Stoicism: A Guide for the Good Life

Author: Johannes Traa

May 20, 2023

Table of contents

Overview of the article
Why Stoicism?
Stoic principles
Intentionality and choice
Acceptance and indifference
Detachment from externals
Role model as guide
Stoic training
Applying Stoic principles
Stoic training
Closing Thoughts

Overview of the article

Stoicism provides us with practical solutions for handling life’s ups and downs with ease. It does this by emphasizing that “it is not things that upset us, but our judgements about things”, as Epictetus put it. This puts our agency front and center. It encourages us to evaluate pleasures and setbacks in healthy ways that contribute to our experience of eudaimonia, or “the good life”. This article delves into Stoicism and its empowering perspectives.

Why Stoicism?

When most of us hear the term “stoicism”, we think of resilience. Putting up with pain and suffering without complaint. The “stiff upper lip” exemplified by the British World War II-era slogan, “keep calm and carry on”.

But this is only a small component of the philosophical tradition called Stoicism, with a capital “S”, that was developed by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The most influential texts stem from three Roman Stoics: Marcus Aurelius (121-180), Seneca (5-65), and Epictetus (50-135). There is a ton of information about the history behind all of this online, so I won’t delve into that much here.

One fun fact is that Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor (!) whose most famous collection of writings, Meditations (Aurelius, 2021), was essentially the contents of his private journal. Too bad blogs weren’t a thing back then.

Anyway, much of Stoic practice involves monitoring our judgments so that we can make more intentional choices. This in turn contributes to living a more virtuous life. What is perhaps surprising is how relevant and readily applicable the ideas are to modern life. In fact, the well-known Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) methodology (Knaus and Carlson, 2014) and its psychotherapeutic cousins are somewhat based on Stoic principles (Robertson, 2020).

This philosophy adds tremendous value for anyone who agrees with the Ancient Stoics that reason is our primary faculty for managing life’s difficulties. There is so little in our lives that we can reasonably claim we have control over. And so the notions of choice, acceptance, and detachment from externals that are built into Stoicism can really be quite empowering.

I’m all about empowerment! So I’m happy to bring you this deep dive into Stoicism that I hope is an embarrassment of eudemonic riches.

Stoic principles

It’s hard to boil down the principles underlying an entire philosophical tradition into a list of bullet points. But if I were to attempt such as thing, it would look like this:

  1. Virtue
  2. Intentionality and choice
  3. Acceptance and indifference
  4. Detachment from externals
  5. Role model as guide
  6. Stoic training

I’ll discuss each of these in turn before describing how to apply them short-term and long-term to solve real-world problems.


"The unexamined life is not worth living."
   - Socrates

The Stoics elaborated a taxonomy of virtues divided into four main categories: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation (Stephens, n.d.). Wisdom refers to understanding ourselves and the world around us as well as making strategic choices. Justice is about honesty and equity. Courage relates well to ideas behind entrepreneurship or opportunity-seeking. Moderation is all about simplicity. Taken together, these four virtues form a solid foundation from which to approach life’s challenges.

Here are a few more tenets. Joy is a byproduct of living a virtuous life rather than the end-goal of it. This is important for avoiding attachment to external pleasures outside of our control. Joy comes from acting with consistency in our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world as a whole. Joy is active in that you pursue well-being through good planning and deeds (including productive reflection) rather than sitting with feelings.

The virtuous life is not something that we need to think of as attainable or not attainable. But rather, it is a direction that we can move in. This aligns with the virtue of moderation, which encourages simplicity in our home, diet, and the language we use. There is also the notion of balance between reflection and living in the moment. Reflect constantly, and you’re not living, but only live and you’ll be at the mercy of your subconscious mind’s whims.

Intentionality and Choice

“The universe is change, life is opinion.”
   - Marcus Aurelius

“That's just like...your opinion, man.”
   - Jeffrey Lebowski

Choice (and therefore agency) is where it’s at in Stoicism. Remember that what matters is not how we feel, but how we choose to respond to those feelings that ultimately determines our joy or suffering. Along those lines, the Stoics developed a simple theory of emotion that follows two steps.

First, we experience something and reflexively respond to it in the moment. Once we observe our response, we have the opportunity to re-assess our opinions.1 The situation and our response to it are neither good nor bad and are natural. Making further judgments only compounds whatever difficulty we might face. Also, we make our suffering worse by reliving painful experiences or living pain that is imagined in the future.

One helpful way of thinking about Stoic choice is through a repertoire of perspectives, or “frames” (Irvine, 2021). Think of our experiences as paintings. Some are beautiful and some are ugly, but we can choose to display them all in the gallery of our mind in a variety of frames. We choose the frames, not the paintings, so why not choose wisely?

The blame frame renders setbacks as anger that burns our energy. The competing obligations frame notes that everyone has their own priorities that may not align with ours. The incompetence frame sees others’ actions (that are inconvenient to us) as stemming from ignorance more so than malice. The storytelling frame sees current events as part of a longer arc with a conclusion that we can craft to be more satisfying. The comedic frame responds with humor, framing attacks as nonsensical. Cue the “Black Night” from Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (el toro, 2014).

There are many frames to choose from, but a Stoic’s go-to is the test frame. Here, we consider setbacks to be clever challenges administered by the Stoic gods in order for us to demonstrate our skill and virtue. This is at the heart of a Stoic’s chosen response to difficulty. “Ah, what an ingenious challenge the gods have set for me to overcome. I will take on the challenge as best I can.”

Acceptance and indifference

“This too shall pass.”
   - Persian adage

The idea of cognitive distancing is central to Stoicism as it is to CBT. It is a meta-cognitive process involving a shift from thinking, to thinking about thinking. A similarly productive moment can arise in difficult conversations when we shift from talking, to talking about how we talk.

We neither ignore nor suppress emotions, instead accepting them as natural and informative. We do this because we know that, for example, the fear of pain can do more harm than the pain itself. We apply Stoic indifference that views sensations objectively and uses neutral, specific, non-catastrophizing language: “this is unpleasant” vs “this is so horrible”. We also contemplate the impermanence of our discomfort.

Decoupling ourselves from our reactions to our experiences makes it easier to see things as they are and subsequently make wiser choices. This also means relying on Stoic acceptance, or the letting go of the need to get rid of all pain. Instead, we can learn to live without resentment, calmly accepting what is outside of our direct control.

Detachment from externals

“How trivial the things we want so passionately are.”
   - Marcus Aurelius

Externals are anything outside of our direct control. Stoics see no issue with enjoying ordinary pleasures. And they have preferences for good health over bad health, wealth over poverty, a tasty meal over a bland one, and so on. But they are not attached to such things. The issue is that when we become attached to externals, our contentment becomes reliant on things outside of our control, sapping us of our agency, and enlarging our suffering.

Monitoring our attachments helps to avoid cognitive biases in our behavior. We tend to over-rate pleasure and under-rate the cost of attaining it. We over-rate the value of money and under-rate the value of time. And so on.

Stoics believe that virtues themselves enhance pleasure, moderation being one that directly ties into the idea of attachment. Want to miss juicy burgers less on your vegan diet? Note that juiciness can mean many things and that equating it with a slab of beef isn’t doing anyone any good. Blaming others for your problems? Understand that blame is an external, regardless of the circumstances. Giving others additional power over your well-being within the privacy of your mind doesn’t empower you. Make a better choice.

Role model as guide

“Without a ruler to [measure] against you won’t make crooked straight.”
   - Seneca

One of the more practical ideas in Stoicism is that of the “role model” as a guide for wise choices. When we are faced with a dilemma, we can imagine a panel of wise elders who we go to for advice. These are virtuous individuals who can mentor us. We pose the dilemma to them, they discuss amongst themselves, and then give their take on how to proceed. This taps into our aspirations for ourselves while emphasizing a longer-term vision coupled with small steps in the right direction.

Another approach is to imagine that it is not you who is facing the challenge, but one of your wise elders. Being virtuous, what would they do?

Stoic training

“Practice makes progress.”
   - a teacher

In order to respond wisely in the midst of setbacks, we must have already strengthened our virtue muscles ahead of time. And that strength can only come from training.

This can take various forms. It could be journaling to track our experiences and responses to them. Or imagining a difficult situation in the future, how we expect to respond, and how we would like to respond. It involves going out of our way to experience controlled hardship.

Going to a cold place? Spend time in the cold while focusing on acceptance and indifference. This will also help you appreciate warmth when you return to it. Anticipate that a meeting will go badly? Calmly rehearse the worst of it in your mind and explore what you need to manage it.

If you find yourself responding with anxiety to such mental training, turn your focus to understanding where that comes from. What attachments to externals are driving it and what judgements are you making about your anxiety that may be contributing to your suffering? This is effective when such reflection is a habit and when trauma is not a significant factor. Trauma is more complex and should be processed separately with a therapist. See this article for a broad discussion of anxiety and trauma.

Applying Stoic principles

So how can we apply Stoic principles? By handling any situation that comes our way with thoughts, words, and actions that align with those principles. It helps to keep in mind that there are three timeframes to consider: before, during, and after. I’d like to mention two main approaches: Stoic training and meditations.

Stoic training

“You become what you give your attention to.”
   - Epictetus

Before setbacks arise, we can engage in Stoic training to be ready for them. And this doesn’t even need to be specific to a future situation we have in mind. We could even go an a “Stoic adventure” (Irvine, 2021) that will challenge our resilience and ingenuity. It could be a career move, trying out a new recipe, changing cities, learning to play an instrument, traveling, or performing. Even when you go on a hike in a park near where you live, it could rain, you might run out of water, your legs could get tired. The more adventures you go on, the more clever setbacks the Stoic gods will send your way for you to practice on.

Another future-oriented technique is visualization within a meditation. We can rehearse future situations in our mind, noticing how we respond to them. When we observe ourselves responding in a way that suggests an attachment to externals, we accept our feelings while practicing cognitive distancing and indifference. The more we practice wise choices, the more natural they will feel when a significant challenge comes our way.2


“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
   - Marcus Aurelius

There are a few “meditations” that we can make a part of our daily routine. The idea of regular reflection blends beautifully with Stoic values. How will we notice our attachment to externals? How will we know how well we’re doing in following Stoic principles? And what our areas of improvement are? Meditations, of course.

The “morning meditation” aims to ask “what will I do”? This is where you reflect on the day ahead and identify opportunities for flexing your Stoic muscles. The “evening meditation” is a time to reflect on the day that just passed. Here, we ask three questions:

  • What didn’t go well?
  • What did go well?
  • What would you do differently?

The first question is an opportunity to identify moments of indulgence or irrationality. The second question gives you a chance to praise yourself and highlight what you’d like to do more of. And the third question is where your agency and imagination can frolic in the fields together. What new and ingenious applications of Stoic principles can you come up with to tackle the setbacks sent your way by the Stoic gods? This is your playground. And don’t forget to invite your wise elders! They will contribute valuable insights.

These kinds of meditations remind me of Harvard Business Review case studies, except that you are at the center of the story. You could ask yourself: what do I want my story to be? What discussion would I want to hear amongst a diverse group of students as they talk about my life? And what would I see if I were to view my experiences from above, from the perspective of an impartial observer? All good questions to meditate on.

There are many guided meditations online that are a nice inspiration for a Stoic practice. But at the end of the day, it’s all about what is most helpful to you. So you can be creative with how you strengthen your virtue, whether it’s through dedicated meditations or other means (like, say, writing blog articles).

Closing Thoughts

Stoic principles and the tools for applying them enable us to develop greater resilience in the face of life’s challenges. And that’s all there is to it.

I’d like to wrap up with two examples from my life. Interestingly, I did a bit of Stoic training in my youth without knowing that that’s what it was. It felt like a natural thing to do. I encourage you to consider how you might have applied or currently apply these ideas and how you can expand on those habits.


“Temperature is an opinion.”
   - Johannes Traa

Back in middle school during the late fall/early winter, a question popped up in my mind. I thought, “I wonder what it must be like to sleep in the cold.” So I got ready for bed, opened my window, and fell asleep. I woke up at 2:30 AM shivering, seeing my breath, and with a deep appreciation for my ability to shut the window and go back to sleep, knowing that I would rest well until sunrise.

Later in college, I started running a lot and noticed that I enjoyed training year-round, even as temperatures outside dropped to -5° F. It taught me a lot about the significant psychological and physiological adaptations that we naturally implement to withstand hardship. The trick was to keep training outdoors as the temperature dropped so that each day felt no colder than the last. As the spring approached and temperatures soared into the 20s, I thought, “wow, it’s so nice out”. Your mind is capable. It’s all about training (and the right clothes).


“Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.”
   - Brene Brown

Not too long ago, I was taking a class that had assignments with due dates. The deadline for one of them slipped my mind and I wound up getting no credit for it. It wasn’t a significant part of my overall grade, but I nonetheless had a very strong reaction to the slip-up. It was a punishing anxiety, a panic that wouldn’t go away. My head was spinning the whole day and I didn’t get much sleep that night. A very disproportionate reaction to such a minor issue.

That’s when I put my experiences with Internal Family Systems (IFS) (Earley, 2022) into practice. This was very similar to a Stoic meditation where you convene your internal panel of experts to discuss the case. I knew there was a part of me (a firefighter) that was desperately trying to put out flames. But what flames, really? And why so frantic? I meditated on it every morning for a week, asking “who or what are you putting out flames for?”

On the last day, a shadow figure materialized in the middle of the space I was visualizing. It had been there the whole time, but hadn’t shown itself until now. It was like the silhouette of a person, pure black with no discernable clothing, face, hair, anything. I immediately knew what it was: shame. I felt self-compassion and relief.

This part of me had developed at a young age as both an internalized fear and coping mechanism. I grew up with delayed social-emotional development and in a high-achieving household. So I had stress without some of the coping skills necessary to handle it. The shame developed in order for me to survive. Now, as an adult, I acknowledge it, befriend it, and plan for better outcomes. It has taught me a lot and is now a regular consultant to my panel of wise elders.

May the Stoic gods send manageable challenges your way.

Be well.


Aurelius, M. (2021). Meditations. Ixia Press.

Earley, J. (2022). Self-Therapy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness Using IFS, A Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy (3rd ed.). Pattern Systems Books.

el toro. (2014). Monty Python - The Black Night - Tis But A Scratch. YouTube.

Irvine, W. B. (2021). The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient. W. W. Norton & Company.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Knaus, J. K. and Carlson, J. (2014). The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety: A Step-By-Step Program (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.

Robertson, D. J. (2020). How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Griffin.

Stephens, W. O. (n.d.). Stoic Ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


1 The behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman refers to a similar two-step process in his best-seller, Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman, 2011). Fast (Type 1) thinking happens with little or no conscious consideration and is best suited for situations where we can rely on our expertise in following an intuitive response. Slow (Type 2) thinking is more deliberate and based on elaborating on explicit knowledge. Both are valuable, but it’s important to know when either one is most appropriate. Two notable implications are that implicit biases hide in Type 1 thinking and that non-experts shouldn’t rely on it.

2 The phenomenon of mental practice having the effects of real-world training is well-known in sports psychology and the performing arts. Back when I played the piano, I would sometimes learn new pieces by studying the score to avoid over-working my hands. I would visualize my hands slowly playing the notes and think through expressive choices. After a few weeks, when I finally sat down at a piano, my hands seemed to have already developed some muscle memory, familiarity with the shapes of chords, phrasing, and so on. Sounds odd until you try it!