Where Is Happiness? The Question Was Answered Two Millennia Ago

10/23/2016 06:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2016

“Where is happiness?” For years this was my driving question. Perhaps it was yours, too.

The question proved a persistent one, not because it was stubborn, but because I was: I insisted on looking in all the wrong places. I looked in so-called accomplishments—law school, publishing, test scores. I looked in others—friends, girlfriends, family. I looked in objects—video games, books, movies. At my lowest points, I looked in the easy lull of alcohol or other ersatz vices. And yet, this thing—“happiness”—never lingered. Every now and then I’d grab hold of it, yet like a hand-caught fish it would quickly squirm away. Because—and here’s a cliché that’s easy to recall yet difficult, so difficult, to live—happiness is not outside. Happiness is inside. Happiness lies in the one thing none of us ever give up: The ability to choose how we respond to any given situation.

For it is not things that trouble us, but our interpretations of those things. We’ve forgotten that this great power of interpretation resides within us, and so we go begging outside ourselves for happiness. But what is external is by nature tenuous; the only lasting happiness comes from declaring one’s independence from things, people, and events. Things do not trouble you. People do not trouble you. Events do not trouble you. Your interpretations of them trouble you.

Three years ago, I stumbled upon the broad outlines of this answer in the works of the ancient Stoics, yet—only human—I resisted the realization. I resisted it when I read the works of a slave, happy despite all the encroachments enslavement brings; I resisted it when I read the personal journal of an emperor, who often found himself anxious, melancholy, and adrift in regret despite (or because of) his position ruling a world; I resisted it when I read the letters of a tutor to emperors, who faced his death sentence in a manner rendering my anxious anticipation of the bar exam ridiculous.

The slave is Epictetus; the emperor is Marcus Aurelius; the tutor is Seneca. They are thoroughly dead, all of them, and yet — as reflected by hundreds of recent works such as Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic — their knowledge is very much alive. Like Eastern wisdom, this neglected pre-Christian wisdom of the West has much to offer; I would go so far as to say that it offers, at least, an outline to be content under the toughest circumstances.

Obviously, I’m not perfect; Stoicism isn’t either. Despite the life experiences of some modern Stoics facing challenges like cancer and war, I’m not so sure that Stoicism would save me from despair in such dire circumstances. The everyday rigors of my relatively fortunate life are sometimes already too much for me to handle. Yet at the very least Stoicism offers a lasting foundation. It offers the ability to be like “the cliff against which the waves continually break; … it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”

The recent revival of Stoicism is a good thing. If you’re like me, books like The Obstacle is the Way, A Guide to the Good Life, the Meditations, and the Enchiridion will do more good for your happiness—your true happiness, that transcending mere chemistry—than any drug.