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Lessons on Living a Happy Life — from the First Century

By BETH HARPAZ

Massimo Pigliucci says his life changed when he read these words from the philosopher Epictetus: “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived–and dying I will tend to later.” 

“It blew my mind,” writes Pigliucci, a professor at The Graduate Center and City College of New York, in his new book A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living. “Who the heck was this first-century guy who in two sentences displayed both a delightful sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude toward life and death?” 

Epictetus, Pigliucci says, was a slave in ancient Rome who studied Stoicism, obtained his freedom, and became a philosophy teacher. A book of his teachings called the Enchiridion has been revered for centuries. It was used by monks as a manual of spiritual exercises and owned by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Pigliucci describes A Field Guide to a Happy Life as his “attempt to update the Enchiridion” for 21st century readers. The heart of Pigliucci’s book consists of 53 short entries, each offering a nugget of advice that parallels a section in the original Enchiridion

Pigliucci notes that the famed 20th century Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”) derives from Epictetus’ teachings. And that approach to life is one of the Field Guide’s central themes: Some things are entirely up to us–our opinions, values, goals, decisions, and actions–but many other things are simply beyond our control. 

“While the notion that Stoics go through life with a stiff upper lip is a misguided stereotype, there is a grain of truth in it, since endurance of adverse conditions certainly is a Stoic value,” he writes. But finding happiness using the teachings of Epictetus is deeper than that: It’s about practicing “the art of living” without regard to “externals” like money, reputation, comfort or material things. 

“Sometimes you will win, sometimes you will lose, and at other times you will get off with a tie,” Pigliucci writes. “Cultivate, then, an attitude of equanimity toward externals. Be glad and appreciate when they work in your favor; don’t get mad when they don’t.”