Book notes: A Guide to the Good Life

Jun 19, 2016

This is my review of A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine. It's a book about Stoicism.

The previous three book summaries I read were packed full of specific tips. The next few are all a bit shorter and deal with more abstract concepts rather than actionable bullet points.

Philosophy of life

Having a philosophy of life can help us to reflect on what we really want. It can help us to articulate our goals better and make us less likely to regret our choices as we get older.

Virtue and tranquillity

Stoicism advocates a path of moderation between the extremes of hedonism and asceticism. It teaches you to appreciate physical pleasures and material possessions but not to let them control you.

There are two central values in Stoicism, virtue and tranquillity.

Being virtuous means leading the life we were created to live. It has less to do with how you react in the moment and is more long-term. It requires reason and thought to decide upon the most effective course of action. It then requires discipline to carry through with it in the long run.

Being tranquil means being able to step back from your emotions and not let them control you. Experiencing strong negative emotions like fear or guilt can literally change your perception to be less objective.

Learn to appreciate what we already have

Consumerism tries to make us always want the next big expensive thing. Hedonic adaptation means we quickly get used to anything, no matter how luxurious it is.

To fight the temptations of consumerism, we should learn to appreciate what we already have.

One tool to do this is called negative visualisation. It involves imagining what our lives would be like if something we have or someone we know was lost to us.

Another tool is voluntary discomfort. It can mean choosing to live without something we are accustomed to (for a little while). It can also mean putting yourself through physical hardship.

Both negative visualisation and voluntary discomfort help to do two things:

  1. They harden us in case of actual loss
  2. They make us appreciate things more while we still have them

As an example, consider food. If you are accustomed to eating lots of sugary high-calorie food, or if you are accustomed to eating at expensive restaurants then it can take a lot to satisfy you. However, if you have a simpler diet, you can gain much more enjoyment from simple things like an apple.

I guess the idea of intermittent fasting is related to this. It's something I've tried in the past but have never stuck with in the long run. I'm interested in trying it again though.

What you can control

Broadly speaking, things fall into three categories:

  1. External things you cannot control
  2. Internal things you can control
  3. Things which you have a limited amount of control over

Stoicism teaches us to learn to accept things that we cannot control and focus on the things that we can.

Things we cannot control include other people's flaws and other people's opinions of us. Also external events like natural disasters, politics, death and the weather.

Things you can control include many of your internal actions and thoughts. Nobody can prevent you from being a more virtuous, generous or forgiving person.

The third category is things which you have influence over but not complete control. For example, when playing a game of table tennis against a skilled opponent, you cannot directly control whether you win or lose.

What you can do in these situations is internalise your goal and focus on the aspects that you do control. In the table tennis example, you cannot control how well your opponent plays but you can control how well you play. If you focus on playing as well as you possibly can, you will often end up playing better than if you focus on winning the game.

Weather analogy

Of course, the third category is pretty complicated. Stephen Fry gives the example of our moods being like the weather. He says when it's raining, there is no point walking out in a t-shirt and expect not to get wet. Similarly when you are depressed, you can't do the things you normally do and expect them to be the same. He says that you just need to bring an umbrella and realise that it won't be raining forever.

I like that analogy in some ways. However it does not account for the fact that we have a lot of indirect influence over our moods. Many things feed into our mood system. Some of them we have direct control over, some we don't and most we only have a little control over.

I feel like the art of Stoicism is being able to pull apart the complex web of your life and focus on the parts which you do control.

That is not a trivial thing to do at all. For example, nobody can will themselves to lose 5lbs in the next minute. It requires a longer-term, more disciplined approach of eating healthily and exercising often. You have to understand how your everyday actions affect your life in the long-term.

Examples

One example (which is relevant to me as I'm writing this) is what to do when my internet connection becomes unreliable. I can either sit here turning my router off and on again and getting frustrated. Or I can accept that there really isn't anything I can do to make it better right now and do something that doesn't require a constant internet connection.

Another example could be the success of my company. Ultimately, I cannot control whether our product is successful or not. The biggest influence over that is the market conditions which I literally have no control over.

However, I do have a lot of influence over many things, including:

  • How well I do my own work
  • How I treat my team
  • The feedback I give to others

So although I can't single-handedly control whether or not my company succeeds, I can do everything within my power to give us the best possible chance.

Other people

One of the top things that you have no control over is other people. There are two particular ways to fail in this regard.

The first is to get angry at other people's flaws. You almost always have no control over other people's flaws. Instead, you should try to increase your tolerance of them.

The second is to constantly seek their approval. You cannot directly control other people's opinions of you and trying to do so gives them control over you. It can lead to prioritising external goals above internal ones which is never an effective strategy.

Don't let wealth corrupt

Stoicism says that your mental state contributes significantly more to your happiness than your wealth.

As evidence for this, you only have to look around at the world and see all the wealthy yet miserable people.

This is partly because the things we do to pursue wealth can make us unhappy. For example: working long hours with a long commute at a job that doesn't help people. The other reason is hedonic adaptation, we can work really hard to pay for something and then find it doesn't make us happy anyway.

Again though, Stoicism advocates the path of moderation. Being poor can of course be terrible for your happiness. If you can't afford to eat or if you constantly fear not being able to pay rent then it can be far worse than the alternative.

What you should do is to focus on financial freedom. This is accomplished by being frugal and saving significantly more than you earn.

Mr. Money Mustache advocates this path. I mostly agree with what he says except that I don't currently want to retire that early. My current view is that focusing on retiring as early as possible is unnecessarily selfish. I feel that most of the value I will create in my life will be through my work and to stop working as soon as I can would be un-virtuous.

Of course, I still plan to save as much as I can. If I could retire at 40 then it opens up a lot of options. Maybe I could join a non-profit full-time without needing to draw a salary (or drawing only a minimal salary). Or maybe I could start earning to give and giving the majority of my salary to effective charities. Or maybe I will end up starting a family and having many children and needing to support them.

Life and death

Stoicism also says something about how to deal with other people's deaths. You cannot control how long other people live.

Again, you can use negative visualisation. It can both mentally prepare you for inevitable losses and also make you appreciate the time you still have with the people you love.

This also applies to your own life. By thinking about the time you have left, you can appreciate your time more. Younger people often fail to appreciate time as much as older people because their own death seems further away.

It reminds me again of this amazing Wait But Why post. It visualises your own life in years, months and weeks by showing them all on the screen at once. By seeing every single week you will live (in an assumed 90 year lifespan), you can see how precious each one is.

About six months ago, I got really into that idea and created this project for visualising every week of my life on one page. It was heavily inspired by that Wait But Why post. It also pairs up each week in the calendar with a specific date. I also overlaid custom "eras" of my life (school, uni, first job, etc) to see how I have spent my time already. I have vague plans to expand it and make each week click-able to show my diary from that period.

I think it's an excellent way to think about your life. Accepting that you will not live forever is a great way to make the most of your time.

I hesitate to write this but there is of course hope that technology will advance enough in our lifetimes to actually make us live forever. You can have yourself cryogenically frozen today if you pay enough. I'm still very doubtful about it but I have some vague hope that I will live significantly more than 90 years if I get lucky. Of course, that is very much beyond my control. I want to focus on living the best life I can right now and if I get to live much longer then it's a bonus.

Summary

This turned out to be a longer post than I expected. I would definitely call myself a Stoic and expect to be for the rest of my life.

Stoicism can help you make decisions in your life by asking what options will help you maintain your tranquillity and help your reach your goals.

Negative visualisations and voluntary discomfort are both helpful tools to help you appreciate what you already have and harden you in case of loss.