What Stoics taught me about Depression

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

There’s depression on the rise, you see this in the statistics and you see these in the popular culture (i.e. memes, movies, TV shows) I too had a point in life where I felt this. For every step I took forward, it felt as if the distance to my expectations doubled. What follows is the fear, uncertainty and doubt. Not in others but in yourself.

There is no silver bullet solution to this, but you can learn to manage your expectations and life your life to the fullest. One of the books I read changed my life for the better, no it’s not a self-help book. Meditations: By Marcus Aurelius. The book is a self-reflection written by the then Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I’ve attached a link at the end of this post.

Reading this book made me realize few things,

Not even the Emperor of Rome was immune from depression

“I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for? Or was I created for this, to lie in bed and warm myself under the bedclothes?” - Meditations (By Marcus Aurelius)

Here the emperor was struggling to get out of bed, to do his job. A job that ensures the future of his people. Contemplating his own existence.

Unlike many books that romanticize the Kings and Queens of the past. Book such as Mahabharat, Ramayana or Kalevala depict the kings at a deity level resilience. Likely some form of Ancient Propaganda for the purposes of Nationalism. But these books don’t provide that down to earth practical advice that a person will need to navigate through life. Reading this book allowed me to understand that behind all that glamour, wealth and power, they are after all human.

There are things that you cannot change

and what you cannot change, you must not worry about. Epictetus is another philosopher that’s worth mentioning here. I haven’t fully read his work, but I plan to do so in the future.

“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.” - Enchiridion (By Epictetus)

Often so we let the actions of others and natural causes affect our wellbeing. Partly because we don’t anticipate the world to be so harsh. A common application of the above statement is how adverts compel us to purchase things we often don’t need. Majority of the products and services exist and sustain production by exploiting a deficit within your psychology. Fitness products, Cosmetics, Dating Apps, Supposed Detox Drinks, Essential Snake Oils, MLM all follow this pattern. There are probably very few products that has a direct net positive benefit on people (think… vaccination, education, protective clothing, etc..). While some others outcome depends on how you use them (think… smartphones, computers)

  1. Set the difficult expectation

Note: It is never setting unrealistic expectations. It is attainable, for example the models in adverts are real. Exercising is necessary for human life and wellbeing, but do you want to spend 1/3 of your day in a gym every day, instead with family and friends? Opportunity cost exists and choices you make matter

  1. Follow up with immediate self-image comparison
  2. Suggest product that compensates for the said deficit.

This form of constant barrages of adverts and TV shows can really diminish the mental health of some people. Watching less TV helped me, now I spend that time to catch up with my readings. My purpose is not to tell you how to live, that’s a choice you have to make. Don’t let others or corporations decide it for you.

Practical Approach

“Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.” - Meditations (By Marcus Aurelius)

Anticipating the worst-case scenario at the start of the day helps you get through the day. Something I did was to think of the worst thing that can happen to me on that day after I wake up. Lose my job? Get mugged? Be met with an accident? Then I thought how I would go on with my life if something like that happen. I would need to apply to new job, I would be short of cash for a while, I would be hospitalized for few weeks. Chances of any of this happening on your day to day life is minimal. You’ve eliminated most of your worries at the start of the day by anticipating an extreme outcome. End of the day be grateful that things went your way.

Not all of us live the same lives, if we did that would be boring. This advice worked 1000 years ago for some old man running a country, it certainly worked for a guy working in IT in in 21st century.

While this book was one of many guides that got me through, its contents may not fit for everyone. Each person has their own journey, but if you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Take your situation as a learning opportunity to better understand yourself. Because its only at the crux of despair we manage to pivot to a better path. Depression will perhaps consume better part of our lives forever, it’s a matter of coming to peace with your inner demons


School of Life - On Depression

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius