A Guide to The Good Life by William B. Irvine: Notes17 min read

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A Guide To The Good Life is a roadmap for Stoicism, showing you how you can cultivate this ancient philosophy in your own life, why it’s useful and what Stoics are really about.

This is how I’ve been trying to live my life for the past two years, and I’ve never been happier. To the contrary, I just seem to get happier over time, because the more I learn, implement and embrace Stoic qualities in my life, the less adversity affects me.

Since adopting a more Stoic mindset, I feel much less distracted, I can always make room for the truly important things in life, I almost never get angry, especially not at things outside of my control, and I’m incredibly grateful for every single day I get to spend here on this beautiful earth.

Ironically, though it’s not aimed towards getting rich at all, I do think a Stoic mindset is a cause of worldly success in many cases, such as Ryan Holiday, Gary Vaynerchuk or Tim Ferriss, all of whom have admittedly adopted this mentality.

Here are 3 lessons from William B. Irvine’s A Guide To The Good Life to help you embrace a Stoic mindset yourself and become more content with your life:

The two primary values of Stoicism are virtue and tranquility.

Learn to want what you already have.

Immediately accept things that are outside of your controland focus on what you can do.

Ready to step up and start practicing Stoicism? Let’s go, I’m super excited to share this with you!

Lesson 1: Virtue and tranquility are the highest values of a Stoic.

There are two central themes in Stoicism, values which all Stoics strive to integrate into their lives as much as possible. Those two goals are:



Chances are you don’t really know what these mean, or if you do, you think of the wrong thing.

For example, virtue might be defined as “having high moral standards” and therefore make you think only monks, priests and Mother Theresa are good examples of virtuous people. But virtue in a Stoic sense is more about living a life that’s aligned with your own set of values.

Synonyms of the word are goodness, honesty, righteousness, dignity, integrity, trustworthiness, decency and merit, for example, which all rely on you doing what you say and saying what you do.

In the same vein tranquility is not about napping a lot or being lazy. Tranquility is the art of ridding yourself of negative emotions. A tranquil person shows great self-control and won’t let her emotions dominate her intellect, for example by staying calm in a traffic jam, because she knows getting angry at traffic is useless.

Lesson 2: Learn to want what you already have to be more grateful by using negative visualization.

One of the worst, yet most common vicious cycle we get stuck in, especially in the Western world, is the hedonic treadmill. Scientifically known as hedonic adaptation, this is a system in which we chase material possessions, only to attain them, quickly get used to and bored by them, to reset and chase the next item.

A tranquil and virtuous person knows she must break out of this cycle and Stoics have one major way of doing so: learning to want the things we already have and appreciating the things in our life. The more you want what you have, as compared to having what you want, the happier you’ll be.

A very simple exercise you can use to achieve this is negative visualization: Imagine the things and people you take for granted and interact with the most would suddenly vanish and be gone forever. This’ll make you feel bad for a second, because the thought of loss is painful, but at the same time it’ll give you an instant surge of appreciation and show you how lucky you are to still have them in your life.

I found a quote a few years ago that perfectly sums this up:

Imagine you only woke up this morning with only the things you said ‘thank you’ for yesterday – would you have everything you need?

Lesson 3: Be okay with the things that are outside of your control and internalize your goals for the things that aren’t.

The biggest step towards becoming more tranquil you can take is changing your attitude towards the things you can’t control. This takes two steps:

Realizing when something is outside of your control right when it happens.

Not distracting yourself with worrying about it for even a second.

This takes a lot of practice, but once you have it down, it changes everything. It not only makes you happier, it also stops you from wasting time with waiting. For example, when I send an email pitch to someone, I forget it the second I send it, because from that moment on, it’s out of my control. Likewise I never worry about the weather or politics.

And for those things that are somewhat in your control, but not entirely, you can internalize the goal. For example, of course you want to get good grades or win when you enter a competition, but other people have a say in this too. So instead of focusing on getting an A or winning, focus on delivering your best performance.

This will not only actually make you perform better, but you also won’t feel crushed if you don’t achieve your goal – because it wasn’t entirely up to you to reach it.

My personal take-aways

I can’t say enough good things about Stoicism. It’s definitely part of the 20% of the changes I’ve made in my life that account for 80% of my increase in happiness. A Guide To The Good Life is a great introductory book to the topic and covers everything you need to know in layman’s terms. 100% recommended! Good follow-up reads are Meditations and Breakfast With Socrates.

The Book in Three Sentences

The insight and advice of the Stoic philosophy is still, remarkably applicable today.

The Stoics had psychological techniques for attaining tranquility, minimizing worry and more.

Contentedness comes from appreciating what we already have.

The Five Big Ideas

If you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy in life. Without one, there is a danger you will mislive and you will end up living a bad life.

While enjoying the companionship of loved ones, then, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.

Our most important choices in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal.

Suppose you find out that someone has been saying bad things about you. Epictetus advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his competence as an insulter.

To help us advance our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.

A Guide to The Good Life Summary

If you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.

“Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.”—Antisthenes

The Stoics enjoyed whatever “good things” happened to be available, but even as they did so, they prepared themselves to give up the things in question.

For the Stoics, a person’s virtue does not depend, for example, on her sexual history. Instead, it depends on her excellence as a human being—on how well she performs the function for which humans were designed.

To be virtuous is to live as we were designed to live; it is to live, as Zeno put it, in accordance with nature.

Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”— Marcus Aurelius

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”—Seneca

Irvine on hedonic adaptation: “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”

“One key to happiness is to forestall the [hedonic] adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.”

“The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.”

“The Stoics recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job.”

“We should love all of our dear ones …, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.”—Seneca

While enjoying the companionship of loved ones, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. If nothing else, our own death will end it.

“We should live as if this very moment were our last.”

As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last.

“When the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities.”

Besides contemplating the loss of our life, we should contemplate the loss of our possessions.

“After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, [a Stoic] will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen.”

“Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them.”

Negative visualization is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.

The negative visualization technique can also be used in reverse: Besides imagining that the bad things that happened to others happen to us, we can imagine that the bad things that happen to us happened instead to others.

“If we were at someone’s house and his servant broke a cup, we would be unlikely to get angry; indeed, we might try to calm our host by saying ‘It’s just a cup; these things happen.’”

A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him.

“Negative visualization teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.”

“By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.”

“Our most important choice in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal.”

A good strategy for getting what you want is to make your goal to want only those things that are easy to obtain—and ideally to want only those things that you can be certain of obtaining.

“While most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them, Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves—more precisely, by changing our desires.”

“Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.”

“There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control.”

“One way to preserve our tranquility, the Stoics thought, is to take a fatalistic attitude toward the things that happen to us.”

“According to Epictetus, we should keep firmly in mind that we are merely actors in a play written by someone else—more precisely, the Fates.”

“We must learn to welcome whatever falls to our lot and persuade ourselves that whatever happens to us is for the best.”

“We sometimes should think about the past to learn lessons that can help us in our efforts to shape the future.”

“Instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better.”

“Besides contemplating bad things happening, we should sometimes live as if they had happened.”

Irvine on voluntary discomfort: “By exposing ourselves to a small amount of a weakened virus now, we create in ourselves an immunity that will protect us from a debilitating illness in the future.”

“Besides periodically engaging in acts of voluntary discomfort, we should, say the Stoics, periodically forgo opportunities to experience pleasure.”

The Stoics discovered that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercised their muscles, the stronger they got, and the more they exercised their will, the stronger it got. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.

The Stoics discovered that exercising self-control has certain benefits that might not be obvious. In particular, as strange as it may seem, consciously abstaining from pleasure can itself be pleasant.

“To help us advance our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.”

“When contemplating whether to criticize someone, he should consider not only whether the criticism is valid but also whether the person can stand to be criticized.”

“If you are going to publish, you must be willing to tolerate criticism.”

Epictetus suggests that as we go about our daily business, we should simultaneously play the roles of participant and spectator.

“Throughout the millennia and across cultures, those who have thought carefully about desire have drawn the conclusion that spending our days working to get whatever it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or tranquility.”

“The Stoics recommend that we prepare for our dealings with other people before we have to deal with them.”

“Spend time with an unclean person, and we will become unclean as well.”

“Marcus recommends that when we interact with an annoying person, we keep in mind that there are doubtless people who find us to be annoying.”

“When we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him.”

“When dealing with an annoying person, it also helps to keep in mind that our annoyance at what he does will almost invariably be more detrimental to us than whatever it is he is doing.”

“A good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest.”

Irvine on social fatalism: “In our dealings with others, we should operate on the assumption that they are fated to behave in a certain way.”

“One of their sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true.”

“Another sting-elimination strategy, suggested by Epictetus, is to pause to consider how well-informed the insulter is.”

“One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult.”

“Under such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel relieved: If he disapproves of what I am doing, then what I am doing is doubtless the right thing to do.”

“When a dog barks, we might make a mental note that the dog in question appears to dislike us, but we would be utter fools to allow ourselves to become upset by this fact, to go through the rest of the day thinking, ‘Oh, dear! That dog doesn’t like me!’”

“One other important sting-elimination strategy, say the Stoics, is to keep in mind, when insulted, that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult.”

“Remember,” says Epictetus, “that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting.”

Counter insults with humor.

“Epictetus advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his competence as an insulter; for example, you can comment that if the insulter knew you well enough to criticize you competently, he wouldn’t have pointed to the particular failings that he did but would instead have mentioned other, much worse failings.”

The Stoics advocated a second way to respond to insults: with no response at all.

“Refusing to respond to an insult is, paradoxically, one of the most effective responses possible.”

“Notice, too, that by not responding to an insulter, we are showing him and anyone who is watching that we simply don’t have time for the childish behavior of this person.”

“If in the course of trying to train a horse, we punish him, it should be because we want him to obey us in the future, not because we are angry about his failure to obey us in the past.”

“The best way to deal with insults directed at the disadvantaged, Epictetus would argue, is not to punish those who insult them but to teach members of disadvantaged groups techniques of insult self-defense.”

“The Stoics primary grief-prevention strategy was to engage in negative visualization.”

“In normal, prospective negative visualization, we imagine losing something we currently possess; in retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never having had something that we have lost.”

“Epictetus also offers advice on grief management. He advises us, in particular, to take care not to “catch” the grief of others.”

“When angry, says Seneca, we should take steps to ‘turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.’ We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated.”

Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them.

“If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us.”

“Marcus agrees with Epictetus that it is foolish for us to worry about what other people think of us and particularly foolish for us to seek the approval of people whose values we reject.”

Recommended Reading

If you like A Guide to The Good Life, you may also enjoy the following books:

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday

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