Title: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Author: William B. Irvine

Rating: 9/10

I read this book a few years ago and have found that following the concepts in it have genuinely helped me to live a more tranquil life.

Read this book if you’re finding the world a bit overwhelming and want to live a more purposeful and fulfilling life, rather than a life of mindless consumption.

Buy this book on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

A practical guide to modern Stoicism.

Stoicism is a life philosophy that can help you lead a more tranquil and joyous life.

If you embrace the form of Stoicism this book teaches then, according to Seneca (an ancient Stoic), you will “be attended by a constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within”.

Relation to Zen Buddhism

Stoicism has some things in common with Zen Buddhism.

Both of these philosophies emphasise the transitory nature of the world and the importance of mastering desire.

They also both have tranquility as the ultimate goal and teach us how to get it.

Stoic psychological techniques

The Stoics developed certain techniques to help them achieve the goal of tranquility.

Negative visualisation

Reflect on the bad things that could happen to you or your loved ones. It makes you grateful for what you have and makes your joy more durable when you are hit by misfortune.

Think about things that make you sad or angry from other people’s perspective.

The Dichotomy (trichotomy) of control

  • Things we have complete control over, e.g. goals and values
  • Things we have no control over, e.g. the weather, the news
  • Things we have some control over, e.g. whether we win at tennis

Don’t worry about things you have no control over.

Focus on things you have complete control over.

When it comes to things you have some control over make sure you’re careful setting goals.

Rather than setting the goal of winning the tennis match set the goal of playing to the best of your ability, then be pleasantly surprised if you win.


Let go of the past and the present, they are what fate intended. Focus on the future, which you can control.

This links back to the dichotomy of control. You can’t control the past and present (you can act on the present, but that’s a plan for the future), so don’t spend time worrying about them.

Self denial

Embrace voluntary discomfort occasionally.

  • Underdress for the weather
  • Eat basic food without herbs and spices
  • Sleep somewhere uncomfortable
  • Have black tea or coffee

Try and forego opportunities to experience pleasure, they will numb you to it and then you will always need the pleasure to feel tranquil.

By having more discomfort and less pleasure in our lives we widen our comfort zone and learn to appreciate the simpler things in life.

Meditation - Watching ourselves practicing Stoicism

Write down the days events and how we should have responded to them according to Stoic principles.

Think about the parts where you succeeded and successfully practiced Stoicism.

  • Are you practicing negative visualisation?
  • Are you distinguishing between things you fully control, partly control and don’t control?
  • Are you internalising your goals?
  • Are you dwelling on the past instead of focussing on the future?
  • Are you practicing self-denial?

Stoic Advice

Duty - on loving mankind

Do your duty not through fear of punishment but prospect of reward.

Social relations - on dealing with other people

  • Form your character in private and remain true to it around others
  • Avoid people with vices you don’t want to pick up
  • Avoid people that are whiny
  • Be selective about the social functions you attend
  • When interacting with annoying people, bear in mind that others find you annoying, too
  • Don’t worry about what others say, think, or do
  • Social fatalism: people are the way they are, try to accept them as they are but also try to gently improve them

Insults - on putting up with put downs

Pause and consider if what the insulter said is true. If it is then no reason to be upset.

Consider how well informed the insulter is. If you respect the source they are likely trying to help you.

  • Consider the source of insults
  • We are the source of the sting of an insult
  • We get upset because of our judgement of “things”
  • Counter the insult with humour or silence

Grief - on vanquishing tears with reason

  • Grieve enough to avoid indifference, but not so much that you tend towards madness
  • Negative visualisation will help remove some of the shock we experience
  • Retrospective negative visualisation - visualise the past without the person you are grieving and be thankful for the time you had with them
  • Use reason to make sense of a situation

Anger - on overcoming anti-joy

  • Being angry is a waste of precious time
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about people’s motivations
  • Too much pleasure and not enough self-denial will make us quick to anger
  • Things that anger us generally don’t do us harm, they are just annoying
  • Humour can prevent us from becoming angry
  • Contemplate the impermanence of the world, this will put the thing that made you angry into perspective
  • When we feel ourselves getting angry, pause to consider the cosmic (in)significance of it
  • Remind ourselves that our behaviour angers others
  • When angry, force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice and slow our pace of walking
  • If we are unable to control our anger and lash out then we should immediately apologise so that we can return to calm and not obsess over the thing that made us angry
  • Why experience anti-joy when you can experience joy?

Personal values - on seeking fame

  • Remain indifferent to social status
  • Stoics value their freedom and are reluctant to do anything that gives others power over them
  • Be indifferent to what other people think so you can keep your freedom
  • Ignoring what people think of us is another form of not worrying about things we can’t control

Personal values - on luxurious living

  • Too much luxury makes it harder to appreciate simple things
  • Avoid becoming a connoisseur, it will diminish your ability to delight in simple things

Buy A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.