Seneca: True Happiness

Before taking advice from anyone it’s good to consider if they themselves have mastered the subject.

Seneca lived from 4 BC to 65 AD so it’s hard to discern if he was “happy.” It’s hard enough to discern if our contemporaries or even ourselves are happy, but based on the fact that emperors and high society called upon him for life advice it would bear to reason that he did walk the talk by exhibiting some level of happiness.

Here’s what Seneca had to say about happiness…

True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so, wants nothing. — Seneca

Are you anxiously dependent upon the future?

Too often I find that I am. I desperately want to achieve my dreams! And yet I don’t want to find at the end of the next 5 or 10 or 30 years that not only had I failed to hit the mark, but that I wasted away my life in a constant state of ingratitude. I’m frustrated with how things are and where I am that it leads me to not fully appreciate all that I have.

I’m living in Vietnam now and at times it feels like I’m trying to run away from what is out of desperation for what could be. I want to make enough money online so I can travel the world and eventually move back to the states to start my political career, but that dream realized would require me to lose some of the people and things I have in my life now that I will sorely miss.

I’m such an ambitious person that if you told me that being ungrateful for what is would cause me to be more successful in the end then I would take that deal with the Devil. I would go to war with the present. I would drive myself into the ground physically and mentally so that I could ultimately prevail!

But the evidence is clear, “anxious dependence upon the future” makes one less productive.

For one, it’s the anthesis of our most productive state as humans, i.e. “flow state” or ‘being in the zone,” which pulls us more fully into the present to achieve a challenging immediate goal.

And two, research done at Oxford University's Saïd Business School found that workers are 13% more productive when they’re happy.

After all, aren’t you most productive when you’re fully immersed and happy with what you’re doing?

I think one of the problems of our modern times is people equate happiness with instant gratification. We try to distract ourselves from our dissatisfaction with life whereas Seneca is saying we shouldn’t be dissatisfied to begin with. We should be content with what we already have in this moment.

Make yourself content now. It’s in our power. Take a deep breath. Try to feel satisfied and content for the next 10 seconds. Enjoy the present…

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Good. If we can do it for 10 seconds then we can do it for a minute or 10 minutes or 10 hours or more! Let’s practice being satisfied with what is NOW more often so our neural pathways strengthen in this mode of thought instead of constantly telling ourselves, “I’m {unsatisfied}, i.e. bored, hungry, lonely, scared, stressed, etc.” and then looking to fill that void. Let’s seek to build our happiness muscle daily by constantly reminding ourselves to “enjoy the present.”

But then the question becomes… what to do next? Should we just be satisfied staring at the wall?

Maybe. If you want.

But Seneca doesn’t condemn working toward a future. He only condemns it in its extreme form of DESPERATION or CRAVING.

It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. — Seneca

He, in fact, recommends goal-setting otherwise we are destined to get lost at sea.

If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable. — Seneca

We just need to approach our goals with a certain degree of emotional detachment so that we can give ourselves emotional permission to be happy in the present regardless of what may come.

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality. — Seneca

Enjoy the moment while sailing toward a port. Where do you want to go? The Stoics implore us to use reason to guide our choices. And then go forth, my friend! But don’t desperately crave getting there nor fear failing to get there.

Be content for it does not depend on the wind.


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