Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy

Life is filled with hardships and tragedies — a fact that 2020 has made all too clear for people across the globe. For thousands of years, philosophers have come up with strategies to help us cope with such hardship. This week on Hidden Brain, we talk with philosopher William Irvine about ancient ideas — backed by modern psychology — that can help us manage disappointment and misfortune.

Additional Resources:

Irvine, William B., “William B. Irvine Literary Website” https://www.williambirvine.com/.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've all been there: you park your car in a giant lot, only to come back a few hours later and have no idea where you parked. You wander around, your arms laden with shopping bags, cursing. TV shows like "Seinfeld" milk these situations for laughs.

Seinfeld Clip (Jason Alexander, as George Costanza): Where the hell is this car, Kramer?

Seinfeld Clip (Jerry Seinfeld): We need a system.

Seinfeld Clip (Michael Richards, as Cosmo Kramer): Well, it's got to be here.

Seinfeld Clip (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as Elaine Benes): Why have you been using so many colors? The numbers go up to 40.

Seinfeld Clip (Jerry Seinfeld): Maybe it's not on this level.

Seinfeld Clip (Jason Alexander, as George Costanza): What?

Seinfeld Clip (Jerry Seinfeld): There's four different levels.

Shankar Vedantam: When things like this happen in real life, you probably don't laugh. Or take bigger things. You slip on the ice, and you break a wrist. Someone leaves the stove on, and your house catches on fire. Or the world suddenly and inexplicably is gripped by a major pandemic.

News Clips: Cases now topping 15 million here in the US, 1.3 million of them in just the past seven days.

Shankar Vedantam: Jobs are lost. Lives are lost.

News Clips: As hard as it is to fathom the record number of COVID deaths, public health officials are warning tonight that it will likely get worse before the situation improves.

Shankar Vedantam: Life is filled with tragedies and hardship. For thousands of years, philosophers have come up with strategies to help us cope with setbacks. This week on Hidden Brain, an ancient philosophy backed by modern psychology shows us how to respond wisely to disappointment and misfortune.

Shankar Vedantam: William Irvine is a philosopher at Wright State University. He has spent years studying how we respond to setbacks, and how we might use ideas from philosophy and psychology to respond differently. Bill Irvine, welcome to Hidden Brain.

William Irvine: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to start with a couple of small examples of the kind of irritants we all experience. You were recently taking a nap and you got woken up by a call from a telemarketer. What happened next?

William Irvine: I was enjoying a mid-afternoon nap. The phone rang, and I answered. It was just a robot. Then I pressed the buttons necessary to get to an actual real person. When I got to that person, my sleep-deprived brain, you know I had that kind of fog, and I launched into a verbal attack. I rather surprised myself. I don't remember the details, but I do remember the phrase, "You lying snake," being among them. It's like a part of me emerged from some back corner of my mind and simply took control, and I was along for the ride, watching what happened.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. So, some years ago you and your wife were on a vacation to Morocco. You were camping in the Sahara. You had scheduled a camel ride across the desert the next day. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, once-in-a-lifetime moment. But as you lay in your tent, your mind was filled with intrusive and unpleasant thoughts. What were those thoughts, Bill?

William Irvine: Yeah, no it was supposed to be kind of this wonderful dream-like adventure, and this particular trip featured a night in a tent. It was a nice tent. Don't think pup tent, think tent with an internal shower, if you can imagine such a thing.

Shankar Vedantam: Oh, wow.

William Irvine: And two camel rides, one at sunset and one at sunrise. So I was very much looking forward to it. They served us dinner there in the tent, and then we headed off for bed. I was about to drift off. I was tired. We had done a bunch of traveling that day. Just as I was about to fall asleep, an incident arose. I don't need to go into the details of the incident, but involving someone I knew, and it was an unpleasant incident. I found myself getting angry. I could feel my blood pressure rising, that kind of anger.

William Irvine: I thought, "Well, this is really stupid because I have a sunrise camel ride tomorrow. So, I need to get some sleep." So, I rolled over and the voice indeed went away, until just as I was about to drift off to sleep, it came back. It just is this reminder. That's kind of how it went through the night. Then I experienced what I call "Meta Anger". It's a whole other level of anger, about getting angry about something as stupid as what I was getting angry about. I kind of transcended normal anger.

Shankar Vedantam: I feel that the stories you are telling are so universal. We all have these experiences. We stew over things, lose our temper, lose sleep over things. I feel I do this all the time. When it happens I tell myself, sometimes this is happening at 3:00 in the morning, "This is so pointless. You're not going to feel rested in the morning. All this fretting is not going to solve anything." You have a wonderful analogy to how these thoughts operate in our minds. Tell me the analogy of the annoying roommate.

William Irvine: Yeah, so imagine that you're trapped in an apartment with this roommate. The problem was, he was a very annoying human being. He would basically hang out in the back bedroom playing video games or something, but every now and then he would come out and tell you something you should worry about. As you were falling asleep in your own bedroom, he would come in and tap your shoulder and say, "You know, there's something probably you should be angry about."

William Irvine: You would want to eliminate this roommate. You would want to expel him. You might want to do physical violence against him. That's kind of what it's like. That's the human experience. You've got this roommate, he's not in a back bedroom, he lives in a corner of your mind and comes out to make you miserable. That isn't necessarily his goal. He's just thoughtless. It's just what he does. That's the human experience.

Shankar Vedantam: Both you and I consider the movie "Groundhog Day" one of our all-time favorites. On the surface, it's just another Hollywood romantic comedy, but I want to spend a moment with the movie since I think it reveals some really interesting philosophical ideas that will inform this conversation. For the people who haven't watched "Groundhog Day", the movie's about Phil Connors. He's a cynical TV weatherman.

Groundhog Day Clips: Out in California, they're going to have some warm weather tomorrow, gang wars and some very overpriced real estate. Up in the Pacific Northwest-

Shankar Vedantam: He dislikes his colleagues. He hates his job. He's been assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It's the middle of winter. Phil thinks this is a boring assignment.

Groundhog Day Clips: This is pitiful, 1,000 people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat. What a hype.

Shankar Vedantam: He can't wait to get it over with. But after he finishes filing this lackluster report, bad weather forces him to stay overnight in town. When he wakes up the next day, he discovers that time has rewound itself and he is back at the start of Groundhog Day. He has to do the same TV report, meet the same people, live the same boring day over again. The same thing happens the next day, and the next, and the next. He is living in the prison of Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day Clips: Okay campers, rise and shine. And don't forget your booties, because it's cold out there today.

Groundhog Day Clips: It's cold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?

Groundhog Day Clips: Hardly.

Groundhog Day Clips: Nice going, boys. You're playing yesterday's tape

Shankar Vedantam: Bill, tell me if you remember, how does Phil react to this setback?

William Irvine: He becomes increasingly depressed.

Groundhog Day Clips: Rita, I'm reliving the same day over and over. Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day Clips: I am wracking my brain, but I can't even begin to imagine why you'd make up something like this.

Groundhog Day Clips: I'm not making it up. I am asking you for help.

Groundhog Day Clips: Okay, well-

William Irvine: I used to watch the movie every Groundhog Day until a few years ago, when my wife said "That's enough 'Groundhog Day.' I think we can skip this year." I think in one scene we finally see him there in his pajamas playing along with a game where they ask questions. The problem is, he knows all the answers because he's heard it 100 times before, because it's what he starts every day. That's the interesting thing, that idea that you have to live the same day over and over, it can be a really depressing thought.

Shankar Vedantam: At one point in the movie, as the same day endlessly replays itself over and over again, Phil boils over with frustration. His rage spills into the TV segment he's doing, and he lashes out, on camera, at his colleagues, Larry and Rita.

Groundhog Day Clips: You got a problem with what I'm saying, Larry? Untie your tongue and you come out here and talk, huh? Am I upsetting you, Princess? You know, you want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction. It's going to be cold. It's going to be gray. And it's going to last you for the rest of your life.

Shankar Vedantam: So Bill, the comedy comes from the fact that as we watch from the outside we can see how Phil's reaction to his own suffering is actually making things worse. But he can't see it, can he?

William Irvine: No, he can't. He's trapped. He hasn't figured it out. A lot of people actually haven't figured it out as well, a lot of us normal people, that much of the suffering we experience is due to our response to the events of life. That's a tragedy. You have one life to live. To spend it living the same day over and over, when you have other options open, that's tragic.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to stay with this core insight for just a moment. All of us think that when the world hands us a lemon, when things go wrong, it's the world's fault. The world is causing us to suffer, but I think a core insight that you just pointed out was that our response to what the world hands us is as much a part of our suffering as what the world gives us. Can you talk about that for a moment?

William Irvine: Yeah, actually our response is usually worse. Think about if somebody says something obnoxious to you, those are just words. They're there and gone. What will cause you the agony is you dwelling on those words, thinking about those words, replaying those words.

William Irvine: I've known people, older people in nursing homes, who had lost much of their memory. Dementia had set in. The amazing thing was they could still remember and describe in detail an annoying incident that happened decades ago. It just drills deep into your brain and it has the power to poison your life. That's what you got to look out for.

Shankar Vedantam: You have a wonderful analogy of a burst pipe in your home. When a pipe bursts, you have to quickly shut off the water and call a plumber, and then you have to deal with the water damage. Tell me about the analogy between this burst pipe and the way many of us respond to life's setbacks.

William Irvine: Yeah, a burst pipe is not your problem. A burst pipe, you call a plumber and if the plumber is competent, it might take him half an hour to fix it. It might cost you a few hundred dollars and it's back to business as normal. The pipe isn't the problem. The problem is all the water that came out of the broken pipe. If this is a second-story bedroom where the pipe broke, you could have a collapsed ceiling on the first floor. That could have damaged the carpet, it could have damaged furniture. So, we're talking of thousands of dollars worth of damage. We're talking maybe days or weeks of repairs being done until it's finally clear.

William Irvine: But that's what one of life's setbacks is like, when somebody insults you. It isn't the insult. That's just words. It's your response to the insult, and it can be orders of magnitude greater harm that it does you than the insult itself did.

Shankar Vedantam: Is it possible that getting stuck in these loops, what psychologists sometimes call "perseveration," that some of us are more prone to it than others? In other words, some of us have a more annoying roommate than others?

William Irvine: I think so. I've given this some thought. I think there are dispositions, there are personality types, but I also think it's possible with a little bit of effort and a little bit of direction for you to do as much with whatever personality you were born with in terms of redirecting it, so that life's setbacks aren't quite as damaging as they otherwise would be.

Shankar Vedantam: Coming up after the break, we explore the psychological techniques used by people who respond exceptionally well to life's curve balls. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've seen how our responses to setbacks can sometimes produce problems that compound the original setback. We can't always control what the world does to us, but in his book "The Stoic Challenge", philosopher William Irvine says there's a way to change how we respond to the world. In fact, when we look at many successful and well-adjusted people, we see them practicing the very skills that could lead all of us to greater peace of mind.

Shankar Vedantam: Bill, in your book you tell the story of the astronaut Neil Armstrong. He's obviously famous for the moon landing, but you describe another incident involving Neil Armstrong. Tell me that story and what lesson you drew from it.

William Irvine: Yeah, in order to be able to land on the moon, they needed a lunar lander, and they needed to practice landing with it. So they did that on Earth on multiple occasions. It would hover above the ground, maybe a few hundred feet. It was a very, very difficult vehicle to pilot. It's likened to trying to balance a dinner dish on the end of a broom handle. On one of the times they were testing it, Neil Armstrong had it up and the valve stuck in one of the thrusters, and the whole thing started tipping over sideways.

William Irvine: When it became approximately at a 90 degree angle tipping over, he being a trained pilot hit the ejector button, blew off the lander, and his parachute automatically opened. He drifted down to Earth safely. Meanwhile, the lander crashed into a big fireball. He had no harm done to him physically, other than I think he bit his tongue when he hit the ground. So later on, he was back at the office complex filling out paperwork, as you can imagine someone would have to do after crashing a lunar lander, and fellow astronaut Alan Bean came along and saw him working there.

William Irvine: Alan Bean hadn't heard anything about any of this, but saw him working there and stuck his head in the office and said, "Hey Neil, how are things going?" Neil said, "Hey. Fine." So, Alan Bean went on to talk to another astronaut, and the other astronaut said, "Did you hear what happened this morning? Neil crashed the lander." At that point, Alan Bean went back to Neil Armstrong and said, "You crashed the lander?" Neil said, "Oh yeah, yeah. Those are tippy things, and down it went," and didn't have another thing to say about it.

William Irvine: So just imagine this life-threatening thing. He went through it, behaved like a hero, and yet didn't even think it was worth mentioning. He just bounced right back as if nothing had happened.

Neil Armstrong Clip: That's true, I did. There was work to be done. I'm going to-

Neil Armstrong Clip: You were just almost killed.

Neil Armstrong Clip: Oh, but I wasn't.

Shankar Vedantam: Talk about low drama, huh?

William Irvine: Yeah, talk about no drama, and yet that's one approach you can take to things. It's history now, so let's move on and figure out what happens next.

Shankar Vedantam: There's another story you tell. This one is of a 13-year-old surfer named Bethany Hamilton. It's instructive in that it shows what you were just talking about a second ago, which is some people manage to stay relentlessly focused on the future rather than fretting about the past. Tell me Bethany's story, Bill.

William Irvine: Yeah, Bethany Hamilton was a young surfer, a very good surfer, and was out surfing one day with a friend and was there waiting for the next big wave with her arms draped over the surfboard, when suddenly something hit her right arm. Before she knew it, she saw the flash of gray. She realized that it was a shark, and she realized that she was missing her right arm. Instead of panicking, she made her way back to shore. She was rushed to an emergency room.

William Irvine: But what's of interest here is the way Bethany responded to this tragedy.

Bethany Hamilton Clips: I think when you're faced with such incredible trials at such a young age, you're just trying to find that light of hope of like, "Okay, what can I do?"

William Irvine: What did she do? She rose to the challenge. As soon as her doctor said it's okay to get wet again, she went out and she taught herself again how to surf. Normally, you use two hands pressing down. She had only one hand to push herself up to a standing position. She figured out how to do that. She also figured out a bunch of other things, like how do you button a shirt. The answer is, you don't. You don't get shirts with buttons. There's a workaround for that.

Bethany Hamilton Clips: I didn't need easy. I just needed possible.

Shankar Vedantam: So, we see something really strange in people like Neil Armstrong and Bethany Hamilton. When bad things happen to them, they not only don't react the way most of us do, they don't spend a lot of time wishing that the bad thing had not happened to them. I want to play you a clip from Yankee first baseman, Lou Gehrig. He had to retire from baseball near the peak of his career, after being diagnosed with amyotropic lateral sclerosis. Here's the clip.

Lou Gehrig Clip: For the past two weeks, you've been reading about a bad break. Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Shankar Vedantam: Lou Gehrig died in 1941 at the age of 37. What's the secret these people have in common, Bill?

William Irvine: The secret is, they realize a few basic insights. One is that history is history. History is over. You can't change history. You can change what happens tomorrow. Another thing, the Stoics actually never said what I'm about to tell you, but I think it could be their motto, "Do what you can with what you've got where you are."

William Irvine: If you look at the people that we hold up as this kind of hero, who bounced back from extreme setbacks, that's what they did. They did what they could with what they had where they were. Lou Gehrig did that. He remained a hero to the end.

Lou Gehrig Clip: That I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: You've spent decades reading about and trying to emulate some of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. I'm wondering if you can tell me the story of Musonius Rufus. I understand he ran afoul of an emperor and was banished to a desolate island, but survived it in some ways by drawing on the same philosophical tradition that has informed your own life.

William Irvine: Yeah, the Stoic philosophers had an unfortunate tendency to get in trouble with the powers that be, and to be banished by them. So, several of the most famous Stoics spent time banished. You get sent off to an island, and the island that Musonius was sent to was one of the particularly bad islands, the Greek island of Yaros in the Aegean Sea. It's described as a desolate rock. He went there and discovered that it wasn't uninhabited, that there were a handful of fishermen who figured out a way to make a living there.

William Irvine: So what he did is he spent his time on the island studying the island. He found a new spring on the island that the locals didn't know about. He was visited from time to time on the island by his students, and they thought they were coming to cheer him up. He would cheer them up when they got there and listen to their problems. Because what did he do? He did what he could with what he had where he was. He was the target of injustice, and yet refused to play the role of a victim of injustice.

William Irvine: It's a different mindset altogether. A victim might wallow in self-pity. A target rises and thinks "What am I going to do next in order to minimize the harm that this targeting has done to me?"

Shankar Vedantam: There were three techniques that he practiced to minimize the harm that was done to him. I want to discuss them one by one because I think they carry deep psychological insight. The first has to do with an understanding of what he could control and what he couldn't control. Talk about this idea, Bill.

William Irvine: Yes, this is the dichotomy of control, although in my own works I've broken it into a trichotomy of control. So things you have complete control over, those would be your values, those would be the choices that you make. Things you have no control over at all are like whether the sun rises tomorrow. The first bit of Stoic advice, and this comes Musonius's student, Epictetus, one of the four great Roman Stoic philosophers, the advice is, don't spend your time thinking about things you have no control over, because you can't control them. It's a waste of time.

William Irvine: You should instead spend that time thinking very carefully about things you do have control over, including your values. Then there's this interesting middle category and that's the category of things you have some but not complete control over. One analogy I use is preparing for a tennis match. You can't control how hard your opponent practices. You can't control the weather conditions on the day of the match. But there are things you can control, like how hard you train, like the strategy you come up with for doing the match. That's what you should be focusing your attention on.

William Irvine: Let me take a little bit of a side trip here. When a Stoic has finished, when whatever he was preparing for is over, he won't judge himself on the basis of whether he won or lost. He'll judge himself on whether he did the most with what he had available to him. If he did that, that's success, because that's all he could to do. To measure success by some higher standard is sheer lunacy.

Shankar Vedantam: The second technique that Musonius practiced on this desolate island was to remind himself that things could have been much worse. Why did he do this? And what did he do, Bill?

William Irvine: This is a phenomenon known as "anchoring." Whatever situation you're in, is it good or bad? Well, it depends. It depends on what? It depends on what you're comparing it to. For instance, we're going through this COVID pandemic. I've been asked by many people, "So what would a Stoic do under these circumstances?" I suggested one of the things they would do is they would do this game of anchoring and they would think about how things could be worse.

William Irvine: It's interesting, because my students said, "No, this is as bad as things get," and then I tell them the story of the Blitz in London during World War II.

London Blitz Clips: Night and day, day and night, indiscriminate attacks continue.

William Irvine: Where it wasn't that you were locked into your apartment, it was that you had to leave your apartment every night.

London Blitz Clips: In underground shelters, a dauntless Britain carries on undismayed.

William Irvine: Go into a subway tunnel and sleep with 300 strangers on the ground, get up the next morning and go back to your apartment in the hopes that it hadn't been bombed into a rubble the night before.

London Blitz Clips: Never in history has an entire people borne so frightful an ordeal so bravely.

William Irvine: Once you put it into that frame, then you start thinking, "You know, this isn't so bad after all."

Shankar Vedantam: The third technique that Musonius and other Stoic philosophers have recommended, is to learn self-control through occasional acts of self-denial. What do they mean by this, Bill?

William Irvine: This is what I call "Stoic Training". I like to think of it in terms of your immune system. We all know about our biological immune system. What does it do? Well, it fights off germs. It fights off viruses. The interesting thing is, unless you develop your biological immune system, it's not going to function properly. I know a pediatrician, and I asked him about whether children should be exposed to dirt, and his answer was "Yeah, kids should eat a pound of dirt."

William Irvine: Well, not in a single sitting, but you know what, if the kid is walking around the house and wants to suck on the table, let him suck on the table. Get pets. The pets are going to be dirty. That's good, because you want him to develop his biological immune system. The Stoics didn't think in these terms, because they didn't know about immune systems. But it's a nice parallel. You have an emotional immune system, but you need to train it. The way you train it is by experiencing things that are going to make you unhappy.

William Irvine: You go out of your way to experience those things just because doing so will develop your emotional immune system. So, think about somebody who lives in a palace. Think about somebody who never has anything go wrong. All it will take is the smallest little setback, and that person's going to be a basket case. Think about somebody instead who's always going out and trying to do things that are going to make him physically uncomfortable, that are going to make him emotionally uncomfortable.

William Irvine: Present that person with a challenge of some kind, and they're going to take it in their stride.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if some people might hear what you're saying and sort of think of what you're saying as a form of gas lighting. Here's what I mean, because effectively what we might be telling people is, "Yes, your life sucks. Yes, terrible things have happened to you. But if you're unhappy, it's your fault because you are not reacting properly to your setbacks." Is there a risk that Stoicism can sort of transfer over into the phenomenon of blaming the victim?

William Irvine: We could do that. Here's one way to put it, if you look at the classical Stoics, they thought that if you want to have a happy life, if you want to have life in which you flourish as a human being, there is an extent to which you have to take responsibility for that life. Now, that said, there are things in life you can't control, and there are going to be these bad things that come up and happen to you. So, what do you do?

William Irvine: You deal with them to the best of your ability. But the Stoic insight was, most of the damage that they do to you is not the event itself, but your reaction to the event. So what you need to do is figure out a way to keep that reaction within certain bounds. If you look at people we admire, if you look at Martin Luther King for example, he was the target of considerable discrimination. He refused to play the role of victim. He found a way to minimize the harm it did him personally, and that way he could use the energy that he would have spent feeling beat down, feeling powerless, he used that energy to start a movement.

William Irvine: That's a wonderful direction, a redirection you can take when you have been targeted by evil and malicious forces.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to read you the Oxford Dictionary definition of stoicism. It says, "It's the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings, and without complaint." Dictionary.com says, "Stoicism is about the repression of emotion." Are those definitions accurate? Because if so, it doesn't sound like it's very appealing or very fun.

William Irvine: Yeah, I avoided stoicism for most of my life for just that reason. Then, about 15 years ago, I was in a research project and it dawned on me that it's a common idea people have but it's very mistaken. In my own writing, I distinguish between what I call "Lowercase S" and "Uppercase S" stoicism. Lowercase S stoicism is precisely what you just said. So, a lowercase S Stoic is a person who stands there and simply takes whatever life has to throw at him and doesn't express emotions in the process.

William Irvine: The Roman Stoics were uppercase S Stoics. It isn't that they suppressed emotion, it's that they tried to avoid experiencing negative emotions, emotions like anger, anxiety, frustration, envy. But they had nothing against positive emotions, including feelings of delight, including even joy. That's the incredible thing, if you actually look into the lives of the ancient Stoics, they had a reputation for being cheerful individuals. So, it's an absolute opposite of what you would expect, one that I think keeps a lot of people distanced from a doctrine that could be very helpful to them in the life that they're living.

Shankar Vedantam: We've talked at length on Hidden Brain in various episodes about the phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill, which is, you have wonderful things happen to you. Good things come into your life, and very quickly we get habituated to them and we fail to see them for what they are. We start to take them for granted. How would a Stoic accentuate the positive, especially when the positive is all around her all the time, where she's seeing it all the time?

William Irvine: Yeah, so a Stoic understands, they didn't use this term for it, but they understand the hedonic treadmill. I like to rephrase it as the "Gap Theory of Happiness." A lot of people are unhappy because they recognize the existence of a gap between what they have and what they want, and they're convinced that happiness will come to them if only they can raise that one level and get the thing they want.

William Irvine: In fact, it's true, they are happy for a while, for a few minutes, for an hour, for days and then they're right back where they were before because they discovered that there's another level that's even higher. They think, "If only I could reach that level, I would at last be happy." The insight, which the Stoics had, and by the way the Buddhists had, and there have been a number of groups in history that have had this same insight, is that there's a second way to close the gap.

William Irvine: What you need to do is to learn how to want what you already have, because then there's no gap to close. You're already there. Okay, but how do you accomplish that? The Stoics said, "You do these certain exercises, these certain psychological strategies so that you can convince yourself to want the things that you already have."

Shankar Vedantam: Is one of those things in some ways to remind yourself of the things that could be much worse? We talked about the idea in some ways of exposing yourself to negative phenomena or of imaging perhaps that the thing that you have is no longer with you. You imagine the loss of the thing that you actually have in order to remind yourself of the value of the thing that you have.

William Irvine: Yeah, so that's what is referred to as "negative visualization". If you want to find out what in life you're taking for granted, think about the things in your life that you value. It could be your job. It could be your spouse. It could be your children. So, negative visualization is this process in which you give yourself a few seconds to imagine that the thing you value somehow disappears from your life.

William Irvine: So, you don't dwell on losing the things that you value, but you allow yourself to have a flickering thought about it. You imagine and you try to visualize your life with that person or that thing missing just a few seconds, and then you get back to life. When you next encounter the person or thing, an interesting phenomenon. You will probably notice, and that is that you appreciate them. You're happy to see them.

William Irvine: Well, I do this periodically a few times a day. My wife knows that I've been up to negative visualization when she hears me shout out from the back bedroom that's my office, "Thank you for existing." As a result, I realize, gosh I've really got it good. It's so insidious, this process, of as soon as you've got something, it feels good at first, then you take it for granted. If you could only appreciate the things you already had, you could really extract the joy that they can provide your life with.

William Irvine: Same is true of children. There are people who dream of having children, they have them and then before long, start ignoring them and start complaining about them. But imagine that tonight at bedtime, it wasn't possible for you to tell your kid a bedtime story, because your kid's off in the hospital or somewhere else. It can change your attitude dramatically and in a very short period of time.

Shankar Vedantam: You point out something quite wonderful in the book, which is of course every one of the things that we have at some level is transient: the possessions we have, the relationships we have, the life that we have. It is fundamentally transient. In some ways, when you remind yourself of that transience, at the one level it is potentially scary and upsetting, but it also causes you to pay more attention to the things that you have.

Shankar Vedantam: So if I remind myself I'm talking to my friend, but I want to briefly visualize a point when this person might no longer be my friend, or might no longer be in my life, I will engage with my friend more deeply in that conversation that I'm having with him or her today than if I sort of essentially took it for granted and assumed that this is a relationship that would last forever.

William Irvine: Yeah, I call it the "last time meditation." It's a great way to put yourself in the moment. You can feel what it's like to be living in the moment. What you do is, whatever it is you're doing, you imagine that it's the last time you will ever do it. For everything you do, there will be a last time that you do it, and that's simply because you're a mortal being. You will someday die. There will be a last time you eat dinner. There will be a last time you lay your head on a pillow. There will be a last breath that you take.

William Irvine: Now again, you don't want to go overboard on this because if that's all you think about, you're going to be a miserable human being. But if you occasionally allow yourself to have that thought, then you find it has this psychologically transformative power. You can take what you're doing and you can realize, "You know, if this were the last time I was doing this, I would savor this thing that I'm doing." It can be something quite ordinary.

William Irvine: I find when I mow the lawn on a hot summer day, I like to remind myself that there will be a last time I mow the lawn. There's going to be a time when I'm in a nursing home somewhere, can't mow the lawn, and if I reach that stage I'm going to be looking back on that moment of me out there pushing a lawnmower around and it's going to count as "the good old days." Just that thought, Carly Simon saying it well, "These are the good old days," if you live long enough there's a very good chance that these are the good old days.

William Irvine: Wouldn't it be tragic for you not to savor them while they're here?

Shankar Vedantam: The Stoics understood that you don't achieve tranquility by understanding theories about how the mind works. Philosopher William Irvine has learned he needs to practice a series of techniques to respond well to life's setbacks. Those techniques might help you as well. That's coming up right after the break. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. The Stoic philosophers understood that no matter what challenges life throws at us, we have an option. It's up to us to decide how we respond to those challenges. Our responses shape how badly we are affected by setbacks. They shape how we respond. In important ways, our responses to setbacks shape whether they appear as setbacks at all.

Shankar Vedantam: Philosopher William Irvine is the author of the book, "The Stoic Challenge." In it, he explores various techniques to change how he responds to setbacks.

Shankar Vedantam: Bill, you've come up with a clever game that you play when you are dealing with frustrations. In your book, you describe a horrendous flight with a connection in Chicago. Tell me what went wrong on that flight, and how you employed an unusual form of conversation to reshape your response to the setback.

William Irvine: Back in the day, the good old days before COVID, I did a fair amount of flying. I was flying cross-country. I was in Chicago, and the plane I was on, we boarded and got on, they announced that there was a problem loading the luggage, that they were having trouble closing the cargo door. So they said, "Off the plane and we're going to find a different plane for you," so you can imagine the groaning that was going on.

William Irvine: Everybody goes back into the airport and are sitting there waiting for an announcement, and the announcement finally comes on and the announcement is, "Sorry, there is no other plane available for tonight, so in the morning you'll be able to fly out and we'll put you up in a hotel overnight." Huge groaning from all around, complaints, people going up to the desk to say, "You know, this is not acceptable." But for me, as a practicing Stoic, it triggered a different response altogether.

William Irvine: I had this thing I call the "Stoic Test Game." When I experience a setback, I imagine that what's happened is Stoic gods have provided me with a challenge. Now, do I actually believe Stoic gods exist? The answer is, no, they're imaginary beings. The next question is, why would they inflict these tests on me? Answer, because they want me to thrive, because they want me to be strong, and they want me to be resilient. So, they test me.

William Irvine: You can think of them like a good coach. A good coach won't pamper his or her players. A good coach will try to toughen up the players so they can thrive in upcoming competitions. I do this mental game, and the answer is, instead of getting angry for instance, you think of it as a challenge. You think, "I can actually do quite well in this." And you kind of hijack your inner emotions. You want to get angry, but now you've got something else to focus on, and that is to find a workaround for the setback and not get upset in the process.

Shankar Vedantam: So you have all these people in the airport, sitting, groaning, complaining, walking up to the counter, saying it's unacceptable. You're sitting in your seat having a quiet conversation with the Stoic gods. What do you say to them? What did you say to them in that moment?

William Irvine: I actually think these imaginary Stoic gods, I think a lot of them like to hang out in airports because that seems to be where all sorts of setbacks happen. I'd say "This is a clever challenge, but I'm up for it, so bring it on." It's a psychologically useful game.

Shankar Vedantam: So the airline transfers you to a hotel for the evening because there are no planes available for that day. Does it all go smoothly once you get to the hotel?

William Irvine: I got to the room, I opened the door and realized that the room had not been made up from the previous person who'd stayed there. Sigh. Head back out into the hallway, go all the way back down and tell the person at the desk, "Hey, the room isn't made up." So he says, "Oh, that's funny. Try this one." He gives me a different key. I go back up. Now again, if I weren't a practicing Stoic, this would have been when my anger would be at its maximum, the incompetence of this person, but I took a different spin on it.

William Irvine: Again, I tipped my hat to the Stoic gods of "Well played. I simply did not see this happening." But to pass one of these stoic tests, to pass one of these challenges, the trick is to keep your cool. If you don't let it crush you, it's going to strengthen you. You bounce, you don't break.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to focus on one of the challenges we have in trying to implement a philosophy like this. In fact, I want to go back to the story you told at the top about being woken up from a nap and hearing the robocall, and having to try and deal with a telemarketer. When setbacks arise in our life, when frustrations arise, it seems like the journey between the setback and our rage, or despair, is almost instantaneous, that we just go from zero to 90 miles an hour in like a second.

Shankar Vedantam: It happens like that, and there's no time to stop and actually say, "The Stoic gods are testing me. This is a challenge. Can I rise to that challenge?" Can you talk a little bit about this idea, that in some ways, part of the challenge here is not just in coming up with that game, but being able to insert the game in the millisecond before your emotions sort of rise up and swallow you up, and sweep you away?

William Irvine: Yeah, in the "Stoic Challenge" book I describe what I call the "Five Second Rule." It's a nice thing to keep in mind, because my own experience with anger is that you need to nip it in the bud. You need to get to it quickly. So, I describe five seconds and I don't know if that's the exact time, but if you let the anger burst into flames, you've got a real problem on your hands, because it's going to burn. It's going to burn for a long time, even if you reduce it to smoldering. It will burst into flames again, like happened to me on the Sahara Desert.

William Irvine: So the best thing is to prevent it from even being activated to begin with. That's why you have to be quick. You develop your instincts on this so that when a setback comes along, you very quickly put it into the proper frame. You say, "This is a test by the Stoic gods. I'm atop my game, and I'm going to show the Stoic gods what I'm made of." Here's a thought for you, give it a try. Put it to work in your life. Test drive it. If it doesn't work for you, you've lost very little. If it does work for you, you've acquired a very important psychological tool.

Shankar Vedantam: You talk in the book about the value of humor in combating the challenges that the Stoic gods put in front of us. So in some ways, of laughing or mocking in some ways, as setbacks that are put before us as a way to counter them. Can you talk about that idea for a moment?

William Irvine: Yeah, if you can laugh off an insult, the insult ceases to be a problem for you. One interesting thing I've discovered is that if somebody says something, and you just listen and then you just go on as if they hadn't said it, what they'll do is they'll be puzzled. They'll wonder, "Why didn't he get mad? Why didn't he respond to it?" Sometimes they'll say the insult again, and then the response is, "Yeah, I heard you the first time." Then you just go on with whatever you were saying.

William Irvine: It's a really profoundly effective way to deal with an insult, because they look like a fool. You've just ignored it. They haven't hurt you.

Shankar Vedantam: So I'm wondering when you think about the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill, do you see it as a giant stoic test for all of us?

William Irvine: Yes, it's a very good stoic test. We talked before about negative visualization, in which you imagine losing something that you have and appreciate. COVID-19 is kind of a brutal substitute for negative visualization. It shows you what it feels like to be deprived of the thing that you appreciate. It could be the company of your relatives. It could be your favorite restaurant. It could be your favorite activity.

William Irvine: Hey, stoic gods are going to snatch them away from you so you can figure out what it feels like. The interesting thing about this whole pandemic situation is how people are going to respond to it after it goes away. I'm assuming that it will. It'll be a matter of time before people will be taking everything for granted again. That's why it's important to be able to practice something like negative visualization, because then when you find yourself again taking for granted restaurants, people and so on, you give yourself a moment to reflect on what it was like during the pandemic, and how you felt back then. That can renew your connection with a variety of relationships.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked about the movie "Groundhog Day" at the start of our conversation, Bill. Phil Connors tries every self-destructive thing to get out of his quandary, but eventually when he realizes that nothing is going to work, he starts to slow down. He starts to ask himself how he can appreciate the things that he has, rather than wallow in resentment about the things that he doesn't have.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you a clip from the very end of the movie.

Groundhog Day Clips: When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark, and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney, and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From Punxsutawney, it's Phil Connors. So long.

Shankar Vedantam: And when Phil wakes up the next morning, it actually is the next day. He has escaped his prison. It's almost like he needed to stop trying to escape his prison in order to escape his prison.

William Irvine: Absolutely. Here's the stoic bottom line on that. You've got one life to live and it's happening right now. You have to actively think about what you need to do in order to embrace the one life you have to live. If you spend that life wishing you could be living somebody else's life, that's a waste. So, you dig in, you learn how to appreciate what you've already got, you learn how to savor your existence, your environment, your friends, your relatives, your lovers, and you can have that way the fullest life that's possible to have.

Shankar Vedantam: William Irvine is a Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Ohio. He's the author of "The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer and More Resilient." Bill, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

William Irvine: Oh, it's been a pleasure.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Our unsung hero today is Stephen Dubner. Stephen is the host of the podcast "Freakonomics." It's a terrific show and you should check it out. But Stephen has also been very helpful to me in thinking through what it means to launch and run an independent production company. He's been generous with his time and incredibly helpful with his advice. I'm so grateful, Stephen. Thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and visit us at HiddenBrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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