I recently read the book “A Guide to the Good Life” by William B. Irvine.
Here are my
- main takeaways
- practical lessons
- top three quotes
As always, I try to keep this short rather than trying to recount the whole book.
My rating: ★★★★☆
A life filled with negative emotions will not be a good life.
— Stoics everywhere
According to the Stoics, a life filled with negative emotions—such as anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life. They defined specific actions and a mindset to deal with negative emotions and focus on a positive and realistic attitude.
Stoic tranquility is a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.
Trichotomy of Control
There are things over which we have
- complete control,
- things over which we have no control at all, and
- things over which we have some but not full control.
We should not waste time or energy on things over which we have no control. It is wiser and more helpful to spend some of our time on things over which we have complete control (e.g., our own goals and values) and spend most of our time dealing with things over which we have some but not total control.
Ask, ‘What is the worst thing that could happen?’ Not in a defeatist way, but to
- appreciate what you have (counteract Hedonic Adaptation), and
- prepare for bad situations (e.g., losing someone)
There is a difference between contemplating something terrible happening and worrying about it. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and we can conduct such activities without its affecting our emotions.
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.
Internalize Your Goals
Don’t aim to defeat whatever competition you are facing. Focus on
- doing your very best and
- getting better every time.
If you do that, you will be happier and naturally improve over time.
It seems that I have been practicing some parts of Stoicism without even knowing it. E.g., what they call “negative visualization”, I have always referred to as “bottom-line thinking” – and not in a financial way. The idea is the same: consider the worst possible outcome, and find ways to prevent it while preparing for it.
Likewise, I gave up comparing my achievements to others long ago. The important thing for me is whether I did my very best and if I did better than last time.
“A guide to the good life” attempts to apply Stoical ideals and ideas to modern life. The book’s first part deals with Stoicism’s origins, history, and most famous representatives, including Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. The author compares Stoicism to other life philosophies and some religious beliefs.
The second half of the book focuses on how to translate these ideas into the modern world, how Stoic principles can be applied, and – somewhat surprisingly – how hard it can be to tell people that one is a practicing Stoic.
The occasionally dry material is combined with the author’s personal experiences and struggles, which makes the book easy to read and sometimes even entertaining.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and – more importantly – I learned how to accelerate my journey toward a “Good Life”.
My Top 3 Quotes
The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.
To have whatsoever he wishes is in no man’s power, it is in every man’s power not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.
— Marcus Aurelius