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How Can Stoicism Influence Decision-Making?

how can stoicism influence decision making

 

It is estimated that the average person makes over 35,000 decisions a day; that’s about one every two seconds! From what to wear to what to eat to when to sleep, decision-making permeates our day-to-day lives, and it’s no wonder people have been looking for help easing this process for centuries. Luckily, there are many ways to help streamline this aspect of your life and one of the best is to use Stoic practices. 

 

Stoicism Is a Philosophy of Life

raphael school of athens painting
The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-11. Source: The Vatican Museums

 

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy developed around 300 BC by Hellenist Zeno of Citium. His beliefs quickly attracted followers, and Stoicism soon became one of the most popular ways of life. Spreading throughout Greece and Rome, Stoicism emphasizes the importance of wisdom, virtue, and living in harmony with nature. Though Stoics are often imagined to be harsh and unforgiving, their beliefs led to a joyful life, partly thanks to their straightforward ways of thinking. Nowadays, their teachings can be helpful for everything from achieving happiness to increasing success. But Stoicism lends itself particularly well to decision-making because its core practices are useful for clearing your mind, sharpening your focus, and classifying priorities. 

 

It Places Value on Reason and Logic

Festival of Reason, Paris, 1793. Source: Science Photo Library
Festival of Reason, Paris, 1793. Source: Science Photo Library

 

The most important belief of Stoicism is that logos, or Universal Reason, reigns supreme. Zeno’s founding belief was that to live well, one must live in harmony with reason. In a world filled with decisions, that means that to live well, one must make decisions in harmony with reason. Simply put, make reasonable (logical) choices. 

 

It might sound obvious — who would choose the illogical option? — but in practice, it is harder than it seems. Stoics struggled for centuries with how to live according to reason. Nowadays, we have the advantage of clearer facts and data, and we can use them to guide our choices.  

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And Helps Cut Down on the Number of Decisions to Make

epictetus portrait engraving
Epictetus by William Sonmans, engraved by Michael Burghers in 1715. Source: Wikimedia commons.

 

With tens of thousands of choices to make daily, cutting those decisions in half would be a huge time-saver. Luckily, Stoicism has the perfect hack: Dismiss the ones you can’t control

 

The Stoics believed there are two categories into which everything in the world can fit: the things you can control (namely your thoughts and actions) and those you can’t (everything else). Why waste time pondering about those things which aren’t in your control? No decision you make will have any impact, so toss it from your mind, don’t worry about it, and save your energy for the thousands of other decisions you still have to make. 

 

Stoicism Separates You from Outside Influence

Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860. Source: The Walters Art Museum
Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860. Source: The Walters Art Museum

 

Stoics are — perhaps infamously — known for their doctrine of indifference. They believe that it is vital to separate yourself from outside influence. They aim to make themselves indifferent to everything outside themselves and their quest to achieve the most good. While this may seem like a severe policy of life, it can be extremely beneficial when making decisions. Instead of feeling pressured into a choice, you are free to prioritize your needs and choose the path that makes the most sense for you, even if it isn’t what others expect. Stoicism can teach you how to separate yourself from the needs of others, which is an important part of making the best decision you can.  

 

It Puts Things into Perspective

Still life with vanitas symbols by Jean Aubert, 1708-1741. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Still life with vanitas symbols by Jean Aubert, 1708-1741. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Stoics are proponents of “memento mori,” or “remembering death” in Latin. The practice is pretty straightforward: You think of the worst outcome of a decision (usually death) and come to terms with it. Then, anything that does happen doesn’t seem as bad. If you expect the worst, you’re never disappointed. 

 

Keeping this mindset for decisions allows people to acknowledge that a choice might not go how they want it to, but it won’t be the worst-case scenario. It highlights the significance — or insignificance — of each decision and puts into perspective the potential outcomes. And, if your decision does result in death, at least you’ve already mentally prepared for it. 

 

Stoics Remind Us that the Results Don’t Matter

chrysippus bust.jph
Bust of Chryssipus, 3rd-2nd century BCE. Source: British Museum

 

At the end of the day, one important Stoic teaching puts all decision-making into perspective: intentions matter more than results. For many, one of the most incapacitating aspects of decision-making is the fact that you will, at some point or another, have to face the music. But Stoicism reminds us that the consequences aren’t important. You’ve gone through the process of making a decision — over 35,000 of them today alone — intending to achieve certain outcomes.  Don’t drag the nerve-racking process out by worrying over results. You’ve done everything possible, and what happens next is no longer up to you.

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By Natalie NolandBS Politics, Philosophy, and EconomicsNatalie is a freelance writer from Rhode Island. She has a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Northeastern University with a minor in Writing. Her academic interests include ancient philosophy, logic, and game theory. She enjoys reading, watching movies, and kayaking in her spare time.

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