William B. Irvine. (Photo: Lyndon French)
William B. Irvine. (Photo: Lyndon French)

How Stoicism Can Cultivate Joy

The philosopher William B. Irvine discusses what led him to embrace Stoicism and how its techniques can help us navigate the complexities of the 21st century.
By Ekin Balcıoğlu
October 17, 2023
12 minute read

Philosopher William B. Irvine’s journey from a youth spent in mining towns in Montana and Nevada to becoming a renowned advocate of Stoicism is a remarkable one. Beginning his academic career in a two-room schoolhouse, Irvine continued on to earn a B.A. in mathematics and philosophy from the University of Michigan, followed by an M.A. and a Ph.D. in philosophy from U.C.L.A. He ultimately landed at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, where he taught for nearly four decades until his retirement, in 2021, when he was granted emeritus status. Along the way, his interests have evolved from “pure” philosophy to interdisciplinary subjects, including the ethics of finance, parenting, desire, and more, and he’s written books such as A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2007), Aha!: The Moments of Insight that Shape Our World (2014), and most recently, The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient (2019). Though he no longer gives classroom lectures, he continues to spread his wisdom through his writing, which aims to make philosophy accessible to the intellectually curious, no matter their academic background.

Here, Irvine discusses what led him to embrace Stoicism and how its tenets and techniques can help us navigate the complexities of the 21st century with equanimity and resilience.

You’ve embraced Stoicism as a guiding life philosophy. Were there any pivotal experiences that led you to adopt this school of thought? Or was it more like the ancient process that you describe in your book where you tried on many philosophies, and came to realize that this one fit?

When I turned 50, I seemed to be having a midlife crisis. I thought that by becoming a Zen Buddhist, I could settle a number of issues. I also decided that I could write a book about it. I knew that to write the book and get it published, I had to have a balanced approach and look at alternatives to Zen Buddhism. I came across Stoicism, and gave it a test drive. I tried its techniques, and found they worked wonderfully. It also has a much lower price tag than Zen Buddhism. To become a Zen Buddhist, you might meditate for hours a week, for decades, before having a moment of enlightenment. But over the course of one weekend, you can test Stoic techniques and know whether they’re making a difference in your life. So I tried it, I liked it, and I never looked back.

Your book emphasizes the pursuit of tranquility as a central goal of Stoicism. What are some practical strategies or exercises that one can apply in daily life to manage challenging situations?

We’re still the same human beings with the same psychological wiring as we were two thousand years ago. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is our circumstances. Today, we get annoyed when the shower water won’t get hot, or the toilet doesn’t flush. To the ancients, any such conveniences would have been a miracle. If you’re in an industrialized country, you have so much, but the problem is we take it all for granted, and we are unhappy. So the Stoics have exercises that enable us to stop taking things for granted.

One of them being negative visualization.

Yes. You simply imagine yourself not having something that you have. When I give talks, I like to use it as an exercise. I ask the audience to close their eyes and keep them that way until I say so. I let a minute go by, and then I say, “Okay, now, imagine that you’re trying to open your eyes, but they’re glued shut.” Then I let some more time go by. Finally I say, “Okay, open your eyes.”

Now, of course there are exceptions—blind people, for instance. But for most, they consciously recognize something that they’ve utterly taken for granted their entire life. They just expect it to be there. But they’re lucky that it’s there. They should very much appreciate it. And immediately after that exercise, they will. But the appreciation will wear off, and they’ll be right back to taking it for granted. So the advice is to redo the exercise, and do it with things besides eyesight. You can do it with friendships, you can do it with your job—anything can suddenly disappear from your life. When you take a few moments to imagine it being gone, you will actively appreciate its existence.

That’s absolutely something that I’ve tried to apply in my daily life after reading your book—especially when it comes to health. Or when my 2-year-old was crying, and is now not crying anymore, I try to feel grateful about it and not take it for granted.

Exactly. There will be a last time that your child sits in your lap. When you look back on these days, a big part of you will wish you could go back to this relationship, even if toddlers are so often difficult. So value it, because there will be a time when these will count as the “good old days.”

I felt that so distinctly when breastfeeding. There was a time when I decided: Okay, this is the end. After sixteen months, I’m no longer going to breastfeed. I will never breastfeed again. It was so bittersweet. I definitely thought about all of the times I complained about breastfeeding.

Imagine if you had gotten pregnant, and then had the baby, and then were told you have some condition such that you wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. Everything is always on loan, and whatever you’ve got, you’re very lucky to have it. If you go through life with that in mind, it makes things much more tolerable.

The famous Stoic Marcus Aurelius believed in self-reflection via philosophical journaling. Do you journal regularly?

Marcus Aurelius had what he called the Meditations, but it was actually just his diary; it was not intended for public distribution. He would write down things that had annoyed him that day. He did gain insights as a result, [and] he’s the primary example of an ancient Stoic who did that. The Stoics who led schools and had students didn’t write things down; they simply spoke in front of groups of people.

Seneca says there’s something very much like journaling that he recommends we do, and it’s called the bedtime meditation. You don’t even have to write anything. Before you fall asleep at night, just take a minute or two to think about your day, about the choices you made and the opportunities you had. Did you make wise choices? For instance, were there opportunities to be kind to other people, and did you take advantage of them? Did you allow yourself to become annoyed by some trivial thing? What can you do differently tomorrow to avoid having that happen?

I feel like Stoicism is having a renaissance in part because it’s just so practical. I’ve been practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s constant work, and therefore not that appealing all the time even to me, a practicing Buddhist.

Yes, Stoicism has a low price of admission. What do you have to do? Well, you might want to read a book. My Guide to the Good Life is intended for readers who not only don’t know anything about Stoicism, but likely have the wrong idea about it. It explains some of the basic psychological techniques and encourages you to put those to work in your life. As we said before, in the course of a weekend you can do a lot, and by Monday morning you’ll know whether it’s working for you. It’s kind of astonishing. When I first stumbled across Stoicism, I thought, This is wonderful, I’ve got to share this with the world. That was back in the early 2000s, when there were only a handful of books on the subject. Now, the last time I looked, there’s practically a new one every day. And that’s absolutely wonderful. I think the world needs it.

Other than your book, what texts or other media should folks seek out?

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling person doing Stoicism. He tends to write books where you read a page a day, two pages a day, and put that into practice. And he apparently does it very effectively, because he has a huge audience. Donald J. Robertson has written a book on—if you’re interested in journaling—Marcus Aurelius. There is a movie on Seneca that I know exists, that I’ve been trying to figure out how to watch because Seneca was an incredible person. He was the equivalent of a billionaire, the leading playwright of his time, one of the top four Stoic philosophers, and a counselor to Emperor Nero. And I can recommend the author and podcaster Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, and his podcast, Making Sense.

Modern Western society generally values material success and external achievements, and Stoicism can help individuals reevaluate their definitions of success and happiness to focus more on inner well-being. Was this perceived as a particular advantage of Stoicism, as opposed to other life philosophies, in ancient times?

Well, it’s a mistake to think of the ancient Stoics as all being the same. The four great Roman Stoics were Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and [Gaius] Musonius Rufus, and if you read them, you’ll realize they’re all doing Stoicism, but they have different ideas. Seneca had a very lavish lifestyle, and yet was a Stoic. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor and lived in a palace, yet he was a Stoic. At the other end, you have Musonius Rufus. He didn’t write a lot, but he had a student who took very good notes, and I published a translation of them. If you asked him about a good place to live, he would have said, “Hey, caves work.”

But I think one thing the Stoics would have agreed on, and Zen Buddhists as well, is that when it comes to our notions about what we want, and what we should do with the desires we experience, we assume that just because we find a desire in us, it’s “what we want,” when in fact desires are insidious things. They can implant themselves in your mind without your actually wanting the thing. When you discover yourself wanting something, you should say, “Wait a minute, is this what I want? Or is this just one of these desires that got into my head?”

Another thing about desires is that we’re on what psychologists call a “hedonic treadmill.” We think, and it seems like wonderful logic, that if we can just get the thing we want, we’ll live happily ever after. So we detect in ourselves a desire, we work very hard to get the thing we want, and for a while we can celebrate. A job, a raise, whatever your goal was. But it wears off in a very short period of time.

To finish, what, to you, is the good life?

The good life is one with as few negative emotions and as many positive emotions as you can experience. The positive emotions will take small forms—moments of delight; moments of joy; the experience of awe about the wonderful world in which we live; an appreciation of whatever it is I’ve got; and an ability, if my circumstances change, to go with the flow. As far as I can tell, that’s as good as it gets. It isn’t measured in material terms. It isn’t even measured in health terms. It’s measured in psychological terms. A lot of people want physical success, and that’s nice, but it’s not the key thing.