A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy William B Irvine – Book Summary/Notes

Negative visualization

thinking about how things could be worse, allowing you to appreciate the present/moment and not take anything for granted, and to make us value whatever we have much more. While also preparing you for when the worst actually happens.

Example being the two fathers with a daughter. One appreciates her daily and gives her constant attention knowing that he could lose her at any moment. The other takes her for granted and doesn’t truly appreciate her in each and every moment. He is set for much more disappointment and unhappiness.

Negative visualization techniques 

-bad things happening in your life

-imagining unfortunate circumstances that happened to others happening to us

-how our ancestors had to live and imagining if we had to live that way

-bad things that happened to us, happening instead to others

Contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world forces us to recognize that anything we do could be the last time we do it, allowing us to do things with significance and intensity.

Hedonic adaptation – a way of living that sucks the joy out of things we once longed for that we now possess/have. Applying negative visualization to losing those things or people in our life can help us not take what we have for granted, appreciate it more as well as enhance our capacity for enjoying our life more.

Also increases the chance of that joy we experience to remain durable, surviving changes in our circumstances.

Dichotomy of control (internalization technique)

setting goals and values based on things that you have complete control over internally, and things that you have some but not complete control over, rather than others that are completely out of your control externally.

Example being setting goals that are easy and obtainable versus ones that most likely will lead to failure, or even if you end up achieving them, you suffered during the process of achieving them.

Things that we have partial control over (like winning a tennis match, or getting a book published), we should set proper internal goals (and no external goals) for these so that we don’t experience disappointment (such as practicing and playing to the best of your ability).

The things which we have no control over at all, should be set/pushed to the side as not worth worrying about at all, saving yourself from unnecessary anxiety.

Fatalism (acceptance of fate and what happens in the past and present is out of our hands/control)

the best way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy whatever desires we find within us but by learning to be satisfied with our life as it is, by learning to be happy with whatever we’ve got.

If you can learn to want whatever it is you already have, you won’t have to work to fulfill your desires in order to gain satisfaction, you will have already been fulfilled.

In the present (this very moment) we have a very important choice with respect to it: we can either spend this moment wishing it could be different, or we can embrace it. If we habitually embrace it, we will enjoy our life.

It’s a waste of time if we worry about past or present events, as we have no control over it.

Self-denial techniques

Voluntary discomfort – 3 benefits
-by taking these acts (choosing to be cold or hungry) we harden ourselves against misfortunes that we may encounter in the future
-builds your confidence and gives you a wider safety/comfort net. It also prevents anxiety, as you won’t be worried about these things for the future
-helps us appreciate what we have

Voluntary denial of pleasure to build your self control. (If you choose to not eat ice cream, you will gain pleasure and praise yourself for your self control).

Mastering this type of self denial and control will allow you to attain the goals of your philosophy of life, which will dramatically increase your chances of living a good life.

Meditation techniques

Every night run through a mental checklist of daily living, and how you responded to events, and how you should’ve responded in accordance to stoic principles.

As you go about your day, play the roles of participant and spectator (create within ourselves a stoic observer who watches us and comments on our attempts to practice stoicism). Examine what you do, our motives for it, and the value of what we are trying to accomplish.

Also, be careful observers of the actions of other people, learn from their mistakes and successes.

Social relations

If you have to deal with or be around someone who gets on your nerves or is annoying you can do a few different things
-think of others who may find you annoying
-realize that the world cannot exist without them
-you getting annoyed only makes things worse than what the person is even doing that’s annoying you
-it is fate that makes them the way they are
-in the big picture we will all be dead soon, don’t let them get to you

You shouldn’t think about or speculate about other people.


-the first strategy is to pause when insulted and consider if what the insulter said is true. If it is, then there is little reason to be upset.
-next strategy is to pause and consider how well informed the insulter is. He may simply be reporting how things seem to him and what he sincerely believes.
-another is to consider the source of the insult and if it is someone you respect and value their opinions. If you do, then their critical remarks shouldn’t upset you.
-just as a dog barking at you may dislike you, you shouldn’t allow other people’s insults to upset you.
-another important strategy is when insulted, we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult. If we can convince ourselves that a person has done us no harm by insulting us, his insult will carry no sting. It is up to us whether we get upset or angry from insult.
-respond to insults with self-deprecating humor, versus a counter-insult
-or don’t respond at all, the insulter will be even more upset


-by allowing ourselves to get angry over little things, we take what might have been barely noticeable and transform it into a tranquility shattering state of agitation.
-our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us, making us fools for allowing our peace to be disrupted by minor things.
-using humor in replace of when you get angry or annoyed, can then become a source of amusement from a bad thing or situation.
-think about the impermanence of the world around us and how unimportant whatever your angry about is, and how it doesn’t matter in the big picture.
-a good strategy is to turn our anger into its opposite. Force yourself to think the opposite, a wholesome thought. If you’re angry, think about love. Two opposite thoughts cannot exist in one mind at one time, the wholesome thought will drive out the unwholesome one.
-We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice and slow our pace of walking, allowing our internal state to resemble our external state, removing the anger.
-simply apologizing for angering someone else gives you a calming effect, and prevents you from obsessing over the thing that made you angry. By admitting your mistake, we lessen the chance that we will make them again in the future.
-make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure. Why experience anti-joy when you have it in your power to experience joy?

Personal values

On fame – you shouldn’t care what others opinions are or what they think about you. You shouldn’t try to seek fame or social popularity. Trying to be viewed as favorable or admirable by someone else means having to change who you are to emulate what that persons own values and beliefs are.

On luxurious living – “not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself is”

People who live luxurious lifestyles are rarely satisfied, as it whets their appetite for even more luxury.

Natural desires (such as a desire for water when we are thirsty) can be satisfied, unnatural desires cannot. Think twice the next time you want something and are trying to satisfy it/yourself.

The danger of being exposed to a luxurious lifestyle is losing the ability to take delight in the simple things, seriously impairing the ability to enjoy life.

ENJOY the simple things and moments while in the PRESENT.


-periodically contemplating your own death and understanding that your days are numbered, allows you to get the most out of life (versus someone who thinks he will live forever and takes each day for granted, resulting in wasting his days).
-living each day like it’s your last allows you to extract the full value of that day, and the days that follow it.
-no point in fearing death, as it’s a negative emotion that can be avoided and in fact substituted by gratefulness and appreciation of life and what you have.


-if someone close passes away, it is perfectly natural to experience grief. After reflecting on it, you must try to reason it out of existence “is this what the person who died would want you to do? No, they’d want you to be happy. The best way to honor their memory is to leave off grieving and get on with life.”
-The goal is not to eliminate grief but to minimize it.
-“A man is as wretched as he has convinced himself that he is”
-what point is there in being unhappy just because once you were unhappy?

Advice on becoming a stoic

-Do your best to enjoy things that are easily obtainable or can’t be taken from you, such as your character or the idea of simply being alive right now.

-while you enjoy things that can be taken away from you, practice negative visualization so that you prepare for the loss of those things. You need to learn how to enjoy things without feeling entitled to them and without clinging to them, as they can be taken away at any given moment.

-be careful to avoid wanting the best of everything, leading to enjoying a wide range of easily obtainable things.

“To have whatsoever he wishes is in no mans power. It is in every mans power not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.”

“A boundless joy that is firm and unalterable.” – Seneca, a primary beneficiary of stoicism.