Our happiness is within our control

Category: [Philosophy]


3min read

Briefly re-reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and this line caught my attention once again.

… our will rules its own domain. Otherwise the harm they [other people] do would cause harm to me. Which is not what God intended —for my happiness to rest with someone else.

I am not a religious person by any means, but this line in Meditations does resonate with me.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is well known to be one of the cornerstone texts underpinning the philosophy of Stoicism. In order to understand better what Marcus Aurelius was saying, let me briefly explain a key Stoic principle.

One of the primary principles in Stoicism is the separation between factors that are within your control, and factors that are beyond your control. Stoics advocate for the acceptance of whatever fate brings, i.e. outside of your control (Amor Fati - Latin for “love your fate”). This includes many things in life - the unexpected cancer or car accident, the unfaithful spouse - and certainly include the actions, thoughts, emotions, and words of other people. Treat these external factors objectively, and accept them in your stride.

This applies for both the good and the bad. As long as they are beyond your control, we should be as humble, graceful, and accepting as possible.

Being upset by the opinions of others, for example, is a futile exercise as you cannot control how others think. Likewise, the fame and glory that we seek is also a function of the opinions’ of others - hardly something we control.

Moreover, people in your lives come and go - but your will, your mind, your thoughts will stay with you for as long as you live.

On the other hand, Stoic teachings tell us to solely focus on factors that we can indeed control. This includes how we think, what we speak, how we spend our time, how hard we work and study, how healthily we eat, how much we exercise, how much time we spend with our loved ones. By focusing our attention on these controllable factors, not only will we be at peace, we will also be steadily improving our lives as we hustle along the way.

And this is what Marcus Aurelius was trying to say to himself: “our will rules its own domain”, actions by others does not harm us - our happiness rest with ourselves, not others.

In other words, it is our minds, thoughts, and actions that bring us happiness, and nothing else. This should be a liberating idea, to say the least. We do not need the right spouse or the right career or the right house or the right “fill in the blank” to be happy. Marcus Aurelius himself was a Roman Emperor (and one of the better ones at his job) and ruled over Rome for close to two decades - yet he attributes none of his authority and wealth to the peace and happiness he enjoyed1.

Our happiness is within our control. The question then is - what we can do on our end, i.e. factors that we can control, to help ourselves achieve this happiness?

  1. In fact, he was rather explicit in Meditations that the Stoic philosophy he practiced was to help him cope with the authority that he had as a Roman Emperor.