How to Live?

That’s the question my writing students and I are focusing on this semester. I can’t think of a better age to craft a philosophy of life. Most of them are on their own for the first time in their lives. Having to make many, many more decisions by themselves and find their way.

William Irvine, philosophy professor and modern day Stoic, argues you’re likely to waste your life away without a well thought through philosophy of life. Here’s his argument.

You have three choices in how to live. One is “unenlightened hedonism” in which you thoughtlessly seek short-term gratification. Think Faber College, 1962.

A second is “enlightened hedonism” in which you seek to maximize pleasure in the course of your lifetime. People practicing this philosophy of life will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. Then they’ll devise strategies for maximizing pleasure.

Regarding hedonism, Irvine writes, “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability.” He adds, “There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.”

But I digress. The third and final choice in how to live is to carefully think through what you most want out of life and then organize your life accordingly. Not the goals you form as you live day-to-day, but one “grand goal in living”. Of the many goals in life you might pursue, which one do you believe to be most valuable?

Most people have trouble naming their grand goal in living because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about such things. Instead, it provides an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. To their credit, some people swim against the stream of distractions by journaling, taking digital sabbaticals, enrolling in my writing seminar, and going on silent retreats.

If determining a grand goal of living isn’t challenging enough already, it’s only half the battle. The other half is developing effective strategies for attaining it. These strategies will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life you take to be of most value.

This is where Irvine says Christian pastors and the ancient Stoics differ. Most Christian pastors, Irvine argues, focus on what people must do to have a good afterlife. Pastors, he says, have far less to say about what people must do to have a good life. That’s why, he notes, it’s tough to distinguish among the religious and non-religious.

For his own philosophy of life, Irvine chose to update Roman Stoicism for modern times. Stoics claim that many of the things we desire—most notably fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they developed strategies for achieving tranquility and inner joy by eliminating negative emotions like anger, grief, anxiety, fear, and envy.

Eight years ago, when I was on sabbatical, I took time to write a guiding paragraph that I can’t find anymore in my computer files. I can remember most of it, but it’s okay I misplaced it, because it’s time to update it. And then reference it way more regularly.

If your curious about my philosophy of life, just eavesdrop on me as I live my day-to-day life. Because actions, of course, speak louder than words.

The Satisfaction Treadmill

I’m a third of the way into William B. Irvine’s excellent book, “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Irvine “plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.”

The first “Stoic psychological technique” is negative visualization or regularly contemplating the bad things that can happen to us. There are several reasons to practice negative visualization, but the main one is “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”  Psychologists refer to this as hedonic adaptation. We experience hedonic adaptation when we make consumer purchases, in our careers, and in our relationships. Irvine writes, “As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill.

He adds: One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it. . . . The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.

Irvine goes on to contrast two fathers–one who periodically reflects on his child’s mortality and the second who refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. The second father assumes his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father, he concludes, will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second.

So far, I’m down with modern Stoicism. Even though I’m probably more contemplative than the average bear, the notion of a satisfaction treadmill resonants with me. I take things for granted that I know I shouldn’t, especially my health; my family’s health; my material well-being; my work; and a promising future. I experience wake-up calls—the literal phone call of my father’s sudden death tops that list, the death of a neighbor’s child from leukemia, stories of cyclists getting hit and killed, and more subtle nudges like illness, and job loss and home foreclosure stories.

My take-away from the chapter on negative visualization is to be much more intentional about reflecting on the bad things that can, and in many cases ultimately will, happen to me. Stop depending on being surprised by late night emergency phone calls, and instead, make time every day or week to reflect on losing the things I most value—my family’s health, my marriage, my health, our friends, our home.

And, of course, my faithful Pressing Pause readers.