New Guide to a Happier, More Fulfilled LIfe: Positive Psychology and Stoicism
Adulting is hard.
How many times have you pondered “what’s the meaning of life?” or “why is it so hard to be happy?”?
Maybe we have been searching for happiness in all the wrong places.
The world is complicated, but we like to overthink too.
Remember how simple life was as a kid? It was easy to be happy: having a roof, being fed, playing and learning.
Our worldviews and perspectives.
As we grow up, we model from different people, environments and absorb information that form our beliefs and worldviews.
Depending on who you surround yourself with and what information you consume, you can have anything between optimistic, neutral or pessimistic outlooks.
I was definitely the latter group.
My culture, the political environment I grew up with, and the worldviews passed down by generation shaped me an anxious person. I cared way too much about others’ opinions, how I could fit in and survive, and was definitely risk-averse.
It was indeed miracles after miracles how I managed to quit my corporate life, pivot career and start a business.
Our mindset plays a huge role in navigating this messy world, achieving goals and “finding” happiness.
We need to look at our lives differently. Strip it down to the core, go back to being a kid – and as a human being.
In this article, we are going to explore how we can evaluate our way of living through the lens of Positive Psychology with modern Stoicism, in order to live a more fulfilled life.
Why Positive Psychology and Stoicism? These two concepts have a huge impact on my personal and professional life. Stoicism single-handedly changed my mindset and anxious behaviours. Positive Psychology is effective in my music therapy practice – not just for clients who seek mental health-related solutions, but also improvement in physical skills, memory and quality of life.
Let’s distill and marry the concepts from both concepts so that we can start living a life true to ourselves.
To spare you from all the research fluff, we’re jumping straight to the point (references are located at the bottom of this article if you want to go down the rabbit hole). In case you haven’t heard of Positive Psychology and/or Stoicism, here are 4 key points (you can expand the toggles for more information):
🌟 Positive Psychology: Core Concepts, Application and Criticism
It’s a study of what makes life most worth living (scientifically, not subjectively)
Focus: strengths, optimism, wellbeing, gratitude and hope
Theory: we should focus on identifying and cultivating strengths (strongest qualities) rather than fixing what’s wrong
6 virtues and 24 character strengths are classified that enable human thriving (each is a spectrum, not something you either have or lack) (Seligman et al., 2005)
5 elements to increase well-being: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment (The PERMA model)
P - positive emotions
- Happiness, hope, joy, love, compassion, gratitude
E - engagement
- Flow states, living in the present moment, focus
R - relationships (positive)
- Feeling loved, supported and valued by others
- Social context: collective well-being plays a role (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000)
M - meaning
- Sense of value and worth, can be through a profession, religion, a social cause
- Similar to Adlerian concept - sense of belonging and being helpful to others
A - accomplishment/achievement
- The result of working towards something you are passionate about (more about intrinsic than extrinsic goals), whether that be achieving a goal, mastering a skill or finishing what you set out to do
Mini-conclusion: the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits towards positive emotions, engagement and meaning, with the greatest weight carried by the latter two (Seligman et al., 2005)
No, it’s not just about #goodvibesonly: arguments to balance “positives” and “negatives”
- The original concepts listed above received many criticism over the years, mainly due to the fact that too much emphasis was placed on optimism and positive emotions, ignoring the “negatives” in life. Rainy days are unavoidable, and being optimistic (sometimes forced) will not solve the problem
- New definition: the scientific study of virtue, meaning, resilience and well-being, as well as evidence-based applications to improve individuals’ lives and the society (Wong, 2011)
- Suffering and happiness are interdependent, not separate
- There is a need to heal, repair and build resilience
- How do we bring out the best in ourselves in both good and bad times?
IRL: Individual and collective practices
- Gratitude practice: write down 3 good things that happened each day and why they happened (studies revealed that it made people happier and less depressed up to 6 months after the experiment!) (Seligman et al., 2005)
- Track and tweak your progress: my favourite way of reflection is daily/weekly/quarterly/year reviews. What gets measured gets managed.
- A social movement is on the way to improve the culture and living conditions through good work and education (Wong, 2011)
- How can we shift from individual happiness and success to a meaning-centred approach to making life better for everyone (altruism)?
🍃 Stoicism: Core Concepts, Application and Criticism
4 guiding principles to living a great life
- As a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance and wisdom
- Memento Mori: remember that you must die. What is your priority and meaning, knowing that most things will not matter in the end?
- 4 virtues of stoicism:
- Courage - facing challenges while still holding fear
- Temperance - doing the right thing in the right amount, in the right way
- Justice - doing the right thing
- Wisdom - learning (the right kind of information) and experiencing, keeping an open mind; defining what is good, what is not, and what is indifferent
No, Stoics are not detached, emotionless or pessimistic
- Stoics practise misfortune in order to be familiar with the worst-case scenarios so that they can gain knowledge of uncertainty, hence peace of mind (nothing comes as a surprise, you know?)
- Stoics do not suppress emotions. Instead, they first address that emotions are inevitable, then pay attention to when unhealthy emotions rise (as in those that would cloud judgment), manage with dichotomy of control, and mindfully cultivate the healthy emotions
- The goal is not to turn into stones (emotionless, never disturbed by negative emotions or elated by positive ones), but feel love and compassion in life and manage anger, fear and hatred
- Stoics place the 4 virtues of high importance, and they consider pleasure to be “in agreement with nature” as long as they own pleasures (not vice versa), and they do avoid pain as pain is considered to be “against nature”
5 Best Stoicism Quotes
- “We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca
- “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius
- “It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgements about them.” — Epictetus
- “The primary indication of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.” — Seneca
- “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” — Epictetus
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness
(no I have not read that book by Donald Robertson)
- Acceptance of the inevitable
- Train your perception
- Take actions based on the 4 virtues to do good work and cultivate relationships with others
- You will be happier and more at peace when you reflect often on what is under your control and let go of what is not. It’s not about being passive, but pragmatic
- The mental state goal is to be calm and peaceful, which Stoics identify with virtues and being rational
🤝 When Positive Psychology Meets Stoicism
There are many ideas from Stoicism and Positive Psychology that echo each other when it comes to living a happier, more fulfilled life. Learning how to change our perspectives, regulate emotions and align behaviours with our core values is ultimately key.
1/ On Emotional Resilience and Agility
Challenges are inevitable in life. Both Stoicism and Positive Psychology agree that it is important to cultivate a strong mindset and develop a good system for emotional regulation (self-awareness and strategies) so that we can have a clear headspace to come up with solutions.
Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful situations and cope with messy life. It is a muscle that can be trained and strengthened. Positive Psychology includes that as a key element to happiness; while Stoicism develops resilience through self-control, acceptance, change of perspective and courage.
Dr. Susan David illustrates courage at its finest:
Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.
This echoes Stoicism’s virtue of courage.
Emotional agility is the ability to experience thoughts, emotions and situations so that we reveal the best of ourselves, not to drive us in negative ways. In Dr. Susan David’s words, it’s the ability to be real.
Take responsibility of your life, accept where you are at now, embrace your imperfection, let go of others’ standards, and start taking baby steps to make a change.
2/ On Dichotomy of Control and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” – Prayer of Serenity, Reinhold Neibuhr
In psychology, the concept of control is referred as “locus of control”, divided by internal and external (it’s a spectrum, not black-and-white). If you have an internal locus of control, you are more inclined to believe that you are responsible for most of what happens in your life; while the opposite holds the belief that “fate” or other people are to be blamed for your situation.
How did you get to where you are today? How much responsibility do you hold when it comes to living a more fulfilled life being true to yourself? How do you view and face setbacks in life?
Some say our thoughts are not within our control. That is debatable, but Stoics place importance on our perspectives and judgments towards events. This ties in nicely with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: through challenging our thoughts on situations, we come up with alternative thoughts, hence managing our emotions and changing our behaviours.
3/ On Suffering
Stoicism sees suffering as opportunity for growth (again, it’s all about perspectives).
Positive Psychology does not disregard suffering in life. In fact, it evolved to suggest that suffering and happiness are interdependent.
Growth demands a temporary surrender of security. It may mean a giving up of familiar but limiting patterns, safe but unrewarding work, values no longer believed in, relationships that have lost their meaning. – James Clear
Nothing good happens in your comfort zone.
Growth is supposed to be uncomfortable.
It is unfamiliar. It is foreign.
Such pain is necessary for healing and growth.
It’s like going to the hospital or therapy: you don’t feel good during treatment. It requires hard work and endurance.
But you must get through that suffering in order to heal, and get better.
Some good things in life require sacrifice.
What are you willing to sacrifice? How much?
How can you turn “suffering” around and find the silver lining for growth and improvement?
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. – Marcus Aurelius
🏰 Is “Happily Ever After” Achievable?
Every concept mentioned above is easier said than done, I know. But I also said in the beginning that life can be “simple”, not “easy”.
Happiness, like other emotions, are temporary and fleeting.
I feel happy when I read Harry Potter. I feel happy sipping my coffee. Does that mean I want to do these two things only forever? No.
The opposite of happiness is boredom.
I think we don’t want to be just happy in life, but also fulfilled and calm.
We need a healthy balance of stress, satisfaction and a sense of purpose.
That means we need a worthwhile goal to pursue.
What is your worthwhile struggle?
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. – Viktor Frankl
This echoes what Positive Psychology highlights:
A person can be happy while confronting life realistically and while working productively to improve the conditions of existence (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
I found my worthwhile struggle in music therapy.
Let’s be honest – in my everyday life, I don’t enjoy everything I do at work. NDIS reports are not fun to write. There are certain populations I don’t vibe with.
But it’s worthwhile because I’m making a difference in someone’s life through what I’m good at and passionate in.
That’s the drive that keeps me going and showing up every single day.
So, what is your happy struggle?
In Your Definition, What Makes a Good Life?
It is worth spending some time to define your own happiness. In fact, I would argue that ultimately we don’t just want a pleasurable life.
You own 100% responsibility of defining happiness, core values and life pursuits in order to live a “good life”.
With this new insight from both Stoicism and Positive Psychology, how are you going to start living life differently today?
🧭 Conclusion: Navigation with Conviction
3 steps to start living a happier and more fulfilled life (a.k.a. balancing your responsibilities, managing your emotions and pursuing your goals):
1/ Identify Your Core Values
- Defining what you really want will save you time and energy from irrelevant things
- Find your worthwhile struggle
- Commit to bringing out your best self
2 Prioritise Basic Human Needs
- Daily movement
- Spend time in the nature (outdoor)
- Find your tribe
It never ceases to amaze me how we move away from satisfying basic needs in the modern society. We are always one swipe away from instant gratification: takeaway meals, entertainment, dating – we can get literally anything in the comfort of our couch.
Is such comfort what you are looking for?
Happiness can indeed be simple. Your basic human needs are non-negotiables.
3 Be Part of the Greater Good
You are a citizen of the world. Do good work. Be decent. Honour your values. Practise work ethics. Contribute to the collective good.
Ultimately, we all want to live a better life and be helpful to others, while acting according to our values and identities.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” – Marcus Aurelius
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Peterson, C. (2008). What is positive psychology, and what is it not? Psychology Today
Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.60.5.410
Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.5
Wong, P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology / Psychologie Canadienne, 52(2), 69-81. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022511