In this blog I will attempt to show how the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism has much in common with the goals of modern NLP: to help us live happier and more productive lives. But firstly, a brief bit of background; there are two central tenets of Stoicism: Ethics and Tranquillity – how do these concepts from over two thousand years ago translate into our modern day?
This word can sound a bit pompous in a modern context, but can also translate into the idea that those without a sense of purpose and a philosophy for living will lack tranquillity or sustainable states of well-being. They will be drawn to the animal side of our nature and go for instant gratification rather than things that will make them happy in the long term.
Ethics is also what we might expect it to mean – treating ourselves, our fellow humans and the wider system we live in with respect. People who fail to do this usually land up feeling bad as they have not had a win-win attitude to self-care and relationships: getting what they wanted in the short term didn’t help them in the longer term.
Studies of lottery winners have found that after an initial boost to their happiness, they returned to similar levels of happiness to how they were before the big win. It is as if each person has a ‘pre-set happiness level’ and external goals and wins don’t ultimately change this. This is due to a concept called hedonistic adaptation – we expect our life to be happier when we achieve external goals or indulge but very quickly we return to the same level of happiness or (mild misery) we had before. The hedonistic pleasure we receive does not providing a lasting solution.
When our goals are adjusted from things we want in the outside world to changes in our attitude toward those things, then our happiness level can be permanently boosted.
Here is an example; if we have a goal that we want someone to like us – that is an external goal which we cannot control. However, if we change our attitude and accept that we cannot make someone like us, but we do have the power to act in a way that would make us more likeable, then our chances of success grow.
Indeed, it is this principle of our choice of goal that is key to our own happiness – goals that are guaranteed are those around our attitude and choice of behaviour. As an indirect result we may also gain a greater chance of achieving our original goal of being liked, as we no longer worry about being judged and can thereby focus on what is within our control to deliver.
This principle in NLP is called making goals self-directed. When in a recent course a student said her goal was to be promoted, I pointed out that this goal was not within her control – it relied upon others to deliver this goal. It took some time until she realised that she would need to adjust that goal to ‘doing what was necessary to be in-line for a promotion’. The goal had become self-directed. It would also be more likely to help her gain a promotion or perhaps realise that it might be time to move on and seek that promotion elsewhere.
Another Stoic and NLP answer to this is to appreciate what you already have, and we will cover some techniques on how to achieve this simple, but counterintuitive, goal of cultivating appreciation.
Also, setting an intention to spend our life in appreciation and having positive emotions is a good goal for a philosophy of living.
Yes, negative emotions can sometimes help us realise what is wrong and motivate us to change. However, so much of our negative emotions are simply destructive and habitual.
Oftentimes we choose to dwell on things we can’t change – we also can’t accept when things go wrong for us (even though life is full of examples of things going wrong for other people). We can fill our minds with negative and repetitive narratives of things from our past that lead us to a familiar and unpleasant state. As the famous Stoic Epictetus said, ‘focusing on things you have no control over is futile and a waste of energy’.
To maintain tranquillity is then more complex than simply trying to force ourselves to think about positive stuff. A shift in our philosophy for living to want to be happy (and to explore what factors prevent it). A shift to new practices and beliefs to make us more robust and wise – especially when life deals us some difficult problems.
It is indeed unrealistic to expect to be happy all of the time – that is not what Stoicism or NLP are advocating. However, by adjusting our attitudes and expectations we can at least learn to be at relative peace during challenging times and experience joy far more frequently.
The greatest gift we can give ourselves is doing what is necessary to maintain a state of tranquillity for much of our day-to-day life. We can also implicitly teach those we care for to do similar, as they are likely to model our behaviour.
I hope some of these simple but profound principles can help deliver more inner-peace and I hope to see you next week in London or next month in Paris as we explore this and related ideas in more depth.