The secret to happiness in uncertain times? Give up pursuing it

Show caption Marcus Aurelius on cultivating ataraxia: ‘Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.’ Photograph: CHBD/Getty Images/iStockphoto Self and wellbeing The secret to happiness in uncertain times? Give up pursuing it By striving for a state of tranquility, rather than gratification, not only are you less likely to ruin your own day – you’ll be more pleasant to others too Brigid Delaney @BrigidWD Sat 17 Jul 2021 21.00 BST Share on Facebook

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More than a year into the pandemic, many of the usual paths to happiness are blocked. We can’t always rely on the externals for their dependable highs: travel, going to pubs, bars and parties, socialising with large groups of friends, seeing live music, theatre and festivals.

We can’t control the pandemic, obviously, or many of the government restrictions and border and travel closures that make life difficult. But we can review our successful old approaches, and if they’re no longer accessible, pick new things instead.

But these things would need to be pandemic-proof and within our control.

I have been reading a lot of Hellenic philosophy and came across a concept that produced an “a ha” moment: ataraxia. This concept speaks to the acute pain caused by uncertainty and a lack of autonomy, and offers a way forward. Instead of harnessing experiences – like parties or big trips – for happiness, ataraxia proposes a much more modest view.

If you are more tranquil, you will be less likely to react or combust.

Frequently described in Ancient Greek philosophy, ataraxia is a state that is characterised by freedom from distress and worry. It is a mindset that is experienced and cultivated internally.

Instead of chasing sugar highs, ataraxia suggests striving for a feeling of tranquility.

Ataraxia should act like a slow-release drug, accumulating over days and weeks. Ancient philosophers believed achieving ataraxia created an emotional homeostasis, where the effect wouldn’t just be a more stable base-level mood, but one that would hopefully flow out to the people around you.

If you are more tranquil, you will be less likely to react or combust. So not only do you not ruin your own day, you avoid ruining other people’s too. In a tranquil state you may even make better decisions.

Someone in a state of ataraxia is not gripped by passions – such as lust, envy or fear. All these emotions are often spurred by things outside of our control.

Could the revival of the Ancient Greek concept of ataraxia be the thing that makes us OK with the uncertainty and lack of control in pandemic times? And could the cultivation of ataraxia help us cope with the shocks that await us in the future?

The modern revival and popularity of Stoic philosophy would suggest so.

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 swayed by passions?

Ataraxia occurs in the absence of such passions – wanting things, getting them, then wanting more tends to create massive mood swings.

When you face all the inevitables in life, all the shadows that are going to fall … ataraxia is dealing with these

I ask British philosopher and author Prof AC Grayling for some suggestions. “Passion suggests something active to us,” he says. “But if you look at the etymology of the term, it’s passive – it’s something that happens to you – like love or anger or lust – that was visited on you by the gods.”

Unlike passion, you create ataraxia, for “peace of mind, inner calm, strength”, Grayling says. “So when you face all the inevitables in life, all the shadows that are going to fall across life – such as losing people we care about, suffering grief, failing, making mistakes, feeling guilty – ataraxia is dealing with these shadows and being prepared for them. Preparation is a daily thing. But ataraxia is also learning how to relax and to have fun and making the most of each day. That also causes you to flourish.”

Although the use of the word “ataraxia” has fallen out of favour, “it’s just another way of saying ‘I’ve got to get my shit together’”, says Grayling.

“When people say ‘I’ve got my shit together’ they mean ‘I’ve got my balance and harmony’ which is so crucial – we need it … at the moment … If you have things like lockdowns – particularly if you are in extended lockdowns – you have to find new levels, a new balance. And that takes a certain degree of psychological energy to ask ‘what would it take for me to get there?’”

In a widely shared Medium post, Steven Gambardella wrote: “Ataraxia is not a positively-defined state such as ‘happy’ or ‘excited’. It was believed by the Hellenistic philosophies to be a ‘resting’ state of serenity. It is nevertheless a desirable state of mind, one that (Greek philosopher) Pyrrho believed that human beings naturally possess but can easily lose. In the same way that when free of illness our bodies are in a state of homeostasis, ataraxia is simply the absence of perturbation.”

Speaking from his home in London, Gambardella expands on this. “In the modern world we are deeply unhappy because our understanding of happiness is incorrect. We think it will arise from doing something – from a positively designed state – drinking, having sex, shopping … This version of happiness is quite bound up with consumerism.”

One of the main things we can do to try and achieve ataraxia is avoid social media

Instead, says Gambardella, ancient Greek philosophers, such as the Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics “taught that happiness is not a positively defined state – it is a negatively defined word. It’s ‘without being phased’, or having any kind of strong feelings – and the Ancient Greeks were obsessed with it.”

The theory of ataraxia “emerged at a time of crisis … in the chaos and bloodshed that followed Alexander’s (the Great) death”.

It “is an objective for anybody seeking a sense of balance and calm, especially in times of uncertainty”.

Ataraxia is achieved by using reason to assess a situation rationally, to understand what you can control, and what you can’t control. What you cannot control is not worth worrying about.

Grayling says ataraxia can be achieved if you “have courage to face what is outside yourself, such as earthquakes, pandemics and natural disasters, old age and death. And if you have self mastery of your inner self.”

Techniques to achieve ataraxia also include “zooming out” – and seeing yourself and your problems as just small specks in a massive universe.

Says Gambardella: “You ‘run with the stars’ as (Roman emperor and Stoic) Marcus Aurelius puts it – either by distancing yourself from your emotions or breaking things down in a way that allows you to dissect your emotions to understand what … issue is really at stake, and to understand that your passions are running away.”

The full Aurelius quote is very beautiful: “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

By controlling our fears and desires (in other words, our passions), we come closer to achieving tranquility.

People have very shallow ideas about what happiness is

In practical terms, “one of the main things we can do to try and achieve ataraxia is avoid social media”, Gambardella says.

“Instagram can make people feel sad and lonely. It is the perfect anti-ataraxia phenomenon. Because you could never be followed by enough people, you could never have enough likes – it’s based on this idea of super abundance … and it’s filled with notifications that you should follow this complete stranger.”

But before we achieve ataraxia, first we need to discard the old positive notions of happiness as surplus.

“People have very shallow ideas about what happiness is,” Grayling says. “For example – being in love. One of the great cons in life is that being in love is what happiness is about. Then five or 10 years later you wake up and go ‘who the hell is this person?’ If you are achieving a heightened emotional state that you get at a party or in infatuation – that is not happiness.

“Happiness is a state and the state in question is where you, the individual, have a firm basis and place to do the work you need to do; the grief you need to go through; the people you need to encounter and the help you need to give people around you.”

Brigid Delaney is currently writing a book on Stoic philosophy to be published by Allen and Unwin