The right attitude for a happy life

When it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, attitudes are more important than circumstances.

This is the core message of the first self-help manual, Enchiridion, which is a collection of practical precepts from the second-century Greek-speaking philosopher Epictetus.

What does Epictetus mean when he says that attitudes are more important than circumstances?

Well, imagine that you have a certain amount of money. What decides whether that amount of money is enough?

The money isn't going to tell you, says Epictetus.

Only you can decide.

Some people lead contented and happy lives on a modest amount of money. Others feel discontented and miserable on the same amount. So, precisely the same circumstances can make you happy or miserable, depending on your attitude.

We can't control our circumstances, says Epictetus, but we can control how we respond to these circumstances.

Bad things will happen to us every day. Often, these are small things. But, small or not, if we dwell upon them, they will make us feel grumpy and discontented.

"If the weather keeps us from travelling," says Epictetus, "we sit down, fret, and keep asking, which way is the wind blowing?

"(If it is) from the north, that's no good. When will it blow from the west?" This is foolish. Fretting and complaining will never change the weather. It will only disturb our peace of mind.

What should we do then?

We should do whatever is within our power to improve things, and then accept our circumstances calmly and cheerfully.

But this is not an easy thing to do. It takes practice.

Epictetus says: "We should discipline ourselves in small things, and from these progress to things of greater value.

"If you have a headache, practise not cursing.

"Don't curse every time you have an earache. I'm not saying that you can't complain, only don't complain with your whole being."


With practice, claims Epictetus, we can learn to live happily and contentedly under even the most trying of circumstances.

For example, after a bereavement. When a loved one dies, it is, of course, a very sad affair. But Epictetus insists that it need not ruin our lives.

The philosopher illustrates this point by discussing the Greek hero Achilles, who went to pieces following the death of his beloved friend Patroclus.

According to Epictetus, Achilles' problem wasn't the fact that his friend died. After all, there are plenty of people who don't fall to pieces when their friends die.

Achilles' problem was his attitude. His problem was that he chose to lament.

He chose not merely to mourn, but to mourn with his whole being.

People die. That is the way of the world. We have to accept it. And what is more, we have to learn to accept it calmly and cheerfully.

To the modern reader, this may sound harsh. But really, it isn't.

The idea isn't that we should become emotionally detached from our family and friends.

We should cherish them and care for them while they are alive.

Neither is the idea that we should forget about our loved ones once they are gone.

We can cherish their memories.

But what we shouldn't do is to direct our attention and our energies upon the thought that their death is bad.

Often, when people become anxious or depressed following an upsetting event of any kind, it is not the event itself, but their own response, that is the problem.

Epictetus put it like this: "It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them."

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

This article was first published on Aug 25, 2015.
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