12/10/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Can You Think Your Way to Happiness?

Happiness is a national obsession of ours. We all feel we deserve it -- unlike many other cultures in which it's more or less taken for granted that the human condition is one of misery. The ancient Greeks harped on the idea that even the most prosperous and most powerful human being could lose everything at any moment: You could be an Oedipus, ruling the city of Thebes, respected, powerful, rich, smart, happily married, and then next moment, boom: It turns out you've been engaging in incest with your mother-wife for a decade, and your horrified citizens drive you into exile. That is why the Greeks coined the saying, "Count no many happy until he is dead." In other words, we are the playthings of fate: No one can control the many turns his or her life might take, no matter how immune to disaster one might seem. Only at the very end can you look back and say, "Yes, that worked out OK."

How to get to happiness in the face of such uncertainties was the problem the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers tried to figure out. Naturally, they all had different answers, but the solution of one particular group, the ancient Stoics, is interesting. They thought you could think your way to happiness in such a way that nothing that happened to you could take your happiness away.

How did this work? It was about having a certain frame of mind. There were mental exercises you had to do for every situation that the real world threw at you. These exercises would get rid of what made you feel bad: your emotions! Once fear, anger, jealousy, and the other negative emotions were gone, happiness would be much easier. Here are some examples of their emotion-removing exercises:

1."The Wand of Hermes." Rethink the situation to turn it into something that does not upset or enrage you. Someone driving like a maniac on the highway cuts you off dangerously. You're mad and you want to shout, "What the hell is wrong with you?!" Don't shout; wave an imaginary wand over the situation to change it. Say to yourself: This guy could be trying to get to the hospital to get help for his desperately-ill daughter in the backseat, and that's why he's doing this. You'll feel better.

2. "Is My Value-Judgment Correct?" Rethink the situation by questioning the value you assign to it. Example (a real one from the philosopher Epictetus): You're a guy walking down the street and you see a stunning woman coming towards you. "Wow!" you think. "I'd love to take her home." Wait! Apply exercise #2! Why are you making this woman a thing of value? What is she really? What if she's bad-tempered, blows too much money on shoes, and will stalk you once you break it off? Do you want to take that risk? Here's a famous example of value-assigning by Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher-king of second century A.D. Rome, who could have all the fancy stuff he wanted: "This is the corpse of a fish, this is the corpse of a bird or a pig. This Falernian wine is grape juice, my purple-edged robe is merely sheep hair dyed with a bit of gore from a shellfish. Sex is friction against my groin and a small secretion of mucus accompanied by a spasm." Yuck!

3. "Emotions are Judgments." Repeat to yourself: My emotions about x are based on my judgments about x. That is, every emotion you feel is the result of a judgment about a person or situation. Remember the mythical figure Medea, the woman who was so jealous when her husband took up with someone else that she killed their three kids to punish him? The Stoics wouldn't say she was crazy; they'd say she made the wrong value judgment, which caused the wrong emotion. The solution? "Don't value your husband so much, and you won't care that he's a schmuck." But here it gets harder. The Stoics would also say this for everything and everyone we love. Why are you devastated if a family member dies? Because you loved them. Therefore (they would say) don't love so much. Loving like that is a recipe for pain.

Were these philosophers crazy? They may have claimed you can think your way to happiness, but we can see why their philosophy never really became popular, and why we don't practice Stoicism today. For one, it's very selfish: it's about protecting yourself from emotional pain, not anyone else. Second, it doesn't offer a satisfactory answer to the problem of physical pain. It's very hard to think away physical pain just with your mind. Third, if you are a religious person, it makes no room for suffering for a greater cause. And forth, we can't imagine a world in which we're not allowed to fully love those whom we love. We say: "It's better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all."

Still, the person currently called "the happiest man alive" is a Buddhist monk. (You can find him at One imagines he has managed to let go of many attachments. One imagines he does not crave fancy wines, or get furious easily. So can we learn something from these ancient thinkers after all? And if so, what would it be?