A wonderful book. Provides an accessible and approachable overview of past philosophies, and shows how they apply better to your life than the harmful self-help-positivity trends we see today. Written in a light and humorous way. Is very strong and enlightening in the middle. So many ‘aha’ moments.

Happiness is about the stories we tell ourselves

  • To take authorship of our stories, and experiencing mindfulness rather than mindlessness, makes for happier and healthier lives.
  • We are trapped inside our own heads. Our beliefs and understandings of the world are limited by that perspective.
  • Perhaps the first mark of emotional maturity is to realize that there’s an enormous gulf between the events of the world and what we do with them.
  • “Out there” and “In here” are two very different kingdoms, and other people are not accountable for how we feel.
  • Confirmation bias provides daily all the evidence we need to keep the storyline we’ve created for our life continuing to look like the truth.
  • Fame and success do very little to affect one’s level of happiness.

We need some sort of story in place, because without one we would lack any coherent sense of identity. But gently reconsider your personal tale and be open to improvement. A little editing and polishing can go a long way.

The real secret to happiness might be to accept the indifference of the universe to your wishes. The universe does not rearrange itself according to your whim.

Are you choosing for yourself?

  • Without people around you, would you still have all the material desires you have now?
  • We choose our lifestyles—our houses, our clothes, and our watches — with other people in mind.
  • Our desires would diminish drastically if we didn’t need to impress anyone.
  • We fell more envy to the people close to us. We are far more likely to feel envy to our work colleague than to a celebrity.

“Wealth is like sea-water—the more we drink, the thirstier we become—and the same is true of fame.” —Schopenhauer

It is not what we own that satisfies us, but rather what we have in relation to what we feel is possible and attainable for ourselves. That is the tension that causes dissatisfaction.

  • The places and things that insist most loudly that they will make us happy rarely do.
  • We search for happiness in distractions rather than joy.

“You need a change of soul, not a change of climate.” —Seneca

Happiness and authorship

If we don’t assume more conscious authorship of our stories, others will write them for us, and we will invariably find ourselves fundamentally bored or anxious to any number of complaints from within.

We don’t make decisions based on our experiences. We make decisions based on stories of our experiences.

We care a lot about endings when we consider stories.

A considered life is one in which we deeply engage with our own story. We need to identify what our story is and then know how to move it forward.

The four steps of Socratic tradition

  1. Humans can know themselves. We can use our reason to examine our unconscious beliefs and values.
  2. Humans can change themselves. We can use our reason to change our beliefs. This will change our emotions, because our emotions follow our beliefs.
  3. Humans can consciously create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting.
  4. If we follow philosophy as a way of life, we can live more flourishing lives.

There are two different versions of selves:

  1. The experiencing self
  2. And the remembering self

Happiness and religion

With Christianity the attainment of perfect happiness ceased to be a concern of the here and now and became something that would happen in the far-off future.

  • With Christianity we are told we should suffer now to obtain happiness later.
  • In contrast to the Stoics and Epicureans which strived to avoid suffering, the Christians now instructed us to embrace it as a sign of holiness.

Happiness should not be our goal per se, and to chase it directly is a mistake. Instead see it as a by-product, achieved indirectly through the process of individual liberation.

Happiness and work

Out daily employment does not need to be our identity. It’s a wonderful bonus to do what one enjoys, but it’s not necessary.

What counts is not the work but our relationship to it.

To become happier we need to reassess our attachments to things in the world. We need to feel differently about things that cause anxiety.

Simple desires

If happiness lies in the relationship between what we desire and what we have, we should start considering paying more attention to the first than to obsess over the latter.

  • Demanding less has the potential to be enormously enriching.
  • We are all attached to far too many unnecessary objects, and they affect our happiness as they each bring with them this risk of pain.
  • Keep your desires simple. With less to worry about, the unpredictable nature of life is less likely to bother you.

The Stoics way of achieving tranquility was through virtue. Virtue in the sense of a thing doing the job it was designed for as well as possible. For instance, “A house has virtue when it is well built and does its unique job as a house very well.” Deciding the virtue of a person comes from first understanding what that thing’s unique quality and purpose is in the world. Our unique quality is our capacity for reason.

Realize that you are responsible for your own emotions. It’s a powerful notion.

Building blocks

  1. If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.
  2. Don’t try to change things you cannot control.

There is a difference between taking charge of something and taking responsibility for the things you’re feeling.

  • When we let things go that we cannot control, nothing bad happens.
  • Blind optimism rarely thinks to distinguish between what is and what is not in our control. It relies on the sheer faith to have us believe that everything is under our control.
  • Mentally rehearse losing everything you have.
  • Teaching from the Epicureans: learn to desire what you already have, and you will have all you need.

Christianity in its beginning presented itself as a school of thought, adopting the spiritual exercises of philosophical traditions such as Stoicism. It was much later during the medieval times that Christian theology became the supreme science.

Two questions to ask ourselves when we feel mad, bad or sad:

  1. I am responsible for how I feel about external events. What am I doing to give myself this feeling?
  2. Is this thing that’s upsetting me something which lies under my control? If not, what if I were to decide it’s fine and let it go?

We can accept that a thing is not within our control and decide it’s fine. Once we’ve made that decision, our insecurities dissolve.

In Stoic premeditation, you aren’t aiming to “let go” of thoughts like the Buddhists—rather we want to rationally engage with them.

Resisting curiosity (about gossip or what other people say about you) is a refinement of the Stoic rule to only concern yourself with what lies in your power.

We can aim high, seek to change the world, yet always be satisfied by the outcome.

  • Anger is just proof of how unrealistic your expectations were.
  • It would be mad to rely on fame as a source of happiness. Other people lend you renown and you rely on that, something of theirs, to be famous.
  • The fantasy of wealth promises to change our lives for the better.
  • We are somewhat ‘future biased’. We care more about what’s yet to happen. We feel and think differently about the future than we do about the past.
  • Death does not round off a life with the satisfying ending of a film. It does not ‘complete’. It is up to us to bring the story to a close by recognizing it as such.

The top five regrets of the dying

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.


Augustine developed the doctrine of original sin and with it cast humanity as forever alienated from the Divine. Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying God, and every person in every generation has paid for their transgression since, throughout the history of humanity, by being born inherently bad.

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Perhaps because our first question upon meeting people tends to be ‘What do you do?’, and because this is taken to mean ‘What do you do for a living?’, we are used to being judged on the basis of our jobs. When we ask this question, we rarely think to enquire what the person’s relationship to their job might be. Might they, for example, be indifferently employed, in order to create for themselves enough leisure time and a comfortable income to pursue their real interests?

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‘Everything we need is easy to procure, while the things we desire but don’t need are more difficult to obtain.’

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We are born with our capacity for grief and anger and despair in place, whereas we learn reasoning through the society in which we live.

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It is, as Marcus tells us, always in our power to represent events to ourselves in such a way they give us an advantage.

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We need to let that feeling of it’s fine sink in. Depending on the depth of our annoyance, we may not feel the calming flood of its cool waters immediately, but we can make sure their path is kept as free from obstruction as possible.

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I might think ‘I will be the nicest and friendliest person I can be around people.’ Beyond that, how they choose to respond to me is their business, not mine.

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Fate is not looking out for us, and we don’t have to pretend it is.

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When others inspire us, they tend to do so through the clear expression of these sketchy, adumbrated thoughts we ourselves have known but never had the perspicacity to formulate with certainty.

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As the addictive pleasures and miseries of electronic communication and phone-browsing offer themselves to us every minute of the day and night, we forget the benefits of time spent calmly with and within ourselves.

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The experience of fame is primarily one of widening the extremes between what is enjoyable and what is unpleasant, which does little to affect happiness.

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The world you know is built upon your experiences. And you are the only person having those experiences. So your world is unique. When you look out at it, and the people in it, you do so through a filter that you don’t share with anyone else. This is even more evident when you consider your past.

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Everything you have strived for, or intend to strive for, will cease to be. Your friends, family, your children will as good as disappear along with your world. The story of you, the framework of your world, will amount to nothing and most likely remain untold, without significance. That very self – that sense of I from which you are considering this right now – will be gone too.

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One of the qualities of death is that it does not bring with it any closure. It does not bring our lives to an end in the way the last chapter of a novel or the last scenes of a film wind up the story and give meaning to the events that have come before.

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We only perceive one slice of time from moment to moment. There’s now … and now … and now.

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Time and space are like filters we apply to the world to make sense of it.

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The needs of a present that has a future are different from one that does not.

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Our personality may be the most real thing in the world to each of us, but it is a fiction, a configuration, a way of thinking.

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In matters of love, we see there is no single perfect partner who will give us everything we need, because we project those needs upon them, placing upon them impossible demands, unless our expectations are brought in check.

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Mindfulness has been adopted by the world of meditation, but it is not meditation, though meditation is one popular tool, suited to some, to increase it. Mindfulness is just paying deliberate attention in the present: noticing things.

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