Focus

by Jon Sullivan - 2022-09-06 - Jonism

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"Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems" - Epictetus

For me one of the interesting paradoxes with Capital S Stoicism is that we've defined lower s stoicism as an absence of emotion. As an avoidance of happiness. But exactly the opposite is true. Stoicism is purely a tool for being more happy. About living your best life. And in Stoicism the path to happiness is a simple equation - Focus on things you control, and then live and react with Virtue.

It might be argued that the main source of unhappiness is focusing on things we don't control. Desiring things we can't have. On trying to affect things we really can't. And the balance of things we control vs don't control is wildly weighted towards things we don't control. Trump destroyed American Democracy, that makes me mad. Someone cut me off in traffic and drives like an asshole, that makes me mad. Inflation has screwed up my financial situation, that makes me stressed. It's raining, that makes me depressed. None of those things are in my control, yet they still make me mad and depressed. They make me unhappy because I focus on the unhappy.

Stoicism is setting aside that anger and stress, and shifting focus to things we can change. The problems don't go away obviously, but they wouldn't go away anyway, because nothing I can do can fix Trump or the economy or assholes. So that anger is just there, doing nothing, not helping anyone, but still feeding on any problem to keep the unhappy growing. By focusing on things we can't control we feed unhappiness. We feed envy and resentment and jealousy.

Emotion is fine, and I'm not suggesting people try to prune it from their life. But use it to pick out the things you can control so you can focus on actions with a chance of making you happy. Envy over things you can never have pure unhappiness. Same with anger, sadness, loneliness. These are all real and legitimate. But if you let them drive your thoughts and actions you give them control of your life. Not everything is fixable. But you control what you fixate on. You control what you desire. You control how you react.

You have power over your mind and reactions, not events. When you narrow your focus you have a much better chance at being happy. Narrow your focus to build a life you don't want to escape from.

What you have actually control over is a narrow slice of all the things you can choose to devote your attention and energy to. If you set aside the things you can't control, can't fix, can't affect, things that have nothing to do with you, you end up focusing on the things that can make you happy.

"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. [...] To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions." - Marcus Aurelius

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