Book Summary: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

My Personal Summary

Stoicism is a set of techniques and beliefs that can be used to live a good life.

The core principles of stoic philosophy include: practicing gratitude, controlling desires, experiencing joy in the present, and recognizing that status and material possessions rarely lead to happiness.

Book Notes

  • “Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear, and various other negative emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence.”
  • The Stoics had several techniques they used to ensure that they spent their lives in the most meaningful ways possible.
  • One of the most powerful techniques the Stoics used was negative visualization, which involved visualizing negative scenarios including the death of family members and close friends, the loss of material possessions, and the onset of serious health problems. By visualizing these truly awful situations, they found that it became much easier to be grateful for relationships, prosperity, and physical health in the present. 
  • “Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.”
  • “Someone with a coherent philosophy of life will know what in life is worth attaining, and because this person has spent time trying to attain the thing in life he believed to be worth attaining, he has probably attained it, to the extent that it was possible for him to do so. Consequently, when it comes time for him to die, he will not feel cheated. To the contrary, he will, in the words of Musonius, ‘be set free from the fear of death.’”
  • “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.”
  • “Throughout the millennia and across cultures, those who have thought carefully about desire have drawn the conclusion that spending our days working to get whatever it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or tranquility.”
  • Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions – fear, anxiety, worry, regret, anger, sadness, etc.
  • “It will help us to overcome our anger, says Seneca, if we remind ourselves that our behavior also angers other people: “We are bad men living among bad men, and only one thing can calm us—we must agree to go easy on one another.”
  • The Stoics believed that it was pointless to dwell on things outside of your control. Instead, it’s best to focus purely on things you actually can control and influence.
  • You can’t control other people’s behavior, random unexpected events, accidents, market behavior, etc. You can control your reaction to obstacles, your own behavior, and how you choose to spend your time.
  • “If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take.”
  • “Indeed, pursuing pleasure, Seneca warns, is like pursuing a wild beast: On being captured, it can turn on us and tear us to pieces. Or, changing the metaphor a bit, he tells us that intense pleasures, when captured by us, become our captors, meaning that the more pleasures a man captures, “the more masters will he have to serve.”
  • “Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.”
  • “By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.”
  • “If we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor.”
  • “A much better, albeit less obvious way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy our desires but by working to master them. In particular, we need to take steps to slow down the desire-formation process within us. Rather than working to fulfill whatever desires we find in our head, we need to work at preventing certain desires from forming and eliminating many of the desires that have formed. And rather than wanting new things, we need to work at wanting the things we already have.”
  • “We need to learn how to enjoy things without feeling entitled to them and without clinging to them.”
  • Attachment to any material thing is destined to lead to unhappiness because things break, wither away, and become unusable.
  • Epictetus echoes this advice: We should keep in mind that “all things everywhere are perishable.”
  • “People are unhappy, the Stoics argue, in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. Because of their confusion, they spend their days pursuing things that, rather than making them happy, make them anxious and miserable.”
  • “People who achieve luxurious lifestyles are rarely satisfied: Experiencing luxury only whets their appetite for even more luxury.”
  • “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.”
  • “Modern individuals rarely see the need to adopt a philosophy of life. They instead tend to spend their days working hard to be able to afford the latest consumer gadget, in the resolute belief that if only they buy enough stuff, they will have a life that is both meaningful and maximally fulfilling.”

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