I LIKE THE Stoics. More than 800 years ago, they grasped that it’s what goes on in a person’s head
that generates their experience of the world. They understood that we all have a choice in how we
respond to events.
Yesterday, I had only one appointment in London, with a busy friend who has a long history of last minute cancellations. I hung on to catch the latest train I could, just in case. And he cancelled 45
minutes later - just as my train was pulling into London Bridge.
“How annoying,” my wife said when I texted her to say I’d be home early. Well, no. Not really. Not if you choose not to be annoyed.
Instead, I thought, “what can I do with this time I’ve suddenly been given back?”, and I got off at
London Bridge and went to find a cheese stall I liked in Borough Market. Twenty minutes later, I
had an invitation from one of the cheesemaker’s founders to visit a new fromagerie in East Sussex
(as well as some excellent cheese). It turned out that we have friends in common. It’s a London
And then I sent a long email about it to my friend, in which I said he had given me the opportunity
to practice Stoicism and to seek benefit from a moment of chaos. He was knocked out. He said it
was the best response he’d ever had to a cancellation and that my email had been a positive moment in what turned out to have been a bad day.
As Marcus Aurelius - Roman Emperor and Stoic - said around 840 years ago: “Be satisfied with
success in even the smallest matter, and think that even such a result is no trifle.”
Okay, I don’t always respond to change with such equanimity. Like every other human, I am an
emotional beast, hard-wired for anxiety and given to intuitive (or unthinking) responses - traits that
had positive evolutionary benefits in the days when we had just dropped down from the trees, but
are probably less useful on the 09.24 from Tunbridge Wells to London Bridge.
But this question of choice in how one responds to events is fascinating and is not easily
dismissed: it runs through quite a lot of modern psychology.
Those who practice Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), for instance, use the metaphor of
resourceful and non-resourceful states.
Giving in to frustration, irritation and disappointment when my friend’s PA cancelled our meeting
would have been of little use to anybody - it would have been a classic, non-resourceful emotional
state. Curiosity and excitement about what I could do with the free time was, on the other hand, a
positive and resourceful state.
NLP has its critics, but the idea that you can shift from one emotional state to another simply
by choosing to do so is also one of the basic tenets of Stoicism. Listen to this:
• Aurelius again: “You have the power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this and you
will find strength.”
• And again: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - favoured by the NHS in recent years as a tool in the
treatment of anxiety and depression - is also rooted in Stoicism. Among other things, it encourages
you to examine the choices you make in response to events.
For instance, if you pass a friend in the street and she blanks you, you might think ‘stuck up bitch, I
never liked her’ or you might think ‘poor Jane, she’s miles away … I wonder if she’s okay’. Both
responses are possible, even likely - but the behaviours that result from them (isolating Jane or
caring for her) are very different.
CBT trains you to examine your initial response and to challenge it with intelligence and scepticism
before committing to action. In doing so, it teaches us to make good choices
about how we respond to external events. It teaches us to think slowly and carefully rather than
fast and intuitively.
Mindfulness - literally being ‘in the moment’ - has been on trend as a way of alleviating anxiety for
some years. It should come as no surprise then to learn that Mindfulness is also a Stoic trait.
“True happiness is … to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future,” Lucius
Annaeus Seneca (5BC - 65AD).
For me, Stoicism is also strongly related to resilience - the capacity to recover quickly from
According to Psychology Today: “Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make
someone resilient, among them a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and
the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback."
The trick, then, is to be aware enough to monitor your own response to an event - and then to test
it to see if it is appropriate and useful. If it is neither, you have some work to do.
The first thing, for me, is to do the research. The more I know about a situation or a thing, the more
I can control my response to it. Then, once I’ve got some perspective, I can stop catastrophizing
and run through some alternative scenarios.
It’s a method that has worked for me in the very worst of times.
Even when there is no potential threat, there are a few things you can do to help build resilience.
• Laugh a lot. Laughter improves mood.
• Spend time with good friends.
• Ask for help when you need it.
• Count your blessings: keep a gratitude journal, if you like, and write down a couple of things you
can be grateful for every day.
• Stay fit - endorphins released during exercise cheer you up.
• Help others. It improves wellbeing.
• Eat well. Learn about nutrition.
• See yourself in a positive light. Quietly celebrate - and I mean properly celebrate - your own
skills, talents and successes.
• Set goals and move steadily towards them - but don’t let them run your life. It’s important to be
flexible and spontaneous too.
And have sex (my Stoical friend Fred Sirieix, presenter of Channel 4's First Dates and state-registered love guru, insisted I add this to the list).
Remember things that look bad aren’t always as bad as they look. On the few occasions when they are, your choices are usually limited anyway, and then the best thing is to enjoy whatever moment you’re in, in whatever way you can - and ‘enjoy the present, without any anxious dependence on the future’.