Reframe Your Thinking: The Stoic Path to Contentment

I once knew a guy. Let’s call him Bill.

Bill had problems. Many problems, in fact. There were people at work who didn’t share all his opinions. When he spoke, they felt threatened by his vastly superior intelligence. And the things they thought! Well, don’t get Bill started on what they were thinking about him behind his back. Because, you know, Bill could read minds. Clearly it was time to ditch such a toxic environment.

Bill was miserable but he had been here before and he knew what to do; it was time for a change. He would change his job, change his location, change his life. If he just changed everything about his external environment, everything would be okay. Happiness was just around the corner.

Yet bizarrely, life at his new job was the exact same thing- there were people who didn’t agree with his opinions, they were threatened by his dazzling intellect, and they were thinking so many mean things about him behind his back… Clearly, everyone was just out to get him.

Even Bill’s wife had the nerve to question him. She asked whether everyone was really out to get him and suggested that maybe poor Bill just had a bad habit of assuming the worst of everyone and everything. Maybe Bill shouldn’t take every instance of someone disagreeing with him as a personal attack or of them feeling threatened by his inherent genius. Maybe he couldn’t read minds after all and had no idea what other people were thinking.

After hearing all this one too many times, it was clear that Bill’s marriage with such a toxic and unsupportive partner had come to an end.

Bill was miserable but he had been here before and he knew what to do; it was time for another change. He would change his job, change his location, change his wife. If he just changed everything about his external environment then everything would be okay. Happiness – as always – was just around the corner…

Maybe you know a Bill. Maybe you are a Bill. Maybe you’re sometimes a Bill. There is a Bill in each one of us who even occasionally “frames” things the wrong way, who could do with getting some perspective or with looking at things from another angle. There is certainly a Bill in every poor soul who doesn’t realise that “Wherever you go, there you are,” that changing your external environment will do nothing for you if your underlying bad habits of thinking aren’t addressed.

REFRAMING YOUR THINKING

A school of thought that Bill might well benefit from is Stoicism. Originating with Zeno of Citium in ancient Greece, Stoicism later gained eminence with the philosopher-slave Epictetus and the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Today, it is enjoying something of a renaissance through modern neo-Stoics like William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.1

The Stoic thesis is that – generally speaking – well-being has less to do with what happens to us than with how we frame what happens to us. In Epictetus’ words, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”2 The former we have little control over, and we must let go; but the latter we do have control over, and so we must get to work. They call this the “Dichotomy of Control,” and it is the reason to deemphasise “external goals” like wealth and fame in favour of “internal goals” like wisdom and contentment.

But can’t this sort of thinking be misused? Can’t “reframing” drop one down the rabbit-hole of toxic positivity, ignoring genuinely bad situations that need to be dealt with in favour of “thinking positively”?

Sure, anything can be misused and misapplied. However, to sceptics I’d just point out that we are always framing our experience anyway. It’s just that how we frame things is not always conscious, and it is certainly not always for the best. Sometimes our framing is downright catastrophic.

The real question, then, cannot be whether we should work on the best way to frame our thinking, but only how. Yes, there will be better and worse answers to this question; but the question must be asked nonetheless. And with that in mind, I will leave it up to the intelligence of the reader to decide when and how the following frames are applicable to their own lives.

THE VIEW FROM ABOVE

Calm down and take a step back with the View from Above frame. How important are the things that occupy our attention in the grand scheme of things? The idea here is that we are just too close to our cares and concerns to see them clearly and think rationally about them. This frame helps you get some distance and therefore perspective.

Imagine yourself “rising” above yourself, looking down at your body from above. How do your problems look now, from an outside, third person objective point of view? This is, of course, similar to the mindfulness approach of objectively observing your own thoughts and feelings, or to the life coach’s question: “What advice would you give someone else experiencing the same problem?” The idea of all these approaches is the same: get some distance, get some perspective.

Now imagine rising above the earth; how do your problems compare to the problems of other people in the world as a whole? To all the pain and loss and disappointment felt by everyone else in the globe?

It’s easy to get so absorbed in our own little world that we look at all our problems and think, “Why is all this happening to me? It’s not fair!” All the while forgetting that everyone has problems, everyone is going through stuff, and many of them have much worse problems than you. Seeing this bigger picture snaps you out of your rumination and reframes your perspective on things.

Go further; rise so far out into the solar system that the earth and everything you know appears as just a tiny dot in a sea of blackness. As Carl Sagan said, that “pale blue dot” is everyone and everything you know; every nation, every religion, every war by one part of that dot to control another part of the dot.3

Go further still: the solar system itself is also just one dot among billions in our galaxy, and the galaxy is just one dot among billions in the known universe. How small, how petty, do your various grudges and obsessions appear now? What is important now? What is worth cherishing and what is worth letting go?

THE NEGATIVE VISUALISATION

A great one is the Negative Visualisation frame. The thing is, how we evaluate our level of well-being depends in large part on where we have been in the past. A meth-addict who finally kicks their habit in rehab can be ecstatic, while a billionaire who drops ten points on the global rich list can be cursing the heavens in abject misery. So how would you feel about your present circumstances if your past had been different?

Visualise losing everyone and everything you have (yes that may sound somewhat morbid but don’t worry, it gets better). Really think about it; a devastating war has ripped you away from everything you know; nuclear winter has descended on the globe; a zombie apocalypse has broken out; I’m sure you can fill in the details. How would you feel? What would you think?

Then – very important – imagine somehow getting back everyone and everything that you lost. The war is over, the nuclear winter is reversed, the zombie horde is vanquished, and through some heroic humanitarian effort civilisation is restored. How would you feel then, just to have back all that you currently have? How deep would be your gratitude, your appreciation, of people and things that are all too easy to take for granted in your everyday life?

This frame doesn’t have to be as dramatic as visualising the end of the world, of course. It works just fine on something smaller. Imagine losing your partner or your job or something else you value, and then regaining them; and appreciate their presence in your life all the more.

THE DREAM LIFE

Then there is the Dream Life frame. Our usual habit is to compare our lives to those who have more than us; studies have even shown that people are more likely to commit suicide if they live in a wealthier area simply because they can’t stop comparing themselves to their rich neighbours.4 Or, we make the unfair comparison between our lives – all of the good, the bad and the ugly – and the “highlight reels” of our friends’ lives on Facebook and Instagram.

But what if you compared your life to someone who would consider yours to be their “dream life”? I know, I know, I can hear you now: your job sucks, or your love life is a disaster, or your bills and debts are crushing you, so on and so on. Who would want your life?

Actually, millions, possibly billions. If you’re living in the twenty-first century and are privileged enough to own a smartphone or computer in order to be reading this, then you are currently living “the dream life” compared to the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived.

Think about the millions of prehistoric peoples who eeked out a “nasty, brutish, and short” hunter-gatherer existence, with an average life-expectancy between 21-37 years, and only 57% even making it to the tender age of 15.5 Think about those for whom infant mortality rates were about 50%.

If you have secure access to food, water and shelter then you are already living the high life. Forget about eyeglasses and contact lenses, modern dentistry, toothpaste, vaccinations, surgery- the list goes on and on. Even the greatest kings and emperors of the past did not enjoy many of the privileges you have; just let that fact sink in.

THE GOOD STORY

The simple Good Story frame invites you to imagine your future self telling the story of your present time, or of the present challenging ordeal you are going through. Maybe your car breaks down and your phone is dead. Maybe a hurricane or typhoon or pandemic strikes, leaving only destruction in its wake.

Ask yourself, what kind of story do you want to tell about this moment later on? Do you want it to be the story of how you freaked out, overreacted, cared only about yourself and made everything worse? Or do you want to be the hero of your story, someone who stayed calm, who put the needs of others first?

THE PROSPECTIVE RETROSPECTION

The Prospective Retrospection frame is a bit of a mouthful, but the idea is to imagine how you will one day, at some point in the future, view your present moment and circumstances. Have you ever looked back fondly on “the good old days”? Have you ever wished you appreciated those days more at the time, rather than only realising how happy you were later, in retrospect? Well this frame is all about making sure you do realise how happy you are in the present time.

Maybe right now you’re a student, you’re poor, your student loan is swelling and you’re not quite sure what you really want to do with your life anyway; one day you might miss these days of being young, of not having to worry so much about your health, of having the friends you have before they leave to step into the real world.

Or maybe you’re bogged down in dirty nappies, you haven’t slept properly in weeks, your house is mess; one day, before you know it, your baby won’t be a baby anymore and you may miss this sweet age of innocence.

Only you can judge your present circumstances, of course, but this frame just asks you to consider whether and how you might one day look back fondly on these present days as “the good old days.”

THE LAST TIME

The Last Time frame is an interesting one if you’re not too morbid about it.

One of the Stoics’ signature catchphrases was “Memento mori” or “Remember that you will die.” The basic idea is that taking anything for granted only makes sense on the implicit assumption that you are going to live forever. Only in the light of immortality can it make sense to waste even a single moment holding onto that grudge, or bickering with your spouse.

Take any ordinary, everyday thing you do and remember that one day you will do it for the last time. Also remember it’s very likely that when you do do it for the last time, you won’t know that it is for the last time; which makes it all the more important to appreciate it now.

One day you will enjoy your favourite meal for the last time. One day you will say good night to your partner for the last time. One day you will pick up your child for the last time. Acknowledging this makes you appreciate all these small, everyday things infinitely more; you really make the effort to be present with these moments, to not just perform them absent-mindedly while you think about your to-do list, about who said what on that TV show.

This trick works even for things you normally find to be a chore. One day you will wash the dishes, mow the lawn, take out the garbage, etc. etc., all for the last time. Even here, somehow, there is something sweet to be savoured about each of these tasks when you remember that you won’t be doing them forever.

the test

It’s a rare day when everything goes exactly according to plan.

Most days will throw obstacles in your path. It’s like you’re constantly being followed by someone who is trying their utmost to trip you up, get you frustrated, make you angry, in some way large or small cause you to lose your self-control, your “Stoic” calm.

But suppose you frame such trying circumstances not as mere annoyances or frustrations, but as “tests” sent from “the Stoic gods” (metaphorically speaking) of your ability to put your reframing skills into practice.

Start with the little things. The coffee machine at work is out of coffee; reflect on how fortunate you are that this is your biggest concern right now. Eventually you can move on to the big things; until, of course, you one day face the biggest test of all: death, what some Stoics have called “your final exit exam.”

Whether your test is small or large, it will often boil down to how well you can dwell on what you do have, and not on what you don’t.

PHILOSOPHY AND WELL-BEING

Philosophy can be more than just a dry academic discipline with little real world application. Done right, you use it to take control of your sense of well-being, your resilience in the face of obstacles, your response to the world in general. You can neutralise the inner Bill who lurks inside so many of us. You can truly start to control yourself.

Footnotes

  1. Irvine, W. B. (2008). A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press.
  2. Epictetus. (n.d.). Enchiridion. In Robert Dobbin (Ed.) Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings. Penguin Classics. 2008
  3. Sagan, C. (1994). A Pale Blue Dot. The Planetary Society. https://www.planetary.org/worlds/pale-blue-dot.
  4. Sanburn, J. (2012, November 8). Why Suicides Are More Common in Richer Neighbourhoods. Time. https://business.time.com/2012/11/08/why-suicides-are-more-common-in-richer-neighborhoods/
  5. Guenevere, M.; Kaplan, H. (2007). Longevity amongst Hunter-Gatherers. Population and Development Review. 33 (2).

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