Seeking Happiness……You’re Doing it Wrong
I have been reading Seneca’s letters to Lucillius lately and today’s letter was a good one. Even though Seneca lived 2,000 years ago, his thoughts are as relevant today as they were then. Today’s letter focused on living by “nature” versus living by “opinion.” (natural versus opinion related needs)
One of the central themes of Stoic philosophy is to live in accordance with nature. The natural needs are simple, safety, to have enough to eat and drink, and to avoid cold. It took until 1943 for this simple proposal to come up again with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see below), with physiological and safety forming the bottom of the pyramid. The Stoics would find Maslow’s theory to be familiar. I can imagine a Stoic shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Yes, of course.”
Seneca’s main point in this letter was that natural needs have an end point. You are thirsty, you drink, and you are done. You are cold, you put on a coat, now you are warm. Problem solved. In fact, he proposes that an end point is a great way to differentiate between natural needs and needs based on opinion. To Seneca and the Stoics, making this distinction was of utmost importance. In a quote that Seneca attributes to Epicurus, he states why this is so, “If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.”
Seneca unpacks this simple statement eloquently, “Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any art has devised for the luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”
What he is pointing out is that “opinion” related needs do not have an endpoint. They only result in greater craving. What satisfied you yesterday is no longer sufficient today. Everyone struggles with the balance between how much you want and how much you have. Almost everyone focuses on the wrong side of this equation (trying to have more), rather than the side of the equation that is most easily within your control (wanting less). To the Stoics, being rich was not defined by how much you had. Rich simply meant that you had enough. If you constantly desired more, you were poor, regardless of how much you had. To the Stoics, this was a shameful state, which made you a slave to your desires and ruined any chance at a happy life. How could you be happy if you were constantly dissatisfied?
The Stoic solution was to focus on fulfilling the “natural” needs and understanding that what they called “fortune” (basically luck) had a large say in determining what we accumulated in terms of the needs of ”opinion”. Because these “opinion” needs (luxuries, honors, fame, admiration) only create more cravings and do not satisfy the want/have equation, there is no end point. The more you accumulate, the more you want. The Stoics would not be surprised by the fact that many lottery winners did not find happiness. The end point is where we are satisfied. To reach the end point, focus instead on wanting less, not accumulating more.
Coach Gordo Byrn (former professional triathlete and modern Stoic philosopher) said it plainly (and better in my opinion), the secret to happiness is “need little, want less.”
Seneca quotes from Letter 16, The Tao of Seneca, Volume 1 available here: (https://tim.blog/2017/07/06/tao-of-seneca/)