The more I have learned about Stoicism over the years, the more inspired I have been to follow its principles. Although Stoic philosophy originated in ancient Greece, it is surprisingly well equipped to guide us through 21st century challenges. Stoicism emphasises wisdom and virtue as pathways to a more tranquil and contented life and it prescribes practical steps to achieve this. My hope is that sharing practices I draw strength from will inspire others to utilise them too. Specifically, how Stoicism guides me towards gratitude, non-judgemental perspectives, and acceptance of things beyond my control.
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” (Seneca in ‘Moral Letters to Lucilius').
Stoicism recognises the power of gratitude and prescribes several uniquely effective steps to achieve this perspective, even amidst harsh realities. On many occasions, the following examples have helped me recalibrate my mind-set towards one of gratitude.
Negative Visualisation: When we face adversity, or the daily grind, fleetingly imagining a worse fate for ourselves can replace negative emotions with a deep sense of appreciation (importantly, this is just a fleeting thought, not a cycle of worry about all that could go wrong). As the manager of Anxiety NZ’s 0800 ANXIETY Helpline during the COVID-19 pandemic, I faced a range of unprecedented challenges. As I began to feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities, I briefly imagined losing my job (as many had nationally and globally). I quickly felt grateful to have a source of income and unique opportunities to make a difference during a time of great need. This change in perspective helped me face extraordinary stressors with renewed positive energy and a fulfilling sense of purpose.
Living the Dream: Stoicism encourages us to remember that someone somewhere is dreaming of a life like ours. When a friend expressed concerns about my situation during a period of notable financial difficulty, I recall saying, “I am one of the richest people in the world”. Remembering that there were millions of people worldwide dreaming of my circumstances helped put things into perspective. Negative emotions are a natural part of life, especially when we face difficulties, but this technique helped me tap into a more positive and resilient mind-set.
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look” (Marcus Aurelius in ‘Meditations').
Stoic philosophy has supported my mahi in mental health in a variety of ways. Stoicism reminds us that everyone is on their own journey, facing unique struggles and triumphs, and encourages us to show compassion and understanding. It also instructs us to do our utmost to be the best version of ourselves while accepting that we will make mistakes along the way. One way to cultivate such mental clarity about our potential and imperfections is to practice regular self-reflection.
Journaling: Stoic philosophers (from the slave Epictetus to emperor Marcus Aurelius) wrote their reflections in personal journals. While I do not always put my thoughts into writing, I cannot imagine my life without regular reflections on my thoughts, feelings, actions, values, and goals, and ways to better align all of these. Some professions (such as Psychologists) require a commitment to engaging in professional reflective practice, but Stoicism advocates for non-judgmental reflection for all of us across all areas of our life.
Accepting the Uncontrollable
“Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.” (Epictetus in ‘The Golden Sayings of Epictetus').
One of the most liberating aspects of Stoicism lies in its teachings about focusing on what is within our control and accepting what is not. Instead of worrying about factors beyond my influence, I try to channel that energy into mastering my responses to challenges. The Stoics identified a range of helpful strategies. We might work on accepting our reality, practice gratitude for lessons learned, or find humour in our situation.
Humour: As Seneca said (in ‘On the Tranquillity of the Mind), “It is more fitting to laugh at life than to lament over it.” This brings to mind a time when I was complaining to a friend about a frustrating string of events beyond my control. Ironically, a pigeon chose that exact moment to poop on my head – another uncontrollable undesired event. As I wiped the mess off my glasses, I gave in to the biggest belly laugh and my frustrating day turned into one I recall with fondness. I try to remember this Stoic lesson on humour and put it to good use as often as possible.
In conclusion, Stoicism is a guiding philosophy that has positively influenced my personal and professional life. As I continue to learn and apply its teachings, I find myself becoming more resilient, productive, and content.
Goldie Hamilton has been with Anxiety NZ Trust for over a decade, including her roles as Helpline Manager (2016-2021) and National Manager (2021-2023). Building on her Masters in Health Psychology, in 2024 Goldie will be completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychological Practice and doing her Intern Psychologist placement at Anxiety NZ. Goldie values different approaches to building resilience and appreciates opportunities to empower and support tāngata whaiora on their journey towards better mental health and wellbeing.
Seneca, L. A. (2016). Moral letters to Lucilius. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. (1475).
Aurelius, M. (2006). Meditations (M. Hammond, Trans.). Penguin Books. (1558).
Epictetus (2007). The golden sayings of Epictetus. BiblioBazaar. (1903).
Seneca, L. A. (2017). On the tranquility of the mind. Time Honoured Classics. (60).
Oxford, T. (2020). Stoicism in modern life: Discover how to develop your self-awareness, improve your mental toughness and self-discipline in today's world. Findaway World.
Irvine, W. B. (2008). A guide to the good life: The ancient art of stoic joy. Oxford University Press.
Philosophies for Life. (2019). Epictetus – How To Be A Stoic (Stoicism). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH6dSe_dYgM