Review: A Guide to the Good Life

Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There will be—or already has been!—a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch.

In my review of Feeling Good, a self-help book, I noted the lack of practical philosophies in the modern world. Far from an original insight, I now see that this idea is a relatively common criticism of contemporary education and modern philosophy. The other day, for example, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel, the School of Life, an educational project that tries to teach life lessons rather than academic knowledge. This book, an attempt to revive ancient Stoicism, is part of the same loose movement.

William B. Irvine set himself the task of making Stoicism viable and palatable in today’s world. To put it bluntly, this meant rummaging through the Stoic classics to make a self-help book. Whereas the classic Stoic authors—Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus—dispensed practical advice without much order, Irvine tries to create a systematic practice that any reader can follow.

Irvine’s system consists of several mental exercises, or tricks, that the novice Stoic can use to gain tranquility. The most important of these is negative visualization: take a moment to imagine how things could go wrong, how you could lose what you have—your health, job, or spouse—and how everything you take for granted might never have existed at all. This will counteract what Irvine calls “hedonistic adaptation,” which is when we get used to the good things in our lives and lose the ability to enjoy them. Hedonistic adaptation is the real enemy of tranquility, because it forever enchains us to desire—as soon as one desire is satisfied, we have another one, and the process repeats without us getting any happier.

Another Stoic exercise is the internalization of goals. First, determine the extent to which you can control the outcome of any situation; then, make sure you only worry about that part which you can control, and don’t trouble yourself about the rest. If you are going on a first date, for example, don’t make it your goal to impress the person—since you can’t directly control whether someone likes you or not—but make it your goal to try your best. In the language of self-help, that is, focus on the process and not the product, the effort and not the outcome.

The last major technique can be better described as an attitude rather than an exercise. This is to take a fatalistic attitude towards the past. Since what happened in the past is beyond your power to alter, don’t trouble yourself with “if-onlys” or fill up your mind with regrets. Instead, try to cultivate amor fati, love of fate; learn to appreciate the good in what has happened, rather than think of all the ways it could have been better.

The general attitude that a Stoic wishes to cultivate is a mixture of enjoyment and detachment: the ability to enjoy all of the little pleasures of daily life without becoming so attached to anything that you are incapacitated without it. It is rather like the attitude of a spectator at a play: heartily enjoying the show, while keeping in mind that all the action is staged and not worth getting upset over. With this mentality you could, in theory, be satisfied with anything, and maintain your tranquility under any circumstances.

These, in nutshell form, are the book’s major pieces of advice. The rest of the book is divided into a brief historical sketch of Stoicism, a series of short chapters about applying Stoicism to specific challenges, and a broader cultural criticism from a Stoic perspective. The latter of these was the most interesting—Irvine isn’t a fan of political correctness or of grief counseling. He also has a lot of advice about responding to insults, some of which I thought was obvious, some of which I thought was wrong, and most of which made me wonder: Why is he talking so much about insults? Is poor Irvine getting insulted all the time?

My main criticism of this book is its style. Perhaps because Irvine was trying to appeal to a popular market, the prose is painfully simple, and filled with unnecessary clarifications and wearying redundancies. “Repetitive” is a charitable description. Added to that, I often got the feeling that he was purposefully avoiding delving deeply into any topic, for fear of losing any novice readers, which irked me.

The important question is: Do the techniques work? I have been having some fun imagining my life going horribly wrong: my metro being crushed underground in an earthquake, my computer bursting into flames and blinding me—getting struck by lighting on my walk to work, all of my friends leaving me en masse, and so on. Somehow, this exercise does tend to put me in a cheerful mood. I also agree with Irvine about desire—why hedonism doesn’t produce contentment, why connoisseurship is counterproductive, why it’s wise to accustom oneself to some disappointment and discomfort.

At the very least, this book is an interesting experiment: trying to revive a dead philosophy of life for the twenty-first century. Now, to put Stoicism into practice, I’m going to imagine this review not getting any likes.

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Quotes and Commentary #30: Burns

Quotes and Commentary #30: Burns

It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that it can be extremely difficult to do something when you sense you are being forced into it.

—David D. Burns, Feeling Good

Today I taught a class on modal verbs. This is my favorite subject to teach in English, since modal verbs are the most philosophical area of the language. What is the difference between will and would? Between can and could? Between may and might?

Every time I teach this lesson, I pause on the word “should.” I have the following problem. Very often we use the word “should” for recommendations, such as: “You should avoid eating at McDonalds.” In this situation, there is no moral element; we are telling our friend to avoid McDonalds for his own benefit, not for any ethical reason.

In other situations, “should” has an unambiguously moral connotation, as in: “You should always leave a tip in the United States.” Here, we are being exhorted to do something, not for any personal benefit, but because it is the “right” thing to do.

In many cases, however, it is ambiguous whether the word does or doesn’t carry a moral imperative. This most often occurs when we’re talking to ourselves: “I should really jog more,” or “I should quit smoking,” or “I shouldn’t eat so many donuts.” The situation here is strange, for there is no moral rule involved—is it immoral to eat donuts?—and yet we feel we feel guilty when, as so often happens, we don’t follow our own advice.

David D. Burns, in his popular self-help book on depression, cautions against this last usage of the word should. We are always telling ourselves we “should” be doing this, and “shouldn’t” be doing that. But this leads us into a depressive spiral:

A deadly enemy of motivation is a sense of coercion. You feel under intense pressure to perform—generated from within and without. This happens when you try to motivate yourself with moralistic “shoulds” and “oughts.” You tell yourself, “I should do this” and “I have to do that.” Then you feel obliged, burdened, tense, resentful, and guilty.

The process goes like this. You tell yourself you “should” quit smoking. Then, you create resentment in yourself, since you feel like you’re being forced to do something. This resentment and guilt leads to a spiteful rejection of the advice; smoking becomes, not only a pleasure, but a guilty and rebellious pleasure. The habit thus continues, while your self-esteem is eroded by your inability to do the “right” thing.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing happens to me all the time. It was thus a revelation when Burns, in his book, pointed out this common tendency and also explained why it is illogical.

The error originates from a confusion of the first and the second usage of the word “should.” That is, when we tell ourselves we “should” quit smoking, we are really saying that it’s a good idea and we would benefit in the long run. We are appealing to our self-interest and not our moral sense. But we feel guilty and resentful nonetheless. Why? Because we are importing the moral imperative of the second usage into our understanding of the meaning. We are, in other words, judging something to be an ethical duty which is only a potentially beneficial activity.

This is very easy to do, I believe, because we don’t tend to think very clearly about obligations. I have heard philosophers say that the metaphysical distinction between the sphere of moral and amoral reality is the distinction between “ought” and “is.” Moral statements, in other words, do not report what the facts are, but how they should be. Many books have been written about where this “ought” comes from and what it says about the universe.

For my part, I do not find anything special or mysterious about “ought” statements. Indeed, I’d argue that, at bottom, the first and second of usage of “should” rest on the same basis; that is, recommendations and obligations both rest on self-interest.

That the power of a recommendation rests on self-interest is not controversial. The motivation to follow a recommendation is that you will personally benefit in some way. Usually recommendations consist of suggested ways to satisfy certain long-standing desires. We are recommended to apply to a certain job or to eat at a certain restaurant, and these are strategies for satisfying our insatiable desires for money and food.

The second assertion—that obligations rest on self-interest—is sure to raise an eyebrow. Well, let me give you an example. Imagine that you promised to pick your friend up at the airport, but you then your crush invited you to hang out at that same time. You are very tempted to blow off your friend and make him pay for a taxi, but then your mom tells you: “You should always keep your promises.”

Now, at first glance this is obviously not appealing to self-interest. You are being told to do something that will be dreadful instead of something fun. So why “should” you do it? Simply because it’s the “right” thing to do? But why is it “right”?

Now you must ask yourself: Do you want to live in a world where promises exist, or a world where they don’t? Think carefully about this. What if you could never trust somebody’s word, and you could not depend on anybody to follow a verbal agreement? I don’t know about you, but such a world seems unlivably dreadful to me.

The world seems to have come to the same conclusion, since promises exist. And the reason we have agreed to have the institution of the promise is that, although occasionally painful in the short-term, it is beneficial in the long-term to live in a society where you can trust somebody’s word. Thus people make a compromise. Accept some incidental annoyances as the price for the boon of general honesty. You gain more than you lose with this bargain.

This is, I think, the nature of all moral rules: they are rules of behavior that, while occasionally painful in the short-term, benefit every individual member in the long-term by enabling a society wherein people can expect their neighbors to be respectful, peaceful, and honest. But these rules only work if everybody abides by them. For a moral rule to be beneficial to its followers, it must not allow others to take advantage of them, but must lead to a long-term gain. If enough people chose not to follow a rule, and instead take advantage of its followers, then it will collapse. All moral action is motivated by long-term self-interest, and morality collapses when it is no longer in the long-term self-interest of its members to comply.

To return to the above example, you must realize that, by breaking your promise, you are making an exception of yourself. You want to live in a world where people keep their promises, but you don’t want to keep yours. Indeed, in a small way you are undermining the institution of the promise, and taking advantage of your friend’s trust. You are choosing to indulge in a short-term pleasure rather than consider the long-term consequences of this action.

To conclude, I think the moral force of the advice “You should always keep your promises” is related directly to self-interest. In almost every situation, the benefits of living in a society where you can trust the word of other people outweigh many times over the benefits of breaking a single promise.

Now, of course, in practice the fabric of society doesn’t collapse when a few promises are broken. Moral systems are human things, and thus imperfect. Moral laws can survive with a surprising amount of noncompliance and hypocrisy. But you also have to consider the potential consequences of acquiring a reputation for being untrustworthy. Besides that, by doing your friend a favor, you earn yourself social goodwill and might be able to call upon him in the future.

This brings me back to my earlier point. A moral obligation is, at base, simply the realization that you have more to gain by following a moral rule than by breaking it. A moral obligation is thus like a piece of especially good advice; and at bottom, the first and second usage of the word “should” are identical.

I have found this way of thinking personally beneficial, since it allows me to avoid the feelings of guilt, bitterness, and resentment that I get when I tell myself “I should do such and such.” Now, I remind myself of how I will personally benefit from the action in the future. I remind myself that the things I “should” do are just ways of satisfying certain long-standing, insatiable desires of mine. And nobody feels guilty when they don’t efficiently satisfy a desire.

Review: Feeling Good Together

Review: Feeling Good Together

Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships WorkFeeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The path to intimacy is nearly always painful.


For a while now I have believed that the Life of Reading, if it isn’t to be merely a diversion or a way of stroking one’s own ego, must be a life of self-transformation. To be well-read does not only mean to be familiar with certain names and ideas, plots and quotes; more importantly, it entails the development of real changes in perspective, personality, and behavior. Thus when I recently ran into a problem in my relationship, I chose to see it as an opportunity to improve myself through reading. And since I’ve already been helped by David Burns’s Feeling Good, I turned once more to his work.

Burns begins with a simple but, for me, surprising point. Psychologists and the general public have long assumed that people experience relationship difficulties because they lack the proper interpersonal skills. They crave intimacy, but they don’t know how to achieve it. The obvious solution would be to train couples to express their feelings—to learn how to empathize and to be assertive. The problem is, despite many different techniques for doing this, couples counseling has a pretty disappointing success rate. Why is this?

The reason, says Burns, is because very often we don’t really want intimacy. There are lots of benefits of having an antagonistic relationship: you get to feel like you’re in the right, you feel powerful, you take without giving, you aren’t vulnerable, you get to complain to your friends about how mistreated you are—and this list only scratches the surface. This is the ugly side of human nature, the side of ourselves we most often don’t like to acknowledge. But coming to terms with this part of ourselves, and deciding whether we prefer the benefits of an intimate or an antagonistic relationship, is a crucial step: you’ve got to decide if you want intimacy, and if you’re willing to look at a part of yourself usually swept under the rug.

Next, Burns introduces his criteria for successful communication: empathize with your partner’s thoughts and feelings, clearly express your own feelings, and always treat your partner with respect. This sounds simple and even obvious, but when I analyzed a common interaction I had with my partner, I realized how badly I was communicating. Indeed, the more I analyzed my own interactions, the more I realized that I had been effectively shutting down communication. And when I imagined what it would be like to be on the receiving end of my words, I suddenly understood—with a pang of remorse—that it would have felt really awful.

After coming to terms with the flaws in one’s own behavior, Burns next teaches you skills for communicating more effectively. Conceptually, these are simple enough: understand your partner’s perspective, acknowledge their feelings, share your own feelings respectfully, give them praise, and encourage them to share more. However, doing this in the heat of battle, when both you and your partner are upset, is challenging and takes a lot of practice. The urge to blame your partner for your problems can be overwhelming; and treating someone else respectfully while you’re feeling angry, hurt, or rejected can be an enormous challenge. Thus Burns has you practice with a variety of imaginary scenarios and also provides some exercises to do with a friend. The practice is the really valuable part. Everyone says they want to empathize better, but most people don’t know how and don’t take the time to learn.

That’s the book in a nutshell. Personally, I found it to be clear, persuasive, and helpful; and although I still need practice, I have found the strategies highly effective. Even if you do all the exercises, it’s a pretty quick read, yet he packs quite a lot into the book.

Of course, this book isn’t perfect. One superficial thing that bothered me was Burns’s calling his strategies “Secrets,” which unfortunately makes him sound like a cheap con artist to me. Also unfortunate was his choice to use imaginary couples for his examples, thus giving most his anecdotes a rather artificial and flavorless quality. The men and women don’t seem like real people with real problems, but soulless illustrations. Another shortcoming, it seems to me, was that Burns didn’t discuss forgiveness. Relationships require constant forgiveness, and they reach crises when one of the partners can’t decide whether to forgive or not. I’ve known many people in relationships who were wondering, after years of accumulated pain, whether it was worth forgiving the partner or if it was better to let the relationship end. Usually I don’t know what advice to give, and I’d be curious to hear Burns on the topic.

But I can’t dwell on these faults, because once again I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Burns, for I discovered something about myself as I read. While analyzing my own ineffective behavior, I began to wonder why I had acted in such a nasty way to a loved one. Gradually, I was forced to face the fact that I got a real pleasure from acting disrespectfully. Being condescending was a way of propping up my ego and maintaining a heightened self-image.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how many of my actions, both inside and outside my relationship, were done to gratify my ego and create a certain persona. Meanwhile, this prevented me from effectively sharing my emotions or feeling close to others. I was trapped by a need to feel superior, which required constant snobbishness..

It feels odd to write these things about myself, for truly it is ignoble to be so egotistic. But I had to look deeply at this part of myself, and understand that my condescension was fueled by a deep fear of inadequacy, before I could change my behavior. This meant giving up this self-image, letting my ego die—and it’s been hard. Feeling superior to others was something I savored, and now I’m trying to give it up. But it’s worth it. The compensation is being open to a new world of joys.

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