For Advice on Happiness, Look No Further than the Founding Fathers

Many quotes are attributed to Thomas Jefferson, after all he was known to be a prolific writer and deep thinker. Below is a quote that I think is spot on. Whether it actually came from the mouth or pen of Thomas Jefferson, I can neither confirm nor deny.

Suffice it say that I think the quote alone has merit and have expounded upon it with my thoughts below. I hope that this is in some way helpful for you.

It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.Thomas Jefferson

Intentional Living Birds Sunset

Find Tranquility

In his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, philosophy professor and author William B. Irvine, describes a methodology for finding tranquility through the practice of Stoicism. I recently read the book and found that many of the principles he discusses are useful in developing and maintaining a tranquil emotional state.

I highly recommend reading the book, but I’d also like to share with you three principles that I saw as being the most powerful. These principles, when practiced, have the ability to bring tranquility into your life.

  1. Everyone needs their own life’s philosophy
  2. Accept that all things are perishable
  3. Accept that some things are outside of your control

Of course, there are additional, valuable aspects to the philosophy of stoicism. The Stoics philosophers did make the development and practice of the philosophy their life’s work. But I think that these three principles are a very good starting point and have made radical improvements in my emotional life. And I think they can do the same for you.

What is Your Life’s Philosophy?

There are as many different views on life and the purpose of our existence, as there are people in this world. Everyone comes at life through the context of their own experiences, their dreams, and their desires. So I don’t think its prudent for me to prescribe what your philosophy should be.

However, William B. Irvine suggests in his writings that each person find their very own philosophy. This makes sense from the perspective that philosophies are not universal truths or facts, they are opinions. They are patterns of thinking applied to specific situations and people.

That is why, borrowing your philosophy from someone else, may inherently lead to feelings of misalignment within yourself. It’s worth taking some time to really think about who you are and what you want out of life. After all, you only get one shot.

Aligning your life’s philosophy with who you really are is what I call integrity. I’ve written about integrity before, and if you’d like to read more on this topic you can find my previous articles here.

As you begin thinking about who you are and what you want, be patient with yourself. Rome was not built in a day and neither were you. We’re complicated beings who often experience conflicting desires. We must often weigh the short term possibilities, with the long term consequences.

To help you in the process of discovering your life’s philosophy, here are a few things to keep in mind. Each of these simple ideas can help you as you think about, define, and refine you life’s philosophy.

  1. Take Your Time. I’ve already mentioned this one above, but I think its worth mentioning again. Be patient. While I believe its important to really figure out what you want in life, I don’t think you should decide on a whim.
  2. Remove Distractions. Seldom do I feel inspired in my writing when I’m browsing social media or watching television. The times I feel inspired about my writings and my life are when I’m running (without headphones), driving in the car (without the radio on), or reading an uplifting book. Set your mind free with a quiet walk or meditations session. Ideas will flow much more naturally and it will be much easier to make connections
  3. Focus on Intrinsic Rewards. This practice alone has changed my outlook on life and brought tranquility to my mind. If you’re life’s purpose is to achieve fame or fortune, then you will never be able to reach a state of tranquility. We’ll dive into this further as we discuss things outside of our control, but suffice it to say that focusing on external rewards is setting yourself up for disappointment. If instead you focus on intrinsic rewards – such as learning, developing compassion, or doing your very best – you will set yourself up for success.
  4. Refine Your Philosophy Over Time. Life is dynamic. Our opinions of things often change as we learn and experience life. If your opinions aren’t changing over time, then you may be stuck in a mental rut. I’d suggest reading a new genre of book or spending time with people from a different culture or socioeconomic background. Let your life’s learning chisel away at your life’s philosophy until its comprehensive and refined.

Coming to Terms with the Short Shelf Life of All Things

Do you want to be free of jealousy, pride, and malice? Do you want to feel satisfied and content with who you are and what you have? Do you want to know the secret to tranquility?

Its pretty simple actually. The secret is to understand that natural desires (hunger, thirst, the desire for sleep) can be easily satisfied. Unnatural desires (the desires for possessions, fame, and fortune) cannot be satisfied. I’m going to repeat this for emphasis – unnatural desires can never ever be satisfied.

Why? You might ask. Well, its pretty simple. As human beings we only receive satisfaction from external stimuli, such as possessions, for a period of time. Once the initial reward period is over, we become accustomed to our possessions, then we grow bored with them, then over time we become annoyed with them.

In fact, research has shown that our satisfactions with our possessions diminishes to such a degree that we actually become dissatisfied with things. The more we consume the less we’re happy with that consumption.

We often don’t come to a cognitive realization of what we’re doing, so we repeat the cycle thinking that the next purchase, promotion, or like on social media will make us happy. Its really hard not to get caught up in the consumption-unhappiness cycle. There are so many things constantly begging for our attention.

How do we break this cycle? The most straight forward answer is to stop wanting things we don’t have and start appreciating the things we do have. So, how do we do that?

In his book, William B. Irvine described a practice employed by ancient Stoics as well as himself, to change our mind set about possessions. He suggests that we periodically take time to think about the things we have and to imagine what life would be like if we lost them.

This is called Negative Visualization and can be used not only for possessions but also relationships and even our own lives. Essentially, you consider the fact that all things are perishable and will one day come to an end. This may sound a bit morbid, but I can attest that it actually works to make you appreciate things more fully.

For example: Lets say that you hate your car and sometimes you wish that a pillar of fire would descend from the sky and consume it. You wish that you could afford a newer car. One that has functioning windows and air conditioning. One that doesn’t rattle, whine, and sputter every time you have to go somewhere. One that is more comfortable, reliable, and much less embarrassing.

These may be the thoughts you dwell on currently, and might I add they are perfectly natural. But they aren’t doing you any good. They make you feel annoyed and frustrated each time you have to drive your less than perfect car. Perhaps you feel embarrassed when others see you in your car, so you park on the far end of the parking lot. At least you’re getting more exercise.

All of these negative emotions you’re experiencing are not enjoyable and they certainly don’t make you happier. And since a new car is not in your budget right now, there’s really not much that you can do, right?

Wrong! Negative Visualization can get you out of this funk. Take some time now to think about what your life would be like if you didn’t even have your current vehicle. How would you get to work? How would you go to the grocery store or to visit a friend? How would you pick your kids up from school?

You can certainly make life work without a car. In fact, there are a lot of people who do make it work. You may have to take the bus or ride your bike. Your kids may have to take the school bus. You may have to walk to the store or ask your friends to come to your house. You may even have to quit your job and work somewhere much closer to home.

 

You can see that simply changing your internal conversation about your possessions can help you appreciate what you have. This doesn’t only have to be the case for possessions though, Negative Visualization can be powerful for relationships as well.

For example: Lets say that you often find yourself having negative thoughts about your spouse or significant other. Rather than dwelling on these negative thoughts you can practice Negative Visualization and imagine what it would be like to live without them.

Wouldn’t you miss their friendship? Wouldn’t you miss having someone you can share everything with? What if you were separated by death? You would have to deal with a funeral and figuring out what to do with all of their stuff. How would it affect your kids? You relationships with other couples?

Once you’ve thought about the potential of losing a loved one, you will begin to appreciate them much more. You will also find it easier to overlook their small shortcomings. What I’ve found is that it makes me appreciate the time I have with people even more. It makes me feel more connected to my wife and children and more grateful for the time we have together.

A word of caution: Negate Visualization should not be taken too far. It should not be employed to the point of creating fears and real anxiety. It should simply be used as a tool to make you appreciate what you have. You can practice using this tool at different times and to differing degrees of intensity.  Discover what works best for you and go from there.

Let Go of What You Cannot Control

We vanquish our tranquility every time we worry about something over which we actually have no control. We do this because we haven’t made the conscious distinction between things over which we have control and things over which we have no control. In his book William B. Irvine expands the Stoic idea of control to include the following three categories:

  1. Things you have complete control over
  2. Things you have partial control over
  3. Things you have no control over

From the perspective of a Stoic we have control over the things in our minds, such as our opinions, conclusions, and choices. These are the things we should concern ourselves with. We have the full capacity to decide if we will love, forgive, or even whether we’ll give a darn about something. This is where our energy should be focused.

The things we have partial control over actually deserve some of our time and energy. An example of something you have partial control over is a game of chess or a job interview. You may really want a certain job, but thinking that you are the only one responsible for getting that job is bound to bring you anguish.

Think about it for a second and you’ll soon realize that you have only partial control over whether or not you get the job. You have control over how much you prepare for the interview, how well you’ve groomed your hair, and how pressed your blouse is. However, if the interviewer doesn’t find you to be the best candidate, you’re not going to get the job.

So how do you deal with this type of situation. William B. Irvine has a good suggestion for this as well. He says that you should set goals over which you do have complete control. When it comes to preparing for an interview or a chess match you can choose as your goal to prepare as best you can and to perform to the best of your abilities.. If you do those things and let go of the end result as a gauge of success, then you’ll find tranquility in the experience.

That way, even if you don’t win the match or get the job, you come away with a sense of accomplishment. If you can internalize your expectations and let go of the end result as a gauge of success, you’ll find tranquility in the experience.

 

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”Jon Wooden

 

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” – John Wooden

 

Everything else that you encounter are things outside of your control. Don’t spend time worrying about them. If you find yourself feeling anxious or worried about a situation, take some time to categories your concerns into one of these buckets, and you’ll find that right away you start to feel more tranquil.

You only have so much energy. If you focus it in the right places, you’ll greatly improve your emotional health, your tranquility, and your hapiness. You’ll probably also find that it helps you achieve other successes along the way.

 

Find Occupation

I’m thoroughly convinced that happiness cannot be achieved while doing nothing. Yes, it may be beneficial to take time off and relax every now and then. But if you don’t have something that makes you get out of bed every morning, then you’re going to spend your life in a state of perpetual sleep.

 

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” – Steve Jobs

 

Occupation can mean various things for us; such as a career, learning, working on projects, or writing. Just as each person will have their own philosophy on life, each of us will have our own occupation that makes life worth living.

One thing I try to remember is that the occupation I choose, to give my life purpose, does not have to produce money. There have been plenty of times that I’ve killed an idea that would have brought me fulfillment, because I reasoned that it would not bring me income. This is crazy! It’s times like these that I have to remind myself that happiness is about doing what you love, not about making money.

Some people are fortunate enough that the things they love doing also provide a living wage for them. For others, your life’s occupation can be an outlet from the need to make a living. Find something you are passionate about and do it with your whole heart, this just may be the secret to longevity, fulfillment, and happiness.

 

Conclusion

Having tranquility and an occupation, is not a destination but a journey. The path to these things will bring happiness. They’ve made life better for me, and I’m confident they will make life better for you.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. If it has, please leave a comment below and I’ll make sure to respond to you. Thanks!


 

Pacific Swells is a collection of short stories and helpful articles about finding happiness through intentional living.

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