science of us

I Knew There Was More to Life Than All Those Guys Blogging About Stoicism

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In a study called, casually, “Choosing How to Feel” (and, formally, “Endogenous Emotion Generation in Emotion Regulation”), researchers evaluated the ways that participants calmed themselves in response to stress.

Was it better to think of rational, actionable (stoic?) solutions, or to think of unrelated positive emotions (thinking good thoughts) in an attempt to achieve a better mood? The researchers determined this by looking at data gathered in an earlier MRI study on participants who were asked to think of various positive and negative scenarios. (They also considered a third tendency — the tendency to “blame oneself, ruminate, and catastrophize” — although they found that this led to “mood worsening.”)

The researchers open the paper with a quote from the Stoic philosopher Seneca (beloved among certain self-improvement corners of the internet, and I say that lovingly): “There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” And although classical Stoicism promised to help assuage fear in general, the researchers explain, modern Stoic thinking eventually “pivoted” toward the more specific idea that “all emotion should be suppressed and excised, supplanted by cold rationality.”

The researchers present their results as something of a counter to this pivot: Both of the methods they studied — both cool rationalizing and positive, emotional thinking — proved valuable in reducing the participants’ suffering.

In their Spock-ian conclusion, they write that “while clearly a potential source of unproductive mental anguish,” self-generated emotions (i.e. positive thinking) “might also be a potent ally, allowing us to employ our emotions instrumentally in order to facilitate emotional well-being, and, by doing so, support rationality itself.”

This reminds me of the ancient Roman mosaic that archaeologists uncovered a couple of years ago — the one of a reclining skeleton eating bread and drinking wine beside text that says, in Greek: “Be cheerful. Enjoy your life.”

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I think about this mosaic all the time. Is it a rebuke? A blessing? Both? Neither? A joke, a riddle, the only truth? It’s been described as a “reckless skeleton,” although I’m not sure that’s accurate. Elsewhere, it’s called “jovial,” which feels more fitting.

It seems to me that the skeleton and its message occupy a similar point between Stoicism and optimism, perhaps.

Is Stoicism or Optimism Better for Your Mental Health?