There’s a simple game we all play called the “social hierarchy game”. We constantly compare ourselves to our closest friends or co-workers to make sure we’re doing as well or better than them. We use self-promotion as a tool to climb the social ladder. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as our ancestors had to avoid rejection from the group to stay alive. Status was directly connected to survival and access to basic life resources. This ancient habit is deeply embedded in our psyche and manifests in the brands we choose, virtue signalling on social media as well as our eating and reading habits.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
You would hope that as we get older we stop wasting time and energy on the comparison game but in reality we wear our accomplishments like medals. Your salary, the value of your home, the views on your YouTube video…letting arbitrary numbers get to your head can be a serious impediment to happiness. I’ve been pondering this thought for a number of years which has led me to dive deep into the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Over 2,000 years ago philosophers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius taught that devoting mental resources to things outside of one’s control, like what other people thought of them, is a supreme waste of time.
Stoicism isn’t about happiness per se, but rather about living in a state of tranquility and peace with ones inner world. The Stoics recognised that for many people, the social hierarchy game was a hindrance to this state of mind. William Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University explicitly says you shouldn’t care about the opinion of most people. It is in fact a sign of progress if you get more condemnation rather than adulation. Thinking about thinking isn’t just an energy-draining distraction. Getting lost in this game actually makes it easy to be led astray from your personal priorities and look for leadership outside of yourself. Rather than idolising super-achievers, look for meaning in the transcendent. One can find great personal importance in a creative pursuit or sacrificing leisure time to something greater than yourself.
You will of course continue the comparisons. Yet comparing up leads to feelings of envy and low self esteem. Comparing down only leads to a brief moment of satisfaction with one’s own achievements . The trick is to catch yourself in these moments and observe your thoughts. Just be completely present. Realise that you are not your thoughts. You are simply the observer of them. And like picking what clothes to wear when you wake, you get to choose which thoughts you pay attention to and act on. Even the anxious ones. Because the point of anxiety is to let you know that something is wrong. So by taking a step back you get to be honest with yourself. You get to see whether that thought is true and relevant. And if it is you can then analyse the circumstances that are within your control and act decisively.
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today.” – Seneca
The four cardinal virtues of Stoic philosophy as derived from the teachings of Plato are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance (self restraint). A stoic individual must apply these in all walks of life and practice them on a daily basis. Knowing is just the first step, acting on this knowledge and taking the road less travelled is half the battle. Working through the pain of life nets you intangible benefits in the future and just because you’re not seeing results does not mean your efforts are futile. The race is long and in the end its only with yourself. Seeking comfort is one of the worst things a person can do in terms of finding overall happiness so start each morning with a smile and observe any thoughts that arise. Decide which ones are a priority and which ones to throw away. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
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