Ancient secrets to modern happiness

Jordana Divon

“Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” Or at least that’s probably what you were told a thousand times when you were growing up, whether it meant sitting up straight or finishing your vegetables.

You may be surprised to learn the saying has been annoying children for thousands of years — ever since it first sprang from the pen of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

When it comes to our 21st century notions of happiness and well-being, there’s quite a bit we can still learn by revisiting ancient philosophical texts.

Yale philosophy and cognitive science professor Tamar Gendler has drawn from a list of themes in ancient wisdom to show just how long people have been struggling to attain personal happiness and how the ancients still have lessons to teach the modern world.

Socrates: Develop self-knowledge
Noted for being the “wisest among men,” Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who famously claimed that the wise man knows that he knows nothing.

“One of the most profound bits of self-knowledge is knowing that you don’t know. And knowing that with respect to yourself, your motivations will be opaque,” says Gendler.

In some ways, Socrates’ idea was a precursor to therapy. Failing to understand one’s own motivations is often what triggers the search for help from a knowledgeable outside source, whether a counsellor, book or loved one.

But just as Socrates suggests, the key to improving overall well-being is acknowledging our blind spots and working to gain insight into ourselves.

Cicero: Cultivate and appreciate true friendship
Famed Roman orator Cicero knew how to craft a sentence, but also understood the importance of friendship.

“Friendship projects a bright ray of hope into the future, and upholds the spirit which otherwise might falter or grow faint. He who looks upon a true friend, looks, as it were, upon a better image of himself,” he said in 355 B.C.E.

While that sentiment remains true today, the landscape has changed. Social media has made it easier to connect than ever before, while face-to-face contact has become less common.

“One of the things that’s really striking is the possibility of being friends with somebody in a disembodied fashion. And that, I think, is something we don’t yet know the implications of,” Gendler says.

Until we figure it out, the best tactic is to simply keep interacting. So keep your online friends close and your real life friends closer.

Epictetus: Recognize what is and is not in your control

Born a Roman slave, Epictetus survived a difficult childhood at the hands of a cruel owner, and, through sheer determination, transformed himself into one of the great masters of Greek Stoic philosophy.

His history helps to explain why he believed that true happiness comes from recognizing what is and is not in our control and by working within those parameters to achieve a peaceful state of mind.

“The idea that there are things that are not up to you has got to be part of your world picture regardless of your theistic position,” says Gendler. “I think the question [is] how do we represent our actions to ourselves? Do we represent it as having been a matter of choice? Is it a matter of self-expression? It’s going to rise regardless of what your outlook is.”

This doesn’t mean you should think of yourself as a mere puppet on the universe’s string. Instead, try to take responsibility for everything within your power and work to recognize what you and others are capable of achieving.

Aristotle: Foster change through habit
Despite her love for other philosophers, Gendler remains partial to Aristotle’s idea that change can be attained through consistent action.

“The best way to become something is to act like that’s what you already were. It’s extraordinarily simple, but if you reflect on it, and really think about what that means, it changes almost every aspect of your life.”

Fake it until you make it — a simple idea that has withstood the test of time.