When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Sonnet 30, William Shakepeare

Is there a distinction between seeking happiness and working to avoid or allay unhappiness?  I have the impression from newspaper articles and radio programs on psychological studies and self-help books that the goal is to achieve happiness—to figure out how happy people got that way and emulate them or undertake some practical exercises to achieve a state of happiness.

In reading Seneca’s letters and essays (my primary source for Stoic thought), it appears that Seneca addressed ways to counter unhappiness more than ways to find happiness, which he calls tranquility, as distinguished from an excited state of joy or immersion in pleasure that some might equate with happiness.  Although he does not categorize the kinds of unhappiness, per se, I have gleaned them from Seneca’s writings and added  my own observations, which would meet with Seneca’s approval, as he strongly advocated each thinking person to extrapolate, appropriate, and create his/her own philosophy. By the way, I think that view is one of Seneca’s most distinctive and valuable.

To each of the following categories of unhappiness there is a multifaceted use of reason applicable, which may be equally useful to the other categories, just as there is some overlapping among the types of unhappiness: a current tough situation; remorse; defeated hopes; anger, general ennui, and grief.  In the following discussion, when I speak of “you” I am simply addressing myself, since making use of a philosophy for living takes repetition and work.

A Current Tough Situation

This is one of the few instances where matters might still be somewhat within your control. Stoicism does not advocate apathy, so do all you can.  In fact, while we can do something we are usually not emotionally overcome and unhappy.  If control is waning and we are stuck in a situation beyond our control, then think:

1. Things can always get worse. All the alternatives to your current situation are not knowable and any number of them might have occurred and have been worse than the present situation. If one knew of them, then what a relief this predicament really is. Anything that can happen to others can happen to you.

2.  Is it really so bad?  With effort, a dispassionate mind will find some consolation in it. If the situaion includes any of the other “bad situations” set forth below, apply the respective remedies set forth for them. In the scheme of things for humanity, how bad is it?  Are you enslaved, about to be thrown to the lions, sent into exile, writhing in pain from an incurable disease? The poor wretch who has nothing but a loin cloth can still be glad he has the loin cloth.

3.  Time to take inventory.  If you think you are bereft, think realistically about what you have.  Probably many things you have as consolation you are taking for granted. What you have is as good as what you no longer have or think you want.

4.  Study death and never lose sight of it.  Those things that you take for granted might fall into the hands of death at any moment; have you lived this day as if it were your last in your endeavors and your relationships?  If not them you have deluded yourself about mortality.


This is the category of things past: that vast realm of regret, nostalgia, sentimentality and yearning so perfectly described in Shakespeare’s sonnet.  Any events that are passed are things over which you have absolutely no control. I wonder how many times in a day I have to tackle this brand of emotion. Reason tells us that thinking about such things to our detriment serves no purpose; it is unreasonable because there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking.  Does it get anyone from point A to point B? I think sometimes we almost feel obliged to engage in such pointless thinking, as if we owe it to someone or to ourselves; but again that is in our own minds and achieves nothing purposeful.  If you feel so obligated, give yourself permission to stop thinking about such things.  The exercise of thinking about what you have control over and don’t is fundamental; reason will discern one from the other and guide you to drop the pointless. One other minor thought—regret about a past action taken or omitted is particularly vacuous because given the situation, who you are, and that you acted at the time with reason, then, you would do it again.

Disappointed Hopes

Think about hoping and understand what it is.  It is not preparation, it is not fate dealing you a blow—it is all in your perception of things in the uncontrollable future or views of others.  Nothing has really occurred except in your own mind; the mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Living in hope of something is a life lived in anticipation and derelict of the living moment. It is akin to living in fear. Seneca described it as follows: “Fear keeps pace with hope.  Nor do I find it surprising that they keep company, for each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring.  The cause in both cases is failure to adjust ourselves to the present and a tendency to project our mental processes into the future.  Foresight . . . is turned to mankind’s disadvantage.  No one confines his misery to the present.”

Anger and Various Forms of Dissatisfaction with Others

Dwelling on an incident caused by another that makes you angry is in the category of things that are past and beyond your control so that continuing to think about them is pointless (unless you can take some purposeful action to vindicate yourself and if you can you will be less troubled by the insult or injury caused). Even if you would describe the situation as-ongoing, do you really have control over another person in this instance?  Probably not. These negative feelings are an example of attaching importance to the outside world and its opinion.  Self-sufficiency and your own inner resources should be your bolster, not the external world which will always change.  Anyone who is raised up or cast down by the external events handed by fate is bound to spend much time cast down. You have also handed over to another person the power to make you feel uncomfortable; that person is not thinking about you, why should you devote any thoughts to him?

General Ennui

A general lack of enthusiasm and restlessness is, I suspect, what a lot of people feel when they say that they want to find happiness. A blasé or jaded attitude or even a melancholic one has enjoyed a certain cache at times and in certain circles.  If you engage in the thinking outlined in the first category of unhappiness, you should come out of it.  If not, Seneca says that nature has given us all a way out, should we want to get the jump of death.  Above all, don’t complain—comfort thyself; why should anyone else have that responsibility?


Here we come to that strange, behemoth, and pointless emotion, grief.  It has no evolutionary value to us as a species or to any of the animal species that suffesr from it.  A case can be made for anger or fear having some value—grief is valueless. Seneca admitted that sorrow is stubborn and that reason must capitulate for a time.  That is not to say that thinking does no good at all—it is a critical as ever.  Thoughts I have found that help (particularly in poetry) make clear the naturalness of death and the shared experience of all humanity.  As John Keats wrote in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law when the death of Tom, his younger brother, was imminent: “ I have Fanny (his sister) and I have you—three people whose Happiness to me is sacred—and it does annul that selfish sorrow which I should otherwise fall into, living as I do with poor Tom who looks upon me as his only comfort—the tears will come into your eyes—let them—and embrace each other –thank heaven for what happiness you have, and after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all Mankind, hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness.”  Amen. When Tom died, the letter bearing that news was notably brief for a wordsmith like Keats—he declined comment. He hardly ever mentioned the experience of his brother’s death again in his letters, even though his brother died in his arms after he had cared for him through his illness. Only in his last letter did he make a reference to him, when he wrote that his sister reminded him of Tom.  I think that exemplifies the truth that some things can be beyond words.

Concluding Observations

The direct prescription for happiness that Seneca does offer, and which I came across as a predominate notion in David Hume’s essay on Stoicism, is devotion to intellectual pursuits. A mind engaged in the higher order of thinking that only the human brain is capable of induces happiness.  Amen.

How much does any of this work?  There is nothing I am more skeptical of than the testimonial, so I hate to invoke “my own experience.”  Skirting the personal, I will point out that I, or anyone, certainly have the ability through thought of becoming miserable and therefore ought to have the power through thought of feeling better.  If I give myself over to thoughts of the past, mistakes, shortcomings, failures, losses, I have gone down the path of the sonnet by Shakespeare; the sighing and weeping and moaning and ruminating, will ensue for me, just as for the speaker of that poem–all pointless.  In the poem by the way, the consolationat the end is thinking  of what is present and worthy; in the sonnet it is a particular individual.  Stoics would continue to point out that placing all your happiness on one person is fraught with problems, but that is another trail to follow.  Right now, I want to establish that using reason–thinking and not thinking pointlessly– is not an empty exercise.  Feelings are rarely helpful, often painful, and no negative or excessive emotion should run riot in our lives. Freedom from being roiled by emotion, attended by the prescribed use of intellect, sets the best course for tranquility that I have ever come across and is the truth lying under so many current psychological approaches and their layers of anecdotes, data, studies, and chapters.





2 thoughts on “Unhappiness

  1. Great post. Some thoughts. There might be evolutionary advantages to grief or at least the feelings that accompany grief. For example, we often turn to family in times of grief, binding our genes closer together or maybe we reach out to friends expanding our social networks. Also, I’m unhappy with the idea that intellectual pursuits are the main (only?) way to obtain happiness. I found Charles Murray’s argument convincing that those without this ability can obtain happiness by working in Burke’s “little platoons” to perform voluntary mutually beneficial acts. Lastly, I think Seneca was right to concentrate on ways to counter unhappiness because I don’t believe that happiness should be our goal. There are so many more important things in life than happiness:


    • Thanks for your thoughts. Although I have not come across any evolutionary justification for grief, I agree there can be those side “benefits” resulting from loss,such as connecting with others, as you point out. I would add that, like all adversity, grief serves to define our characters–and, I think, in a way for the better in terms of an increase in understanding, compassion, and perhpas appreciation for life. That is along the lines of the idea that Keats develops in his letters about life and its inevitable hardship as forming a “vale of soul-making.”

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