult, we will likely have plenty of money troubles, and, ultimately, everyone we care about will suffer greatly and then die, one by one, until its our turn. But this reality need not make us tremble with sadness, rather by appropriately and maturely orienting ourselves with it, we steel our minds against these inevitabilities and therefore can maintain some semblance of mental and emotional balance when they occur; as they almost certainly will.

Control Your Emotions

Our emotions come and go like weather pattners. We can be happy and optimistic in the morning, tired and deflated in the afternoon, and riddled with anxiety in the evening. The external world cares not at all for our internal emotional states, and is constantly infringing on our ability to maintain emotional balance. To grab and hold onto any sense of inner tranquility in today’s world is a Sisyphean task, indeed.

The ancient Stoics took this problem on, and concluded that by gaining control over your emotions, you can diminish the chaotic negativity that can result from having your emotions blow to and fro without an anchor. A primary method that they employed were thought experiments. By constantly thinking about worst case scenarios, the logic went, one could build up their powers of emotional control and not be as flustered when things went wrong. Holding, for example, the thought of death in your mind constantly tends to strengthen you against feelings of fear and anxiety. Reflecting often on the fact that the people you love are going to die tends to strengthen you against feelings of sadness and despair. Reflecting often on the ultimate meaningless and pettiness of human squabbles tends to strengthen you against feelings of anger and hatred.

Beyond that, though, I would argue that by OBSERVING your emotions as they arise, and detaching yourself from them in order to study them, has an even bigger effect on your ability to control them. When anger arises, for instance, simply letting it play itself out and observing how it makes you feel tends to dissipate the feeling rather quickly. Instead of justifying your anger to yourself with white-hot inner dialogue, and thereby elongating that emotion’s lifespan, try taking a deep breath and feeling what anger feels like, especially in your stomach. Anger sits in your stomach like a hot ball of iron, and it has a distinct feel to it. By detaching from the emotion in order to watch it dispassionately, you rob it of its momentum. When a strong emotion arises, you immediately have two options: 1) succumb to it, fall into it, and talk to yourself in you own head about it or 2) stand back from it, observe it with full attention, and watch it as it runs its course and fizzles out. With time, employing the latter tactic over and over again gives you steadily increasing control over your emotions, and allows you to live a slightly happier, more balanced, internal emotional life.

Take Pleasure In The Small Things

The Epicureans believed that much of our unhappiness comes from hoping for the big things in life, while ignoring all the little things. We are so obsessed with achievement, money, fame, and status that we neglect the small things in life that make life worth living. We may never obtain the “big” things in life, but we can and do engage with a plethora of wonderful little pleasures on a daily basis, and by orienting our attention to those small pleasures, we create a happier life from the bottom up.

The way coffee warms your chest and stomach on a cold winter morning, or the way your child slips their little hand into yours on a walk, or the way wine and cheese mix together on your pallet, or the way the spring sun feels on your exposed skin; these are the little wonders of life. In the rat-race that is our modern lives, these things often get passed over with little to no appreciation as we dash from our jobs to school to home and back to our jobs again. We are constantly bombarded by stimulation (visual, audio, etc.) as well as by cultural ideas of achievement and social status. Those things lash out at our attention ceaselessly. But by becoming aware of that, disengaging from it as much as possible, and taking time to consciously appreciate the little things in life, we can build up a mentality and a focus that is far more cohesive with our own happiness than our default orientation towards big dreams and future hopes could ever be.

Focus On The Present Moment

The idea that our minds (and by extension our emotions and expectations) are perpetually being pulled away from us, and tossed around chaotically, was something that the Buddha himself was very cognizant of. In Buddhist traditions, the default state of our constantly chattering, chaotic mind is known as “monkey mind”; swinging from emotion to emotion, from thought to thought, from external stimulus to external stimulus. By constantly talking to ourselves in our own heads all day long, we disconnect from the present moment in favor of reflecting on past events or anticipating future ones. This produces in us a sense that life is passing us by, as well as a nagging sense of never being fully satisfied. We satisfy one urge only to quickly discover that a new desire has arisen in its place. This pattern of “desire, satiation, desire, satiation, desire” plays out indefinitely in our minds, and is not at all conducive with lasting peace and tranquility.

To combat this tendency of the human mind, Buddhism stresses the concept of mindfulness: of consciously bringing your attention into the present moment as often as possible. By fully and deeply focusing on our breath, or on what we are doing at any given moment, we slowly train our brain to slow down and to engage with the present moment, which, if you think about it, is all we really have. When the past occurred, it occurred in the present. When the future comes, it come to us in the form of the present. All we have is the moment in which we exist. That is all we will ever have. By training our minds to focus on the present moment, often through mindfulness meditation, we come to appreciate that fact intimately. This ability to live in the present moment decreases feelings of regret and anxiety, since those emotions are about what HAS happened or what MIGHT happen. It also allows us to take in life *as it happens* with a sense of equanimity and patience and inner balance. Happiness is a natural outgrowth of this mind-state. After all, happiness is not something that needs to be hunted down and obtained, rather its like the blossoming of a flower when the proper conditions (sunlight, moisture, oxygen) are present. Orienting your mind to the present moment is how you cultivate the proper conditions in which happiness can blossom.

Conclusion

By understanding and integrating the lessons taught by these four schools of philosophy (Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism), we can create space in our lives and in our minds for true contentedness. There is, to be sure, significant irony in the fact that, in our 21st century world, it is the philosophies of the ancients that continue to prove to be the most relevant with regards to how we should live.