It is almost 2023 and you might have some resolutions for the New Year! It may be that you are experiencing a stressful time at work or in your PhD and that you are thinking about how to go forward in the year to come. One approach to deal with everything that life throws at you is using some Stoicism. Dive in and find out if it is something for you!
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The aim: A happy life
What is Stoicism? Or rather, what is it not? Often we use the word ‘stoic’ to describe a person without emotions, someone indifferent, who feels neither joy nor sadness. That is not what Stoicism is about. The Stoics, such as Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, were practical philosophers that above all aimed for a fulfilling, happy life. A rewarding life filled with joy and contentment. A life in which challenges are dealt with effectively and in which you fight for the right things. Stoics believe that everyone can be happy, regardless of their circumstances. Emotions are not at all ignored, but at the same time are also not overwhelming beyond control. I think Stoicism can be helpful for anyone, and especially also for PhD students. In this article, I will describe briefly what I understand Stoicism to be about and I will give you some tips to find your joyful life. If you would like to read more about Stoicism, you can find some references at the end of this article.
Bad things happen in everyone’s life and these things can throw us off guard; a family member may pass away, a relationship might end, your paper might get rejected, or your 4-month experiment might fail. These are events we have to deal with in our day-to-day life. Stoicism teaches us how to handle them and how to continue with our lives without being completely overpowered and overthrown. Practically, the Stoic teachings are summarised in the happiness triangle, which has three principles that help you live a happy and easy flowing life.
Become your best self
The first principle is to live your best self. The Stoics say that we can only be happy when we live in line with what we think is morally and ethically correct. This makes sense, right? If we think it is bad to steal, but we keep stealing, we will not think well about ourselves and be unhappy about how we are doing. But to do what we think is right, requires us to know what we think is right. In other words, if you want to live in accordance with your morals and values, it is key to identify what you find important. An easy way to find out about this is to ask yourself questions. Questions such as: what personality traits do I want to have? How do I want to respond to difficult situations? What do I want to spend my time on? What do I want to support financially? How do I want to position myself with respect to the people around me? Etc. Once you have answered questions like these, you know what (according to you) the best version of yourself looks like. This is the version you’ll strive to become. It is hard work and you might never get there, but as long as you try your best and you know that is all you can do, you will feel content.*
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Redirect your focus
The second principle of the Stoic happiness triangle is to focus on what you control. There are two types of events that happen in our lives: ones that we can control and ones that we cannot control. The ones we can control, we act on according to our best efforts and in line with our morals and values (see the previous principle). The ones we cannot control are outside our reach. Stoicism teaches us not to worry about them, focus on them or feel bad about them. In fact, the only thing we can do about events that we cannot control is choose how to react to them. We cannot undo whatever bad thing happened, but we can (to a certain extent) choose how to respond, and do so in line with our values. Again, this also takes a lot of practice, but eventually will lead to us not being overwhelmed by things that happen, and take rash decisions that we might regret, but instead react in a manner that we can look back on with satisfaction. Did your paper get rejected? That will make you feel absolutely terrible, but try not to get stuck in that feeling but redirect your efforts to implementing reviewers comments and thinking about your next step (hard, I know).
The third and last principle is to take responsibility. Stoics believe you are responsible for your own happiness. That is difficult but it also connects well to the two previous principles. If you are happy because you know you are doing the best you can and at the same time don’t get carried away by bad things happening around you, you will automatically lead a good life. Look for happiness not in external things, such as winning the lottery or receiving compliments from others, but look within yourself.
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How to go from here?
To summarise, I think Stoicism can be an interesting way to approach life. It helps you focus on the things that are achievable and stay calm when bad things happen around you. It takes training to always live and react in the way that you would like to, but at least there are some guidelines to hold onto, especially in the four stressful years of a PhD. If you would like to read more on this topic, I recommend the Daily Stoic mailing list and The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber for some practical tips.
* Important in striving for your best self is to not overdo it. We all make mistakes and have limits. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are not living up to your own expectations and give yourself a well-deserved break. There is always tomorrow! :)
Hanneke Siebe is a PhD student from the University of Groningen at the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry.