SUBWAYMore than a year after the pandemic, many of the usual paths to happiness are blocked. We cannot always depend on the external for its reliable highs: travel, going to pubs, bars and parties, socializing with large groups of friends, watching live music, theater and festivals.
We can’t control the pandemic, obviously, or many of the government restrictions and travel and border closures that make life difficult. But we can revisit our old successful approaches and, if they are no longer accessible, choose new things instead.
But these things would have to be pandemic-proof and under our control.
I have been reading a lot about Hellenic philosophy and I came across a concept that produced an “a ha” moment: ataraxia. This concept speaks to the acute pain caused by uncertainty and lack of autonomy, and offers a way forward. Instead of taking advantage of experiences, such as parties or great trips, for happiness, ataraxia proposes a much more modest vision.
Often described in ancient Greek philosophy, ataraxia is a state characterized by being free from distress and worry. It is a mindset that is experienced and cultivated internally.
Rather than chasing high sugar levels, ataraxia suggests striving for a sense of calm.
Ataraxia should act like a slow-release drug, building up over days and weeks. Ancient philosophers believed that achieving ataraxia created emotional homeostasis, where the effect would not just be a more stable base-level mood, but would hopefully flow into the people around you.
If you are calmer, you will be less likely to react or burn out. So not only do you not ruin your own day, but you also avoid ruining other people. In a calm state, you can even make better decisions.
Someone in a state of ataraxia is not trapped by passions, such as lust, envy, or fear. All of these emotions are often stimulated by things that are beyond our control.
Could the revival of the ancient Greek concept of ataraxia be what makes us okay with the uncertainty and lack of control in times of pandemic? And could cultivating ataraxia help us cope with the shocks that await us in the future?
The modern revival and the popularity of Stoic philosophy suggest this.
But how achievable is ataraxia, particularly for a modern person who is surrounded by distraction, marketing, social media, and capitalism? For a person who is easily influenced passions?
Ataraxia occurs in the absence of such passions: wanting things, getting them, and then wanting more tends to create massive mood swings.
I ask the British philosopher and author, Professor AC Grayling, for some suggestions. “Passion suggests something active to us,” he says. “But if you look at the etymology of the term, it is passive, it is something that happens to you, like love, anger or lust, that was visited by the gods.”
Unlike passion, you create ataraxia, for “peace of mind, inner calm, strength,” says Grayling. “So when you face all the inevitability of life, all the shadows that are going to fall in life, like losing the people we care about, suffering pain, failing, making mistakes, feeling guilty, ataraxia is dealing with these shadows and be prepared for them. Preparation is a daily thing. But ataraxia is also learning to relax, have fun, and make the most of each day. That also makes you prosper. “
While the use of the word ‘ataraxia’ has fallen out of favor, “it’s just another way of saying ‘I have to fix my things,’” says Grayling.
“When people say ‘I have my things together’ they mean ‘I have my balance and harmony’ which is so crucial, we need it … right now … If you have things like closures, especially if you are on locks extended: you have to find new levels, a new balance. And that requires a certain degree of psychological energy to ask ‘what would it take to get there?’ ”.
In a widely shared Medium post, Steven Gambardella wrote: “Ataraxia is not a state positively defined as ‘happy’ or ‘excited’. Hellenistic philosophies believed that it was a state of “rest” of serenity. However, it is a desirable state of mind, one that (the Greek philosopher) Pyrrho believed that human beings naturally possess but can easily lose. In the same way that when our body is free of disease it is in a state of homeostasis, ataraxia is simply the absence disturbance “.
Speaking from her home in London, Gambardella expands on this. “In the modern world we are deeply unhappy because our understanding of happiness is wrong. We believe that it will arise from doing something, from a positively designed state, drinking, having sex, shopping … This version of happiness is quite linked to consumerism ”.
Instead, says Gambardella, ancient Greek philosophers, such as the Epicureans, the Stoics and the skeptics, “taught that happiness is not a positively defined state, it is a negatively defined word. It’s ‘without being staggered’, or having any kind of strong feelings, and the ancient Greeks were obsessed with that. “
The ataraxia theory “arose at a time of crisis … in the chaos and bloodshed that followed the death of Alexander (the Great).”
“It’s a goal for anyone looking for a sense of balance and calm, especially in times of uncertainty.”
Ataraxia is achieved by using reason to evaluate a situation rationally, to understand what you can control and what you cannot control. What you can’t control is not worth worrying about.
Grayling says that ataraxia can be achieved if “you have the courage to face what is outside of you, such as earthquakes, pandemics and natural disasters, old age and death. And if you have self-control of your inner being “.
Techniques to achieve ataraxia also include “walking away” and seeing yourself and your problems as little dots in a massive universe.
Gambardella says: “You run with the stars”, as Marcus Aurelius (Roman and Stoic Emperor) says, either by distancing yourself from your emotions or by analyzing things in a way that allows you to analyze your emotions to understand what … the problem is. is really at stake, and understand that your passions are slipping away. “
The entire quote from Aurelius is very beautiful: “Meditate on the beauty of life. Look at the stars and see yourself running with them. “
By controlling our fears and desires (in other words, our passions), we get closer to achieving tranquility.
In practical terms, “one of the main things we can do to try to achieve ataraxia is to avoid social media,” says Gambardella.
“Instagram can make people feel sad and lonely. It is the perfect anti-ataraxia phenomenon. Because it could never be followed by enough people, it could never have enough likes, it builds on this idea of super abundance … and it’s full of notifications that you should follow this complete stranger. “
But before achieving ataraxia, we must first discard the old positive notions of happiness as a surplus.
“People have very superficial ideas about what happiness is,” says Grayling. “For example, being in love. One of the great downsides of life is that being in love is what happiness is all about. Then five or ten years later, you wake up and say ‘who the hell is this person?’ If you are reaching a high emotional state that you get at a party or a crush, that is not happiness.
“Happiness is a state and the state in question is where you, the individual, have a firm foundation and a place to do the work you need to do; the pain you need to go through; the people you need to find and the help you need to give the people around you. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism