Stoicism and Wellbeing
Stoicism’s popularity has ebbed and flowed through time. It was a dominant philosophy in ancient Rome but fell in prominence while Christianity took over the west. Perhaps the recent growth in popularity has fully blossomed, and now it's time to wilt.
Preprints from a recent study entitle "Stoicism and Wellbeing" were released this month. Is this research the beginning of the end for Stoicism?
Modern proponents of Stoicism have claimed that Stoicism is “an operating system for living in high-stress environments” and that it is a path for “cultivating a good life” - this research potentially calls these claims into question. If Stoicism is so great, why does it negatively predict wellbeing?
In fact, this outcome wasn’t expected by the authors of "Stoicism and Wellbeing", Johannes Alfons Karl and Ronald Fischer. They hypothesized that a Stoic would have less hedonic wellbeing, but would possess more eudaimonic wellbeing. Hedonic wellbeing is all about feeling good in the moment. It’s related to subjective happiness, pleasure, and experience. Eudaimonic wellbeing emphasizes meaning and purpose in life. It’s less about feeling good, and more about being good. Since eudaimonic wellbeing is closer to the Stoic picture of value, the authors predicted that:
"Stoicism is positively related to eudaimonic orientation and negatively to hedonic orientation to happiness."
Karl and Fischer put this hypothesis to the test by administering surveys psychologists use to measure both kinds of wellbeing and a questionnaire for measuring Stoicism called the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale. It turns out that people who agree more with the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale tend to fare poorly on both kinds of surveys. That is, they have less hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing, disconfirming the original hypothesis.
So what should we take away from this? Are the benefits of Stoicism disconfirmed?
I don’t think so. There's no doubt that this research is informative and worth doing. But the main upshot is to highlight the importance of what we should consider the core parts of the philosophy.
First, one crucial aspect to note: this study doesn't show that Pathak-Wieten beliefs play a causal role. It could be the case that unhappy people are drawn to Stoic beliefs to weather the storm. People who attend therapy are likely unhappier than those who don't - but that is because they need therapy!
Nonetheless, the evidence is suggestive. Not complaining, bottling up emotions, and not sticking up for yourself may predict ill-being - at the very least, they're correlated. More work needs to be done to assess the impact of Pathak-Wieten beliefs on wellbeing and the influence of contemporary Stoic beliefs. Doing the latter well requires an accurate picture of Stoicism.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale reflects this. Instead of measuring Stoicism properly, the scale measures a caricatured version. In the study confirming the statistical validity of their approach, Pathak and Wieten surveyed undergraduates and university employees with a battery of questions about emotion, propriety, and death. They found that these four beliefs are correlated to endorsements of stoicism:
- Taciturnity is the belief that one should conceal one's problems and emotions from others.
- Endurance is the belief that one should endure physical suffering without complaining.
- Serenity is the belief that one should refrain from experiencing strong emotions.
- Death indifference is the belief that one should not fear or avoid death.
These beliefs are much closer to passivity and apathy than Stoicism. Ancient practitioners would push back against these definitions and modern practitioners have. In fact, the tenets are much closer to what opponents of Stoicism have accused Stoics of throughout the centuries. The psychologist Tim Lebon states:
The "fake news" claims that Stoicism is a dour, grim philosophy advocating the repression of emotions — the "stiff upper lip."
In reality, Stoics embrace wisdom, creativity, perspective, and joy. The philosophy is fundamentally about prioritizing the virtues and your character, what you can control. It's less about bottling up and repressing emotions, and more about learning how to live well, whatever feelings arise. Marcus Aurelius captures the essence of the philosophy:
Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance - now, at this very moment - of all external events. That's all you need.
Epictetus describes the three pillars of the philosophy as judgment, desire, and action. Accurate judgment, desire for what is under your control, and virtuous action, that's all that you need. Unfortunately, none of these core aspects appear in the Pathak-Wieten Scale.
How do these misunderstandings emerge?
Philosophy is written by the victors. Encounters with Stoicism are mediated by the influence of Christianity, which in turn was heavily influenced by opponent philosophical schools. The word “stoic” now describes someone who endures hardship without complaining. Another Greek school, The hedonist Epicureans, met the same fate: a “hedonist” now means someone who single-mindedly pursues pleasure. Epicureanism is more sophisticated than this - as the fact that the founder encouraged a diet of bread and water reveals.
Another aspect of this, one that is more important today, is that we’re prone to exaggerate the differences between philosophies. The Stoic emphasis on virtue was shared by the major philosophies in antiquity. Their view of emotion, the idea that our emotional state depends on our judgments was unique. This view is encapsulated by Marcus Aurelius as:
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it.
Seneca’s line expresses the same sentiment:
We suffer more in imagination than reality.
A cursory reading of these lines could give someone the impression that Stoics believe that only we are responsible for our predicament. Hence, if we’re suffering we should do so quietly, without complaint. This reading is encouraged by lines like this from Marcus Aurelius:
Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable . . . then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.
But a more accurate reading is that there is a time to act and complain and there are times to quietly persist. Likewise, there are times to be vulnerable, and times to ask for help:
Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up?
So, there’s no universal prescription to be taciturn, to always endure, or to avoid strong feelings in Stoicism. This is not surprising, given that the ultimate goal for the Stoic is to be virtuous, to live according to nature, and exemplify justice, self-control, courage, and wisdom.
Whatever the explanation of misunderstandings, they are likely here to return again. I think the Stoic response to this is to correct them when they arise and return our focus to cultivating virtues in our own lives.
Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.
To learn more about Stoicism, I recommend the work of modern Stoics:
In addition to the classic works:
- Epictetus's The Handbook
- Marcus Aurelius's The Meditations
- Seneca's Letters from a Stoic
Thanks to Robert Terrin, Theresa O'Hare, and Étienne Fortier-Dubois for reading earlier versions of this essay.