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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Why Stoicism Is More Relevant Than You Might Think

“People are disturbed not by things, but their views of things."

Key points

  • Stoicism (upper-case S), the ancient philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epicetus, is very different from stoicism (lower-case s).
  • Modern researchers have studied the effects of practicing Stoicism in daily life.
  • Stoicism has been found to combine benefits of cognitive-behavioral therapy and positive psychology.

Which of these statements is true?

  1. Stoicism is useful only in times of great difficulty.
  2. Zest is the quality found to be most associated with practicing Stoicism.
  3. Stoics repress emotions.
  4. After just a week of practicing Stoicism, many people report a significant increase in their well-being.

Answer: The two even-numbered statements are true.

The notions that Stoicism is only for times of great difficulty, or that Stoics repress emotions, are two of the most common myths about Stoicism, as properly understood. Many people confuse Stoicism, the philosophy (upper-case S) with stoicism (lower-case s), or having a “stiff upper lip."

In this article, I will describe the 3 pillars of real Stoicism, as opposed to fake or lower-case s stoicism. I hope that you will agree that Stoicism is well worth consideration, alongside other practices such as mindfulness and exercise, as part of a good mental health regime, to help us be happier, and to become better versions of ourselves.

Modern Stoicism Research

I’m a psychotherapist and the Director of Research of Modern Stoicism, a non-profit organization, one of whose goals is to test whether Stoicism works. Each year since 2012, we’ve run International Stoic Week, an opportunity for people to try out Stoicism and see if it works for them. Participants are asked to complete a set of well-being questionnaires at the start and end of the week, to determine its impact.

I almost fell off my chair when I analyzed the first week's results. Most participants were extremely positive in their qualitative feedback. More strikingly, the well-being surveys indicated significant improvement, whether we looked at well-being in terms of life satisfaction, flourishing, an increase in positive emotions, or a decrease in negative emotions.

These results have been reproduced consistently in each subsequent Stoic week. In 2021, over 1,200 people completed the week's activity, and they recorded, on average, a 13 percent increase in positive emotions as well as a 21 percent reduction in negative emotions. Stoicism can certainly help in times of crisis, but not just in those times.

The Zestful Stoic

One of the standout findings was from 2017, when we discovered that the character quality most associated with Stoicism turns out to be zest, which means energy, enthusiasm, and looking forward to life’s challenges. So much for the Stoic being dour and impassive.

Another study, from 2020, proved what we had long suspected: Stoicism (upper-case) had nothing whatsoever to do with stoicism (lower-case). When we asked people to fill in two questionnaires—one that measured Stoicism, the philosophy, and another that measured stoicism, the stiff upper lip, we found that there was a small negative correlation between the two: They really are two totally different things.

The Three Pillars of Modern Stoicism

If Stoicism is not about “sucking it up” or displaying a stiff upper lip, then what is it? Ancient Stoicism was a wide-ranging philosophy synthesizing many ideas about the nature of the universe, ethics, and psychology. There is, truth be told, some debate amongst modern Stoics about which ideas from ancient Stoicism are of the most value today.

Personally, I believe there are three pillars of a wise, modern Stoicism:

  1. The dichotomy of control. In my clinical work, this Stoic idea stands out as being of the most obvious value. According to the Stoics, we need to let go of the idea that we have direct, complete control over many of the things that concern us, such as what other people think about us, what happened in the past, and even what might happen in the future. All we have direct control over, according to the Stoics, are how we think about things and what we voluntarily do. Life will go much more smoothly if we focus only on these. For example, suppose you are worried that you have upset a colleague. Instead of spending hours overthinking the situation, reflect on whether there is something helpful you can do. A good Stoic would probably pick up the phone and speak to their colleague. They would certainly not get caught up in fruitless hours of worry or self-recrimination.
  2. Developing a good character. The Stoics, along with many other ancient philosophers, argued that there was no tragic conflict between being happy and being ethical. Developing a good character could help you achieve both. Four central, cardinal virtues were said to be the key to a good character: wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. Stoics recommend both that we cultivate these virtues and that we prioritize keeping our good character above everything else. You should always do the right thing rather than take what may be the easier, but ultimately less good, option.
  3. Stoic Mindfulness and therapy. The Roman Stoic Epictetus famously wrote that “People are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things" (Enchiridion, 5). Events in themselves don’t have the power to distress us—otherwise, how could two people respond so differently to the same event? Suppose that your train has been delayed. Imagine one version of you who catastrophizes about how bad this is and then, in their head, goes over all the other times that trains have been delayed. How would you feel after five minutes of doing that? Another, more Stoic, version might accept that this kind of thing happens sometimes and do something sensible about it, such as letting other people know you are delayed. How would you feel then? Which version of you would end up handling the situation better? Importantly, notice that you aren’t repressing your negative emotions; you are seeing the situation differently and so not getting so angry in the first place.

If these three pillars sound somewhat familiar, that’s because a lot of Stoic wisdom has filtered down into popular culture. “Control the controllables," a phrase beloved by sports coaches and elite athletes, captures something of the dichotomy of control. So too does the Serenity Prayer recited at the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”).

Contemporary psychologists such as Martin Seligman, a creator of positive psychology, have studied the benefits of practising the virtues empirically, and have found them to be manifold. The originators of modern cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), including Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, found inspiration in the passage from Epictetus mentioned above as they created CBT.

The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Each of the three pillars of Stoicism is helpful on its own. Put them together in a coherent life philosophy, and the benefits can be even greater.

What would your life be like if you became adept at distinguishing between what you can and can’t control, and focused only on the former? What if you worked diligently at enhancing your inner qualities and so became wiser, more courageous, more self-controlled, and more just? Finally, what would be the benefits for you, and others, if you were able, in real-time to avoid destructive emotions and behaviour by becoming more mindful of unhelpful judgments?

Put the three pillars together consistently and you can become a calmer, more purposeful, more ethical, and happier version of yourself.

From our research in Stoic Weeks, we have seen the benefits of putting Stoicism into practice for just one week. I began to ask myself how much more useful they would be if practiced for a whole year, which informed my book, 365 Ways to Be More Stoic. I hope it’s a journey you might join me on.

Facebook image: Ground Picture/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock


For research on Stoicism, see https://modernstoicism/research.

Lebon, T. (2022) 365 Ways to be More Stoic London: John Murray Press.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. The science of strengths.

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