The Antidote is the intelligent person’s guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.
Most popular approaches to happiness
Behind many of the most popular approaches to happiness is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. In the world of self-help, the most overt expression of this outlook is the technique known as ‘positive visualization‘: If you mentally picture things turning out well, the reasoning goes, they are far more likely to do so.
The fashionable New Age concept of the Law of Attraction takes things a step further, suggesting that visualisation may be the only thing you need in order to attain riches, great relationships, and good health.
Staring the worst-case scenarios in the face
The Stoics propose a more elegant, sustainable and calming way to deal with the possibility of things going wrong: rather than struggling to avoid all thought of these worst-case scenarios, they counsel actively dwelling on them, staring them in the face.
Seneca pushes this way of thinking to its logical conclusion. If visualising the worst can be a source of tranquility, what about deliberately trying to experience a taste of the worst? If what you fear the most is losing your material wealth, he advises, don’t try to persuade yourself that it could never happen. Instead, try acting as if you had already lost it. ‘Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress’, he suggests, ‘saying to yourself the while: Is this the condition that I feared?’ You may have not much fun. But the exercise will force a collision between your wildest anxieties about how bad such an eventuality might be, on the one hand, and on the other, the reality–which may be unpleasant, but also much less catastrophic. It will help you grasp that the worst-case scenario is something with which you would be able to cope.
International Stoic Forum
This all made intellectual sense to me, but I wanted to know if anyone really lived according to these principles today. I had heard rumours of a contemporary community of self-described Stoics, scattered around the globe, and my research brought me swiftly to something called the International Stoic Forum, an internet message-board with more than eight hundred members.
Keith traced his beginnings as a Stoic to a bizarre incident that had happened to him at around the age of twenty, while he was walking through a wooded park not far from his home outside London. He described it as a shift in perspective–the kind of jolting insight that often gets described as a ‘spiritual experience.’ ‘I was directly aware of how everything was connected together in space and time.’ After a while, the memory of those two minutes began to gnaw at him. He read the Tao Te Ching, looking for clues in Taoism. He explored Buddhism. But ultimately it was Stoicism that spoke to him.
Replacing irrational judgments with rational ones
As Seneca frequently observes, we habitually act as if our control over the world were much greater than it really is. Even such personal matters as our health, our finances, and our reputations are ultimately beyond our control; we can try to influence them, of course, but frequently things won’t go our way. And the behaviour of other people is even further beyond our control.
For the Stoics, our judgments about the world are all that we can control, but also all that we need to control in order to be happy; tranquility results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones. And dwelling on the worst-case scenario, the ‘premeditation of evils’, is often the best way to achieve this–even to the point, Seneca suggests, of deliberately experiencing those ‘evils’, so as to grasp that they might not be as bad as you’d irrationally feared.
Complement The Antidote with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy in which William B. 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.