Stoicism definition: how to live by the Stoic philosophy
If you ever wanted to be the type of person who remained cool, calm, and collected in almost any situation — then the Stoic philosophy is for you.
Understanding and adopting the core tenets of the Stoic philosophy can have a powerful and positive effect on your mindset — especially when navigating difficult situations.
In fact I'm so convinced of the effectiveness of Stoic thinking that I've integrated many of their principles into the development of my business and personal growth resources.
Despite Stoicism being an ancient Greek philosophy it is making a strong comeback in modern times and is a school of thought many are using to be more happy with life.
If you've never heard of Stoicism before or want to firm up your knowledge about their principles, this guide will make it easy to interpret and embrace their way of thinking and living.
According to the Oxford Dictionary the definition of Stoicism as used in every day conversation is:
The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint
But what exactly was this definition derived from? It is useful to get the backstory on this word, because how we tend to use it colloquially is a bit different from its original meaning.
Stoicism is the name of an ancient Greek philosophy that was founded during what is called the Hellenistic period.
This is a period of mediterranean history that spans from 323 BCE (after the death of Alexander the Great) to 31 BCE which marked the decline of Greece from its peak and the emergence of the Roman Empire as a superpower.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the term stoic was derived from the word porch (stoa poikilê) as members if this school of thought would congregate on the Agora at Athens (central marketplace) where lectures were held.
At the heart of the Stoic way of living is the ongoing process of: developing self-control, exercising clear judgment, and overcoming destructive emotions.
The following 5 principles provide a roadmap to following the Stoic philosophy:
Manage your expectations and judgments
Be realistic about what you have the power to change
Understand the meaning of equanimity— and practice it
Call out your emotions for exactly what they are
Live in harmony with nature — particularly human nature
1. Stoic philosophy: Manage your expectations and judgments
Do you tend to have very high expectations or make unrealistic assumptions? Do you exaggerate your judgement about people or situations?
When there's a big gap between what you want or expect and reality, it causes anxiety, frustration, and discord. You can have dreams, hopes, and beliefs, but better that they are sensible.
Another way to manage expectations is to occasionally reflect on worst case scenarios using an exercise called negative visualization.
When you are in a tricky situation think about both the best and worst outcomes, and you'll start conditioning yourself to handle the ups and downs in life.
2. Stoic philosophy: Be realistic about what you have the power to change
If you exert a lot of energy trying to change people or circumstances that are out of your control, this tenet is for you.
There's a lot about life you have no ability to influence. However, there's much you can change (namely your own thoughts, habits and actions).
Western society — the U.S. in particular — has an obsession with winning and succeeding. In reality, there are things that you won't be able to do, even if you "put your mind to it".
Learn how to distinguish what's in your power and what's not. A good rule of thumb is to start with self.
3. Stoic philosophy: Practice equanimity in negative situations
Equanimity means calm and composure and and speaks to a powerful concept within Stoicism called Apatheia which is central to the philosophy.
Humans have a built in fight or flight mechanism that triggers anytime there's a perceived threat. It works by riling up your emotions so you react instantly and intensely.
However, as we evolved to have more control over environment (and thus more safety and security) this mechanism has remained in place, causing us to overreact to situations that aren't life or death.
With practice you can learn how to master this mechanism instead of allowing it to command you.
4. Stoic philosophy: Call out your emotions for exactly what they are
How often do you feel unsettled or disturbed about something but can't clearly articulate why? Probably more than you realize.
In the midst of adverse situations your thoughts are typically muddled by overpowering emotions, so it's easy to misinterpret what you are really feeling.
By calming down enough to name the emotion and it's underlying cause, you'll be better able to address the situation in an appropriate way.
One unfounded myth of Stoicism is that practitioners seek to suppress emotions. But what they really do is recognize emotions and then put them in check so they don't cause damage.
5. Stoic philosophy: Live in harmony with nature — particularly human nature
Ancient Stoicism was both a metaphysical and spiritual philosophy as they were immensely dedicated to understanding the nature of the universe and learning how to work with, not against, that knowledge.
Most importantly was acknowledging that humans are rational beings and should hone their thinking skills.
In general, if you seek wisdom you'll develop deeper insights about yourself and the world around you. You'll sharpen your intuition and replace impulse behavior with purpose, intention, and logic.
For more information on Stoicism, read the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine and watch the video The Philosophy of Stoicism by TED-Ed. Or access our full reading list in the free Growth Mindset library.