Recent essays, #43

Most of my original writings now appear over at Patreon and Medium. Many are free, but the recent ones are behind a paywall (monthly subscription at $3 for Patreon, $5 for Medium, but the latter comes with access to additional authors as well). Here are some of the most recent entries:

What makes people happy or unhappy — the empirical evidence

This semester I’m teaching an experimental course at the City College of New York: the philosophy and science of happiness. Fun, but not at all straightforward, since the very word, “happiness” has a number of meanings, and much confusion arises by not distinguishing among them. Sounds like a job for a philosopher. Then again, surely we can’t just sit down and decide on the basis of a priori considerations what does or does not make people happy. Sounds like a job for a scientist.

Which is why I have adopted two complementary textbooks for the task: How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy, which I co-edited with Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman, and Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard.

To begin with, we need to distinguish between at least two meanings of happiness, although surely they influence each other. On the one hand, happiness is an in-the-moment feeling generated by a pleasurable or meaningful experience. For example, at this moment I’m actually pretty happy of being sitting at my desk, looking over at the Manhattan skyline, engaged in one of my favorite activities: writing.

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

Stoic advice: How do I overcome fear?

G. writes: Fear according to the Stoics is related to attachment to externals. Let’s say for instance that someone is shy and wants to ask someone out on a date. According to Epictetus, this person experiences fear if his goal is not totally under his control (get a positive answer). If he changes his goal to an internal one (just ask someone out, and nothing more) the feeling of terror will subside and he will be able to make his move.

Μy problem is that when I face a similar situation, I can calm myself down when I am in solitude, by focusing on an internal goal. As a result, in theory victory depends only on me. But when it’s the time to act and I am with the other person, I feel an enormous irrational fear. Although I try to form the right thoughts in my head, it helps just a little. There is a storm taking place inside me. Somehow, sometimes I manage to make my (clumsy) move with respect to the described situation, but doubts are always coming in my head in an uncontrollable way (is she interested, is she available, is this an awkward ting to do?). 

Very good question, and very common problem. I assume that by “EBT” you meant REBT, rational emotive behavior therapy, a forerunner of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), both of which were initially inspired by Stoicism. I think that the conflict with Stoic advice is more apparent than substantial.

Let’s step back for a minute and talk about how the Stoics see what we call emotions, which is broadly consistent with the findings of modern cognitive science. An emotion, for instance fear, is the result of two components: a raw feeling that something is wrong (the Stoics call it a proto-emotion), and a cognitive judgment that something really is wrong (in your case, failure to get a date).

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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