A Guide to the Good Life

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius


Lessons learnt: Negative visualisation can be as effective as positive visualisation. Worry only about things you can control (and not worry ever again). Plan for the future, live like it is your last day on earth.


What do you want out of life? This is the first sentence in A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine and it is your first introduction to a philosophy of life. So what is that philosophy of life thing I am talking about? Stoicism is the study of having both a 1) meaningful and 2) fulfilling life. Stoicism is the vehicle of choice for the current book and has also become my own philosophy of life. The book discusses the philosophy, the techniques you can explore and advice how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Stoicism is not the pursuit of happiness, stoicism is the pursuit of tranquillity. In this review, I will explain why, and give a preview of how.


Tranquillity instead of happiness is the ultimate goal. This may sound strange at first sight, but becomes evident when we dig deeper into how we are trying to achieve both in our lives. Many of us are chasing happiness by becoming richer, having more things, and becoming successful in our careers. Sometimes we are faced with challenges and at other times we succeed. So if we succeed, are we then actually happier? The answer is no. When we have more stuff we become used to having it. When we have a big house we have to worry about filling it with ‘stuff’. If we have many possessions we start to worry about theft and losing your job that is paying for it al. If we pursue happiness through becoming bigger and better, we only set ourselves up to be part of a rat-race we cannot win.


Of course, this picture of the pursuit of happiness is a bit grim and could benefit from many nuances, but let me give you the alternative. The pursuit of tranquillity means that you want to banish negative emotions (and keep the positive ones).  One of the main lessons from Stoicism is to be happy with what you have. You can find delight in your own resources and desire no joys greater than your inner joys. In order to achieve this, we have to change our thinking and persuade ourselves to want the things we already have. If we can achieve this (see next paragraph) we can become tranquil, have no negative emotions and experience positive emotions.


“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.” – Randy Pausch


There are multiple techniques you can explore to become more tranquil, for instance, 1) negative visualisation, 2) the dichotomy of control, 3) fatalism, 4) self-denial, and 5) meditation. Let me explain you the first one; negative visualisation. Epictetus (one of the Greek Stoics) said “all things everywhere are perishable”, all good things will eventually come to an end. When we never think about the chance that bad things can happen, we may live in bliss until something bad eventually happens. If you practice negative visualisation, you think about the bad things that might happen, and by this lessen the impact it will have on you. The Stoics provide three reasons for practising negative visualisation:

  1. It will lessen the chance of that bad thing happening (i.e. thinking about how someone can break into your house – and improving your locks)
  2. It will lessen the impact it will have on us – by already having played out the scenario in your head
  3. It will prevent hedonic adaptation – by thinking about how you can lose something you will keep enjoying it

The Stoics also have many bits of advice for daily life, ranging from social relationships (relate to others, stay true to yourself), anger (put things in perspective), to insults (laugh it off) and old age (your mind does not decay). The advice that is most disputed – and the one I want to talk about – is about luxurious living. Where some Stoics thought that money would automatically corrupt you, others lived lavish lives (i.e. Marcus Aurelius in his palace). What they do agree on is that not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself. One thing that you should always keep in mind – when presented with riches – is to keep enjoying the small things. Negative visualisation, for instance, could help a person to do this.


In conclusion, Stoicism can be defined as a lifestyle for people with a small philosophical tendency, who love to be happy and believe that tranquillity is the way there. William B. Irvine does a great job of explaining what Stoicism is and how you can apply it in your own life. Not only does he give a comprehensive overview of how it started in Greek and Roman age, but also relates it back to the present 21st century. If you are looking for a philosophy of life, this is the book for you!



The Book:

A Guide to the Good Life – William B Irvine – ISBN-10: 0195374614 – ISBN-13: 978-0195374612



More on A Guide to the Good Life / Stoicism

http://philosophy-of-cbt.com/2013/05/17/review-of-irvines-a-guide-to-the-good-life-the-ancient-art-of-stoic-joy-2009/ – Another Review

http://www.slideshare.net/jerwschm/a-guide-to-the-good-life-the-ancient-art-of-stoic-joy-by-william-irvine – Slideshare on A Guide to the Good Life

http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2010/07/29/a-guide-to-the-good-life-listen/ – William B. Irvine on CBC