#045 Stoicism in everyday life with William Irvine

#045 Stoicism in everyday life with William Irvine

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Episode Transcript

William Irvine: If you're not controlling yourself, who is? You've got one life to live and you really want to spend that life with someone or something else in control? Self-control is basically keeping your rational component in the driver's seat. Yeah, you got emotions, put 'em in the back seat. They can make suggestions, but they can't get their hands on the steering wheel. And you're the one who decides where you're headed in life.


Sharad Lal: Hi everyone. Welcome to How to Live, a podcast that explores ways to live a good life. I'm your host, Sharad Lal. This is episode 45. Today we have the immense pleasure of hosting a true luminary who's played a pivotal role in the revival of stoicism over the past decade. William Irvine. William is a world renowned philosopher, author, and professor who's been credited to be a key figure in Popularizing Stoicism through his lectures, writings, and interviews, his groundbreaking book, A Guide To a Good Life, the Ancient Art Stoic Joy has been published in 2008, and has been instrumental introducing stoicism to countless readers.

William has authored an impressive nine other books, each offering profound insights into life and philosophy. He's been featured in esteemed publications, The New York Times, Guardian, Huffington Post. You may recognize William from some of the thought-provoking conversations on top podcasts like the Tim Ferris Show, Knowledge Project, and The School of Greatness. In our conversation, we explore a wide range of topics, delving into emotions, relationships, expectation setting, resilience, desire, control, and happiness among others. Through his unique blend of academy\ic rigour and practical wisdom William offers a fresh perspective on how ancient philosophy can be applied to our lives today. It's a tremendous honour to have William Irvine join us on our show. 

But before getting to the podcast, thank you very much for your support. We now listen to over 110 countries, 1200 cities and are in the top 5% in the world.

If you haven't already, please do consider subscribing. Thank you in advance.

Hi, Bill. Good morning. How are you doing and where do we find you this morning?

William Irvine: Hello to you and thanks for inviting me to be a guest. You find me in Ohio in the United States, and it is indeed morning where I am.

Sharad Lal: It's so good to have you on the show. Bill. I first got into stoicism when I read the book that you wrote, A Guide to a Good Life,

Stoicism and Epicureanism

Sharad Lal: In that book, if I remember right, you explore the ideas of even Epicureanism and stoicism.

What are the similarities between these two and how do you look at these two schools of philosophy?

William Irvine: First of all, if you look up those words in the dictionary, the definition will be wrong, and will be mistaken.

Because stoics were not what we normally think of as stoical. An epicurean is the guy who's sitting there in a party getting drunk and looking stoic, standing out half naked in the freezing rain, right? First stoic realisation is there's two kinds of emotions. There's negative emotions and positive emotions. And the second thing I discovered was that positive emotions are good. We want those emotions like delight, feelings of joy, like a sensation of awe, being hopeful.

Those are wonderful emotions and we want to have as many of them as we can. Now there are also negative emotions like anger, envy, regret, like grief. They're negative. How come? They're bad, and they can distract us from what should be our course through life. 

And then the next misconception is that the stoics came up with strategies for suppressing them or for avoiding them all together.

But the stoics didn't seek to suppress them. What the stoics did was to prevent them from happening in the first place. Or if they did happen, to mitigate the damage they did them. And this was the most brilliant of all to harness them. To harness those negative emotions and make them work on our behalf.

You can imagine in metaphorical terms, suppose you live at the edge of a forest and every day there's these elephants coming through and trampling your fields and knocking down your house and everything else. Then you have somebody in the village who says, we could actually train these things, use them on our behalf, and that would be the best thing we could do.

So the stoics weren't stoical in a lowercase sense of the word. In fact, they had a reputation for being cheerful individuals, which is absolutely. Strange. Now the epicureans, same thing. The epicureans were not party people of their time.

They had a different approach. So they were aiming at the same target, and had a different approach to get there. What would currently be regarded as an epicurean? That's a person who just has this exquisite taste in wine and in food and it's gotta be the best or they're gonna be dissatisfied but Epicureus himself would've said that's craziness.

That's a recipe for a life of dissatisfaction. And another interesting mistake is to think that these doctrines were pure. And I certainly know fellow stoics. Who, whenever I fiddle with stoicism and try to change little components of it, say, no, you've gotta stay true to the original.

The original was this hybrid doctrine.

You can make your own by taking bits and pieces from the other and come out with something that is just better than any of them are. So this is mixed martial arts. a mixing philosophy, mixing components together to come up with something that would do the job that a philosophy should do.

Stoicism and Sense of Control

Sharad Lal: Now, as you spoke about this, let's dig into stoicism and one of the core principles of stoicism you mentioned in your book is this sense of control.

Having control in whatever you do, and if you don't have controls in the externals, you'll control the internals. So I'd love for you to talk about it and describe this concept of control and how it can come into play in everyday life.

William Irvine: Okay. It isn't that you have control over everything. In fact, there's a few things you have control over. And even in those cases, we can ask, do you really have control? But one big insight, this was Epic Titus, he said, there are things you can control and there are things you can't control.

And if you concern yourself with the things you can't control, you're a fool. Because you can't control them, so why should you be thinking about them? Now, I tweaked that a little bit and I said, there's actually three groups of things. There are things you have complete control over.

There are things you have no control over. Now there's this sweet spot, this middle ground that's things you have some but not complete control over things you can affect. So suppose you're a serious tennis player. And suppose you're up for this big match with somebody there's things in your tennis that you can control, things you can't control, and the middle spot. You can't control how hard your opponent is training.

So you shouldn't be worried. You shouldn't spend time thinking about that. So what should you think about? You should think about your own game. You can control how much you train. You can control how, what kind of practices you do, what kind of drills you do.

You control the strategy you have coming into the match. So you should focus your time and energy on those things. You should have a very clear strategy coming in. If you did that, if you Took full advantage of all of the things you have control over and you lost the game, then there is nothing to be ashamed of.

And you should walk away proud because you did your best. What more can you do than your best? Now if you didn't do your best, then, hey it's a chance to learn. Are you gonna do something different next time?

And the worst case is maybe tennis just isn't your game. Maybe you should move on to some different activity. But it's true in life, in your relationships with other people. People are an interesting aspect of life. My comment is you can't live without 'em, and they're hard to live with.

So you're stuck in that middle ground. you realise, okay, so if I wanna deal with other people, They're gonna have different values than I do.

They're gonna have different perspectives. They're gonna have a different way of proceeding. They're gonna be, have different skill levels at various things. And so what do I do? I do the best that I can, I just try to make the most of that as possible.

Sharad Lal: As you were talking, I remembered something that Marcus earlier said that whenever you go out in the world, he would tell himself that you're gonna meet stupid people who are gonna manipulate you, people who are gonna be nasty. and that's the expectation he would set because of which then he wouldn't be surprised if people were quirky or different from him. And if they weren't, it'd be a pleasant surprise.

William Irvine: Yeah, I have a similar thing when I venture forth into the world to get something done, I go out assuming that there's going to be incompetence and indifference and laziness, cuz guess what? Often those are satisfied, those expectations. But then there will be many occasions in which they aren't and it just makes your day, whoa, I did something simple and this person understood what I wanted and they did it effectively what I did wanted and isn't that wonderful?

Whereas if they don't live up to expectations, it's not a shock. It's like yeah. That's what I expected. You go out in a rainstorm, you're gonna get wet. If you have a low level of expectations for the world, it's easy for those to be met. And if you have a high level of expectations, good luck with that.

Sharad Lal: And that's what I find a little interesting about stoicism philosophy, which is maybe a little counterintuitive to positive thinking, where you expect the worst so that happiness will come, things will be better. And they also had this thing, which you've written a lot about, negative visualisation.

You've visualised the worst. So when you're prepared for it, you can see it. And when you come back to life, you realise it's not that bad and you're happy and grateful.

William Irvine: Yeah. whatever we've got, we take for granted. And so that means we're gonna work very hard to get something.

And once we get it, we're gonna take it for granted. And so it's what psychologists call a hedonic treadmill. We always think there's just one ingredient missing from our life. And that if we get that we'll live happily ever after. And then we do get it. And yeah, for 15 minutes or maybe a day or two, it's wow, isn't this wonderful?

And then the old voices start coming back. Yeah, this is good, but if only, right? And we do that not just with wealth, we do it with spouses, with relationships. What happens is you are going through life and you convince yourself that there's one thing that I want, that if only I got it, I would be happy. And so there's this gap between what you have and what you want. Stoics said there's a second way to make that gap disappear. And that is simply to learn to want the things you already have. The technique of negative visualisation is a way to do it. So what you do is you take the things that you currently have and you imagine yourself being without them. And you don't dwell on that because that would be a miserable existence, but you allow yourself to have a flickering thought about that.

It takes a few seconds. If there's somebody who's special in your life, if a spouse or partner, imagine that something happens. You get the phone call. Imagine what your life would be like. Imagine your electricity going out. You take it for granted and it goes out. Can you see? That's a really good thing and it didn't have to be there. Can you see in colour? Another curious thing. You're right. Didn't have to be there. We take so much for granted. We are wired by evolution to do that because our evolutionary ancestors who are easily satisfied, perished, right?

They either didn't get their next meal or became the meal of something that got them. That wiring is still there. But with a little bit of cleverness, we can overcome that and we can realise we have it well off.

Sharad Lal: What a wonderful concept. I'd like to dig into the emotions and stoicism that you touched upon earlier. So maybe we take the practical example of anger as an emotion. So how does stoicism practically help us with difficult emotions? So let's say we've got a lot of anger.

How can it help us with an emotion like that?

William Irvine: So first thing is recognize it. Learn to look so you realise you're getting a certain thought in your head. And then do a little bit of analysis. Anger. You know it, you can feel it. And here's the problem with anger is that once it emerges, it's very difficult to stuff it back into the bottle. Not only that, but it has an unlimited shelf life. For instance I've known various elderly people who had dementia who couldn't remember what day it was, might not even remember my name, but could remember something that made them angry half a century before.

So the trick with anger, Is I call it, like the five second rule. So when something bad happens to you you have this quick opportunity in which to douse the flame. Because if you let the flame burst forward, If you let it grow, then it will simmer within you for a long time.

And so as soon as you realise, a lot of the anger is the result of our interactions with other people. You can be angry, I guess at a dog biting you, but it's not gonna be the same kind of thing. If a person says something mean to you, you can find yourself angry and you can find yourself thinking about it. You can find it keeping you up at night hours later. So the very first thing on one of these insults or these sorts of things is to turn it into a joke, treat it as a joke. Oh, you said that about me.

If that's the worst, you can insult me. You don't know me well enough to be insulting me. You try to turn it upside down, and then your angry emotion that wants to come out says, oh it's a joke. I guess I don't need to get angry.

Sharad Lal: I love that. And I know anger is such a difficult one. Seneca described it as a temporary insanity.

William Irvine: Seneca wrote a whole essay on anger. I went to a doctor's appointment and the appointment was an hour late, and I knew that I should be angry, and because I was reading Seneca's essay on anger, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. It was the strangest thing, no, wouldn't I just be hurting myself if I got angry? And I talked myself out of it. I didn't know before then that was possible, and I now know it's possible.

Similarities Between Buddhism and Stoicism

Sharad Lal: I find that very interesting. We're talking about emotions, and In Buddhism, you have a feeling of understanding that these emotions arise.

It's impermanent, it'll pass. Let me see it pass. How have you seen similarities and differences between these two? Because I know you've been influenced by Buddhism as well.

William Irvine: You can be both Buddhist and stoic. You can be both a Christian and stoic .Buddhism. We can talk about whether it's actually a religion. It's categorised as such. And certain kinds of Buddhism have certain religious elements to them. It's two different ways to approach the same problem.

And the stoics would say the problem is these negative emotions and a lot of 'em have to do, are triggered by thoughts that drift into your mind. Your mind has a mind of its own. You can't control what thoughts come through and you wanna say, no, I'm in control. Okay? Tell yourself that at 2:00 AM when you're lying there awake, thinking about something stupid, and you try to distract yourself and you succeed.

And then the stupid thing you're thinking about comes back and deprives you of a night of sleep. By doing meditation for instance, you will gain a great insight. Which I would regard as a psychological exercise I don't regard as a religious exercise, but you gain insight into how little control you have over your own thoughts.

Stoics didn't think of meditation in that form, but the two are utterly compatible

Stoicism and Relationships

Sharad Lal: Let's talk about relationships. How does stoicism guide us in relationships?

William Irvine: One is stoicism can lead us to value our relationships more than we do, cuz relationships, it's easy to take them for granted. So it's easy to take. Your parents for granted. It's easy to take a spouse or partner for granted. It's easy to take your friends for granted.

Stoics would say, all of these things, you should periodically do this little negative visualisation exercise. You will invest in the relationship. That doesn't guarantee that relationship will continue cuz there's all sorts of things that can happen. But you will have done your best. There's this interesting thought experiment If somebody said, okay. So suppose I give you this, the following choice. First choice is that no one will ever be in love with you. Second choice is that you will never experience love toward another person. I think just based on my life experience, I would choose the first.

I think I gain more from loving other people than they gain from me loving them. Now, they may gain all sorts of things, all sorts of material things, but the ability to love someone else is this, it's a superpower cuz it takes you outside yourself. It puts your life into context and you realise I'm not the only person alive is the first thing.

there are other people. And by doing things for them I can get a good feeling. It's almost selfish, but I understand that.

Sharad Lal: That's a beautiful thing you said about love. Have the stoics written about love?

William Irvine: Not a lot that I can say, but it is, it would be put in among the positive emotions. But of course, it's one that once you have gotten it, it can raise the possibility of all sorts of negative emotions. So you could form relationships. They would agree that we are social animals.

They also said we had a social duty. We have a duty to those around us to try to improve their lives because unfortunately they don't know about stoicism. So they're suffering in all sorts of ways that they don't need to.

Stoicism and Self-discipline

Sharad Lal: Now, I know Stoicism has written a lot about self-discipline, willpower and you've talked about how do you see it through their

William Irvine: Yes. Self-discipline is the key virtue, if you're not controlling yourself, who you've got one life to live and you really want to spend that life with someone or something else in control self-control is basically keeping your rational component in the driver's seat. Yeah, you got emotions, put 'em in the back seat. They can make suggestions, but they can't get their hands on the steering wheel. And you're the one who decides where you're headed in life.

And that can mean sacrifices.

But what we often call sacrifices are really selfish. So for instance starting a retirement account, right for your old age it's a sacrifice. Look at all the things I can't buy now. Now, no, it's a gift to the future. You, the future you will have all of this stuff that otherwise wouldn't have been possible.

So that whole notion of just because something feels like it'd be really great to do, now you wanna think a little bit more deeply and sure, there's lots of fun things to do, but with any luck, you will wake up tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. And that'll be you.

And so selfishly, hey, look out for you. Do things that, for you, will give you the life you think is worth living and will, and it'll be a long and productive and healthy and happy life.

Thoughts on Selfishness

Sharad Lal: I was always curious, how do you think about selfishness because it gets a bad rap.

What are your thoughts on selfishness?

William Irvine: I must be selfish in the sense that I have property that I could be giving away. At the same time, I do give it away. I give away time. I give away my resources. There's, it's like anything. There's a balance there. We have among the stoics, a wide range of opinions on just this.

This notion of what's yours and what belongs to other people. Marcus Aurelius lived in a palace. He was the emperor. Seneca was the first century ad equivalent of a billionaire. He apparently was a very good businessman. He was also the leading playwright of his time.

I think any stoic would say, If you live in a palace you live in a palace and enjoy living in a palace. If you're making crazy sacrifices to live in the palace, you're a fool. And oh, by the way, if you do find yourself living in the palace, prepare yourself to be living outside the palace.

Equivalent thing, moving it from if you give a stoic a glass of fine wine, what will he do? He will drink it. And while he's drinking it, he will say, this could have been water instead of wine. And would I have been satisfied? This might be the last time I drink anything at all.

So there's gonna be a deeper sort of thing going on. But the cynics were the ones that went around hugging the cold statues, just saying, unless I'm experiencing pain, I'm not doing it right. Stoic certainly wouldn't have said that, but would've said, you should be spending time preparing yourself for worse circumstances than you now have. So one of the things I describe in the book is a stoic challenge. I describe stoic training, where you go out of your way to do things that are gonna make you uncomfortable as a kind of preparation for what can happen in life.

You have a biological immune system, so by exposing yourself to germs, you build up your body's ability to fight off germs. If you never experience germs, you are in big trouble because then the smallest little exposure can be fatal to you. You also have a psychological immune system.

So if all you know is a smooth and easy life without challenges, then the smallest thing is gonna make you absolutely miserable. Whereas if you're used to physical discomfort or mental discomfort in various ways, then you're gonna somewhat immunise yourself to it. as far as mental discomfort, so there might be things that make you mentally uncomfortable, like public speaking would be one example.

Hey, that's a project for you. Work on that. And you go, what? You. But it's gonna require some level of discomfort to do that. So you're gonna have to first make a point of small little audience, you friendly audience, and it's, you're gonna be really scared, but there will come a time, do enough of it where you can walk in front of a hundred plus people without being nervous, without your heart racing or anything, you just realise, oh, I'm up here talking to these people again. It'll cost you to get there, but it's worth doing it to overcome these fears. You go out into life competent and confident, and it's a wonderful way to approach life.

How Do The Stoics Build Resistance?

Sharad Lal: That's such a wonderful example. And even the metaphor of the germs, it just makes it so clear. I know Seneca used to do the voluntary discomfort where every year he would go away and live in poverty without anything to fend for himself, and that's how he would build it. Is that how the stoics thought about building resilience as well?

William Irvine: Yes, Seneca would practise poverty. So he would live as if he were poor. Just as a reminder of this is something that could happen. And just as a preparation. So if it did happen, it won't be an utter shock to me cuz I will go into it knowing I've done it before now, before I did it. And on a voluntary basis.

And this time it's an involuntary basis, by the way. But he would if somebody said, we're gonna banish you, he's gonna say, oh yeah, I've done that.

And yeah I can do that. You go into it with confidence, a degree of confidence that otherwise wouldn't be there. It comes at a price, and the price is voluntary, discomfort, different ways it can take, you can practise being poor, you can do that. You can go camping, right? Where suddenly you're getting attacked by mosquitoes, which wouldn't happen if you had just stayed home.

And in my case I like the athletic training, the aspect because not only is there the physical discomfort, but there's the mental discomfort. I know as you're starting a race, you have these little fears, these little doubts and everything else. And you get to practise dealing with them.

And then in the middle of the race, this whole new crew of voices comes out. Bill, you could just stop rowing. I'm a rower. You could quit. You could do that. And if you're not gonna do that, you could slow down. And then you get good at putting them in their place. You say, get back into wherever it is, you hang out.

Thoughts About Desires

Sharad Lal: Wow, that's so powerful. We touched on desire earlier as well where you talked about wine and enjoying the good things in life, but also being okay with letting it go. And I know you wrote a book about desire as well, so what do desires tell us and how should we think about desires?

William Irvine: Desires sometimes are chosen. Much of the time they're not chosen. You are wired and wired, this is not copper wiring or anything like that, but biological wiring neurons hormones and so on. You are wired with an incentive system. You are born with an incentive system.

Some people, some things feel good, some things feel bad, and you have that incentive system because your ancestors, your evolutionary ancestors, had to have it in order to survive. So if you were hoed back on, the Savannas of Africa and you thought sex felt terrible, then your descendants aren't around.

If you thought sex felt really good, you'd say, okay, I'm gonna have as much of this as I can. And you'd have lots of descendants. The wiring is still there. It's in you, and it gives rise too. To desires, sexual desires. It's an interesting thing.

but, self-control is the whole business. And part of it is saying, I'm wired to want certain things and then there's these accidents like alcohol. Were we wired? No, we were wired for something else. But it just turns out that alcohol gets us the reward that there would be other ways of getting it.

So self-control is the kind of thing where you say, okay here's the deal. I'm wired in this way, and if I just it was great wiring, a hundred thousand years ago on the Savannas of Africa, but I'm not there anymore. What I need to do is take that into account, use some self-discipline, and decide what kind of life I wanna live, and then live that life.

What Is A Good Life?

Sharad Lal: Wonderful. And I know stoicism is a lot about living well. How would you define living a good life?

William Irvine: Okay. So in a crudely psychological way to put it, stoic said you should try to live, you should try to have as many positive emotions as you can and as few negative emotions. Negative emotions are the problem. You should be in this state of mind that isn't upset where it's equanimity would be one word to put.

A tranquillity is another way you can put it. It's a little bit, carries a little bit more baggage, but just this idea of a mind that's free of negative thoughts or not. Can never be entirely free, but you minimise it. And so you're going out in the world and you're saying I'm satisfied with my circumstances.

I find the world full of small delights that most people don't even recognize. That's gonna be pretty close to as good as it gets.

And so then they devise psychological strategies to get you to that state of mind.

Sharad Lal: That's great. Now, bottom line, as we close out, if there are people who know a little bit about stoicism or who are trying to embrace it, who are not fully there, what is one thing that they could actually incorporate into their lives to see the benefits of stoicism?

William Irvine: negative visualisation would be the easy one. Take a moment. To think about losing something that you currently have and take for granted your spouse, your job, your pet, your children, your health, your colour, vision and then you will notice immediately after a different approach.

And that is you'll start saying, this actually is really incredible and yet I've taken it for granted, but it will wear off. Okay? The neat thing is to do it again. Do it again. Just be consciously aware. And if you do it with respect to a spouse, the next time you encounter that person, you're gonna say, yeah, you're gonna say thank you for being part of my existence.

Sharad Lal: Yes, it's a great tool we can use again and again. helps me build gratitude for what I have and not take things

William Irvine: yes, absolutely.

How Would Bill Define a Good Life?

Sharad Lal: Bill, the last question before we go. A personal question. By the end of your life, how would you know you've lived a good life?

William Irvine: I already know I'm living a good life. I've lived a life where I've had a lot of good emotions.

I've actually been strangely free from catastrophic events. I haven't been in war. I haven't been attacked physically. Now I, it's maybe bad luck to be saying that. It's been a good life. I think I've done some good for other people. I'm hoping that the stuff I do, for stoicism, has done that.

I regard myself in descending order of importance as a husband, a father, and a teacher. And I've enjoyed all of those things. Stoics we contemplate death. It's a very important realisation that your days are numbered. And that can sound like a terribly negative thing, but it can also make your life fulfilling. If I were to go now I would say, it'd be nice to stick around for tomorrow, but my work here is is not quite done, but in a state where I, feel good about it,

Sharad Lal: Thank you for that.

William Irvine: Thank you for inviting me.


Sharad Lal: Thank you, Bill, for such an inspiring and useful conversation. For more on William Irvine and his books, I will drop a link in the show notes. Here's an action step all of us could consider. Let's try negative visualisation. If you're free now, you can try it with me. Otherwise, do it whenever you have two minutes.

Close your eyes with me. Let's relax with a few exhales.

Think of something very valuable to you. It could be someone or something, your spouse, parent, maybe your house, your job.

imagine that it's been taken away from you. It's not there anymore.

Feel the sadness, anger, anxiety. Sit with it.

Take a few more seconds.

Now you can slowly open your eyes, look around

That person or that thing is still here. Maybe give your spouse a hug or feel grateful for your job. Hope that helped build gratitude. You can try this as many times as you want. Best of luck. That's it for today's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. We will be back two weeks from now with another one. Till next time, have a wonderful day ahead.