“No man is free who is not a master of himself”—Epictetus
One early school of practical philosophical thought was stoicism which understood the idea that while we may not be able to totally control the circumstances of our lives, we can control how we react to them. Without developing emotional control our lives would feel like we’re traveling on a rollercoaster. Stoics, however, believed that avoiding emotional extremes was the most desirable way of living, granting us greater self-awareness, thus promoting our happiness and survival.
While I do believe personal emotional control is necessary to prevent yourself from being a mindless animal, many people believe stoicism advocates living without feeling any emotions at all. Aside from leading a rather bland existence, zapping yourself of emotions actually kills your drive to live. Without fear to drive you, the only reason you would brave insecurity is if it’s in the pursuit of our happiness.
“Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage”—Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Your capacity to pursue your happiness while resisting impulsiveness is called your willpower. Each of us have varying degrees of willpower, meaning varying degrees of emotional control. Thomas Hobbes hypothesized that we are in a constant state of trying to ease pain and eventually achieve a state of felicity (happiness). David Hume, who wrote that reason is the slave of passion, would agree that our mental faculties are directed towards this purpose.
To some extent, we can actually produce artificial happiness. There are drugs of course which teach our bodies that they don’t have to work to achieve pleasure, i.e. the lazy stoner, but a more sophisticated tool is music. Music theory is the philosophy of how certain chords produce certain feelings in people. Put on some intense motivational music and you’ll run faster on the treadmill. Put on some blues and you’ll feel sad.
Natural emotions, which are not artificially triggered, are physiological reactions to our perceptions.
“We suffer not from the events in our lives, but from our judgments about them” -Epictetus
Understanding that we control our perceptions gives us the ability to find meaning in even the worst of circumstances. Therefore, fear is not only futile, but it’s a self-imposed illusion. Changing your perceptions, however, requires a great degree of self-control. This can be especially difficult in our society which has developed advanced marketing techniques to create artificial desire i.e. basketball sneakers that people are literally willing to kill for.
Many millennials have already found their way out of consumerism, but political and spiritual movements can be just as addictive. I’ve seen many people lose themselves to these movements, consumed with hubris as a substitute for personal confidence, robbing them of their ability to consider other points of view. Many political actors have become famous through their arrogance, but only the truly humble will be able to understand what it takes to save our country. Unfortunately, politics today has devolved into tribalism, and journalism into propaganda, designed not to inform, but to justify our hatred. Losing ourselves to movements is what ends up dividing the country and will ultimately result in a civil war if we can’t regain our composure for long enough to see that we’re all humans.
Yes, it may be temporarily easier to let some external force move you, but all movements are subject to attrition, bringing us back to our natural state of stoicism. Developing self-control, however, allows us to break this cycle of ups and downs by making us more aware of our own perceptions so that we can change them.
“The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.”—Adam Smith
“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”—Abraham Lincoln
The basic technique for increasing emotional control is resisting cravings or other immediate desires (Treat yourself as a reward, not when you’re bored). Advanced meditation techniques, however, can take this to a whole new level. No longer do we feel like we are subject to the seasons of life, but begin to see ourselves as actors born into a never-ending play, one with which the parameters were defined by those who came before us, and which we will develop throughout our lives, carried on by our posterity. Once we realize this, all we hope for is not to get killed off in the second act (pursue our survival).
The stronger your willpower, the easier it will be to execute long-term decisions towards your happiness (survival) instead of being unable to resist short-term ones i.e. saving money instead of spending it impulsively.