World Economic Forum shares 3 secrets for Happiness. Surprise, they belong to Ancient Romans

World Economic Forum shares 3 secrets for Happiness. Surprise, they belong to Ancient Romans

The World Economic Forum opens again next week. The weather is good and the leaders of the World are about to tell us what to do in 2019 to drive Humanity towards better destiny. As I did last year in my article, I searched if the topic of Happiness is high on WEF Agenda. I could not find it specifically but, searching through the Agenda, I found that, according to the Guardian: “The WEF has made mental health a key theme at Davos this year. The forum will address fears that depression, anxiety and other mental health problems are rising, and being neither measured correctly nor properly addressed.

Prince William will challenge business leaders to improve emotional and mental wellbeing in their workplaces. He’s appearing on a “mental health matters” panel alongside the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

Kensington Palace says the Duke of Cambridge will “use the opportunity to highlight his belief that the world’s major employers have a vital role to play in promoting mentally healthy societies and workplaces”.

Wow, here we are. All the work I am doing in raising attention to “Happiness at work” is paying off. One of the best antidote to anxiety, depression and solitude is to reinforce your mental health.

During 2018 many articles were published on WEF site about Happiness and one contains the answer: “3 secrets to happiness, according to Roman Stoics by John Sellars”. 

My surprise was high, as recently I started to study more about Roman stoics thanks to a very nice book: Meditations on Self -discipline and failure by William Ferraiolo. In the article, John Sellars writes that: “Last few years have seen a flurry of interest in the work of three Roman Stoic philosophers who offered answer to how to manage your Happiness. They were Seneca, tutor to the Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a former slave; and Marcus Aurelius, himself emperor. Modern books drawing on their ideas and repackaged as guidance for how to live well today include A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson, The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci and the one I referred earlier. What all these books share is the conviction that people can benefit by going back and looking at the ideas of these Roman Stoics. There’s even an annual week dedicated to Stoicism.

 Stoicism holds that the key to a good, happy life is the cultivation of an excellent mental state (mental fitness), which the Stoics identified with virtue and being rational. The ideal life is one that is in harmony with Nature (today we would call it Sustainability) , of which we are all part, and an attitude of calm indifference towards external events. It began in Greece, and was founded around 300BC by Zeno, who used teach at the site of the Painted Stoa in Athens, hence the name Stoicism. The works of the early Stoics are for the most part lost, so it is the Roman Stoics who have been most influential over the centuries, and continue to be today”.

Then the author suggests the recipe with 3 secrets (below I copied part of John Sellars article integrated with abstracts from the Marc Aurelius Meditations as published by William Ferraiolo and my comments.)

Control how you think

The first is that some things are within our control and some are not, and that much of our unhappiness is caused by thinking that we can control things that, in fact, we can’t. “You can control nothing other than your own attitudes, values, and efforts directed at mental discipline” Marcus Aurelius reports in Book 1 of his Meditations. “Master yourself (..) this is your only purpose”.

What can we control? Epictetus argues that we actually control very little. We don’t control what happens to us, we can’t control what the people around us say or do, and we can’t even fully control our own bodies, which get damaged and sick and ultimately die without regard for our preferences. The only thing that we really control is how we think about things, the judgements we make about things.

This leads us to the second foundational principle from Epictetus: it’s not things that upset us, but how we think about things. Stuff happens. We then make judgements about what happens. If we judge that something really bad has happened, then we might get upset, sad, or angry, depending on what it is. If we judge that something bad is likely to happen then we might get scared or fearful. All these emotions are the product of the judgements we make. Things in themselves are value neutral, for what might seem terrible to us might be a matter of indifference to someone else, or even welcomed by others. It’s the judgements we make that introduce value into the picture, and it’s those value judgements that generate our emotional responses.

The good Stoic news is that these value judgements are the one thing over which we have complete control. Things happen, none of which are inherently good or bad, and it’s within our power to decide how we value them. The paradox of Stoicism, as Epictetus formulates it, is that we have almost no control over anything, yet at the same time we have potentially complete control over our happiness.

Train your mind

At first glance, this might seem to understate the very real challenges that people face in their daily lives. How can just thinking differently help someone who is struggling to put food on their table, for instance? The Stoics didn’t shy away from this. They fully acknowledged that life can be hard sometimes.

Seneca knew this all too well: he suffered exile, multiple bereavements, and was ultimately forced to commit suicide by Nero. He also knew that it was all too easy to say “I’m not going to let these external things disturb me” but quite another to follow through and not be disturbed oneself.

So the Stoics developed a whole series of practical exercises designed to help train people to incorporate Stoic ideas into their daily lives. Seneca recommended taking stock at the end of each day, noting when you become irritated by something trivial, or act angrily in response to someone who perhaps didn’t deserve it, and so on. By noting his mistakes, he hoped to do better the next day.

Marcus Aurelius had another strategy, reminding himself each morning that he was probably going to encounter a lot of angry, stressed, impatient, ungrateful people during the coming day. By reflecting on this in advance, the hope was that he would be less likely to respond in kind. But he also reflected on the fact that none of these people would be like this intentionally. They were the victims of their own mistaken judgements. He suggested to cultivate Gratitude: “never fail to appreciate the unearned opportunities that you have been granted. These are gifts not provided to all and appreciate what you have, not compare: “What others have been granted is none of your concerns”.

Here we get another paradox: no one chooses to be unhappy, stressed, angry, miserable, and yet these are in fact all the product of our judgements, the one thing within our control.

Accept what happens

Another Stoic strategy is to remind ourselves of our relative unimportance.” No one is master of his own fate. No one is master of any domain beyond his own will and sphere of direct influence. Do not attempt to change the weather. The world does not revolve around us. Adapt to its changes and do not complain of heat, rain or snow. This is not your business”.

Applied to the corporate context these 3 simple suggestions would facilitate reaching individual and team Happiness. If you are interested to know more see here.

The sun is shining in Davos, echoes of the Romans Stoics may help world leaders to set improvement policies on mental health based on the search of individual happiness with a recipe with more than 2,300 years.