Marcus Aurelius was a truly remarkable man. The former ruler of Rome, considered the last of the Five Good Emperors, was also a devout student of the philosophy of Stoicism. During his rule, Aurelius found the time to construct a series of autobiographical writings, now known as the Meditations.
In these writings, the Roman Emperor offered a number of key insights on how to live a happy life.
So, without further ado, here are 5 of the most important insights from the writings of Marcus Aurelius.
Lesson One: Appreciate the shortness of life
“There is a limit to the time assigned to you and if you don’t use it to free yourself, it will be gone and will never return.”
Human beings can only exist for a tiny fragment of time and occupy an insignificant speck of dust on earth. We may get to live on this tiny speck of dust for 70 or 80 years, if we’re lucky. Time is surely one of our most precious resources, yet we often waste it.
When it comes to spending our hard earned money, we are frugal. But, when it comes to our time, we simply let it get away. We play video games, mindlessly surf the internet or worry about problems which, in the grand scheme of things, are not really problems at all. We can always earn more money, but we can never buy more time.
The key lesson from Marcus Aurelius here is we should learn to appreciate just how little time we have and to start living our lives today.
We often tell ourselves that tomorrow will be the day we start exercising. Tomorrow will be the day we apply for that job. Tomorrow will be the day we start writing that book.
In the English language, tomorrow is one of the most dangerous words. Stop living for tomorrow and start living for today.
Lesson Two: Stop seeking the praise of other people
“It doesn’t matter how good a life you’ve led. There’ll still be people standing around the bed who will welcome the sad event.”
If there is one important lesson I wish to have learned earlier in life, it is that there will always be people who dislike you. There are 7 billion people on this planet and to try and live a life that pleases every single one of them is utter madness.
Learn to understand that if someone dislikes you, it’s not because you’re not a funny or kind or clever person. There are going to be people who disapprove of you no matter what you do or say, so you may as well live your life as authentically as you can.
If you’re a massive Star Wars geek, then embrace that. If you disagree with someone’s political opinion, don’t pretend otherwise. Or if your friends make a comment you find hurtful, let them know.
In the words of the French Novelist, Andre Gide, “It’s better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.”
Lesson Three: Negative emotions are a result of negative thinking
“Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false to your nature, and that of all rational beings.”
The negative emotions we experience are often just the result of how we interpret things. Let’s take the example of two friends, Jack and Jill, who are both invited to a mutual friend’s birthday party.
Jack, a very extroverted individual, is excited at the prospect of attending such a party. He views it as a great opportunity to meet a bunch of new people. Jill, on the other hand, is filled with anxiety and dread. She doesn’t know anyone there and fears that she will have nobody to talk to.
This is a great example of how two people can have very different reactions to an identical situation. This element of stoic philosophy was so influential that it now remains a core focus of modern day Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy.
We should learn to understand that the anxiety, worry or anger we experience is not a result of our environment. Those things happen because of our way of thinking. Because of that, we have the ability to empower ourselves and take back control of our emotions.
Lesson Four: Focus only on what you have control over and ignore the rest
“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. That’s all you need to know. Nothing more.”
There are only two things in this life we have control over: our thoughts and actions. That’s it. The rest is out of our hands. But, how often in life do we waste time and effort, complaining about things in which we simply have no influence over?
Emotions, such as anger, are not always useless. Sometimes, they motivate us to take action in times of injustice. However, there are many occasions where such emotions simply serve no purpose.
Take traffic, for example. You can shout, swear and beep your horn as much as you like or you can relax and listen to the radio. Either way, you’re stuck in the traffic jam and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The next time you feel frustrated or angry at some situation or comment somebody made, ask yourself, “Is this anger useful? Does it serve a purpose?”
You can’t control other people. You can’t control what they say, do or think.
So, stop paying so much attention to others and simply focus on your own life.
Lesson Five: Seek to build your own character
“The mind in itself has no needs, except for those it creates.”
We live in a materialistic culture. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements telling us about the latest gadgets we need to own. The media constantly exposes us to the lives of the rich and famous. We’re sold credit cards so we can order whatever we want from Amazon Prime, spending our money before we’ve even earned it.
We’ve been led to believe that happiness lies in material things, like getting a big house with a pool or a luxury Mercedes on the driveway.
When we seek happiness in the form of material possessions, we will never find joy. There is always something else to want- a bigger house, a faster car, more money in the bank account. Furthermore, when we seek fulfillment in the form of physical things, we place our happiness in the hands of others. I think Aurelius puts this best:
“If you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. “
The point is that no material thing ever really belongs to us. Everything can be taken away. If we define ourselves by how many bedrooms our houses have, what happens if we lose the house?
I think the key point Aurelius is making is that rather than seeking material wealth in life, we should learn to build our character. We should seek to become kind, honest and hard-working people. We should educate ourselves and learn to treat others with respect.
After all, our house can burn down, somebody may steal our car and our business may fail at some point. The one thing that can never be taken away from us? Our character.