Epictetus’ 3 secrets to a happy life

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Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher born c. 50 AD at Phrygia, which is now part of Asian Turkey. As with the other Stoics, Epictetus believed that philosophy is a practical discipline designed to help us live life as best as possible. His teachings tell us a lot about how we should approach events and the actions we should take in response to an unpredictable world. What was relevant 2000 years ago is equally important now, and here are three particularly salient teachings that might help you achieve a happier life today.

1. He is a wise man [or woman] who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

We have all experienced wanting something. Whether that’s a new phone capable of taking slightly more aesthetic photos of pets, a slightly faster car, or perhaps a new job with more money that will finally, without question, bring you everlasting happiness.

Until you get what you want and it turns out it doesn’t do what you thought it would. In fact, you end up just as happy as you were before.

The truth is, this cycle of craving after something, obtaining it, then realising it doesn’t make us happy, only to move on to something else, is never-ending. We will always desire to have more and always be left dissatisfied with what we have.

What Epictetus is saying is that our focus shouldn’t be on making ourselves feel bad because we don’t have pet photos with a cool blurry background and studio lighting. Because it perpetuates the feeling of desire, chasing, and disappointment.

Instead, if we decide to be happy with precisely what we already have, we can break free of the cycle and, with that, free ourselves from a lot of suffering. Despite thousands of years between Epictetus and us, it’s a timeless lesson that we should practise gratitude and be happy now rather than tomorrow.

2. It is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.

If we assume that we have all the answers, we close ourselves off. It’s tough to keep learning and growing if we don’t approach things with an open mind and a sense of curiosity.

We can fool ourselves into thinking we know everything despite having very little true knowledge. By accepting that we don’t know it all — which comes from keeping a growth mindset and open mind — we can gradually build our true knowledge whilst staying humble and accepting there’s always more out there to discover.

3. If you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

There are things over which we can take ownership and things that are beyond our reach. Things we can control, and things we can’t.

We should try to guide what we can control such that we benefit ourselves and those around us. For example, we can often control our behaviour and how we interact with others. What we can’t control is how other people react. So don’t concern yourself with how others behave towards you and don’t try to change it. Only focus on how you respond to others.

By seeking out opportunities to decrease suffering and increase well-being, whilst accepting the immutability of some aspects of the world, we can become more helpful and thus happier people.

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