If I told you that the secret to improving your physical and mental health and well-being can be found in an ancient Hellenistic philosophy dating all the way back to the third century B.C., you’d probably say, “Are you high?”
On the contrary, I’ve stopped using mood-altering substances like Xanax as a direct result of this philosophy I’m referring to. I’m talking about Stoicism, a remarkably old practice that’s currently enjoying a modern revival thanks to high-profile devotees ranging from self-help gurus like Tim Ferriss to celebrities like Anna Kendrick and Michele Tafoya.
What Is Stoicism?
For most people, Stoicism is greatly misunderstood. The word itself often conjures up images of an emotionally constipated individual who represses her feelings, is indifferent to pain, suffering and even joy, and is, well, stoic in the face of everything life throws at her.
Modern practitioners of the ancient philosophy, however, know just how silly such characterizations are.
At its core, Stoicism is a simple and logical idea. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, here’s a Netflix-style plot summary of a system originally founded by Zeno of Citium: Most things in this life are out of our control. What we can control, however, is how we react to all the out-of-control things that happen to us during our time on this planet. Therefore, how we react to all the things we can’t control, not the things themselves, ultimately determines how happy and fulfilling our lives will be.
Of course, even those wise, ancient Greeks and Romans recognized just how difficult this simple idea was in practice. That’s why stoics from Seneca to Epictetus put together a small library of practical tips and techniques to help.
And those very same techniques are precisely what modern Stoics swear by.
Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario
One of the most popular Stoic strategies is something called “premeditatio malorum” or, if you’re not one of the few people left who speak fluent Latin, “the pre-meditation of evils.” Basically, with this practice, you visualize all the worst possible things that could happen to you in any give situation.
For example, say you’re a runner. Running is your passion; you live to run. You have a 13.1 or 26.2 bumper sticker on the back of your Subaru, you have a winged foot tattooed on the middle of your thigh, and you devour Runner’s World with a religious zeal bordering on fanaticism.
Try a little pre-meditation of evils right before an evening run. What’s the worst thing that could happen to you? As you’re running on a public road, a car fails to see you in time and drives right into you at a high rate of speed. You survive the collision but lose feeling from the waist down and are told you’ll probably never walk again—and running, well, that’s out of the question. It would be horrible and tragic, but you’d find a way to survive and adapt.
Why on earth would someone willingly subject themselves to something like that?
For one thing, research shows that if you practice these negative visualizations regularly and with enough fervor, you’ll learn to appreciate what you have more. After all, if you can truly envision your life without working legs, just think how relieved and blessed you’ll feel when the visualization is over, and you’re back to having the legs of a runner again. This practice will also prepare you mentally for all the negative circumstances you’ll face at some point down the road.
Focus on What You Can Control
Another simple practice that can improve your physical and mental health revolves around focusing on the Stoic principle of control, or lack thereof.
Let’s use health as an example.
When it comes to our health, we spend so much time and energy worrying about factors that are beyond our control—why doesn’t my body look like [insert name of co-worker, celebrity or ex’s new foot model partner here] or what happens if I get [insert name of incredibly rare condition or disease I just found out about here]?
Remember, stoicism is all about accepting that many things are beyond our control and working to make the most of the few things that are. If you can learn to focus your efforts on making the body you were given look, feel and operate as efficiently as possible, without getting bogged down in the many, many aspects of the human condition that are beyond your control, well, then, you’ll be taking a Stoic approach to your health.
And chances are, you’ll be happier because you did.