Studying a practical philosophy like Stoicism can help you examine your life and the world you live in. In order to stay engaged and on the path to a virtuous, happy life, there are a number of important questions you should ask yourself.
This is by no means an exhaustive list– the quote often attributed to Aristotle, “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” comes to mind. However, these seventeen questions are a great starting point for examining your own life and ensuring that you are putting the principles of Stoicism into use on a daily basis.
This is a big one to start with, but it’s the first question on our list for a reason.
If asking yourself about your purpose leaves you speechless, numb, scared, confused, or some combination of the above, don’t worry.
Guided by the wisdom of the ancient Stoics, we can don’t have to approach this question as an entirely blank canvas. Here are a few of the things we can learn from Aurelius and others about understanding our purpose in life:
We live in a world of constant distractions. Luckily for us, though, we can control what we are paying attention to. To live a Stoic life of virtue, we must exercise self-discipline and keep our eye on our higher purpose.
"Getting distracted by trifles is the easiest thing in the world… Focus on your main duty."
What is your purpose? Why are you alive? What will you accomplish in life? What value are you adding to the people around you? They aren’t easy questions to answer, but even asking them can help give you more direction.
You’ve probably heard the famous Jim Rohn quote that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. If you’ve spent time in a number of different social groups in your life, you can probably look back and realize just how true this is.
“Associate with those who will make a better man of you.”
– Seneca the Younger
So, who are you spending your time with? Are they people that are growth-oriented like you are and supportive of you? Or are you surrounded by people who have a vested interest in keeping you down, so they don’t have to experience the uncomfortable feeling of change?
Epictetus has this advice to offer when it comes to the negative impact that other people can have on who you are and your ability to focus on your purpose:
“Above all, keep a close watch on this— that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined… You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends… if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should drop contact with your parents, stop answering phone calls from your childhood friends, and leave your wife and children in the middle of the night to start your life over again in another country. Remember, Marcus Aurelius also advises himself in Meditations to “love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
What does it mean, then? Frankly, only you can decide.
The point is to be conscious of the fact that other people can impact who you are and recognize that this is something you can exercise power over. Understanding the way you are, in part, the product of the people you are around is essential to ensure you are living virtuously and thoughtfully. At the end of the day, though, you will be able to best serve the people you love if you are a strong individual that is living a life with purpose and intention.
This might seem like a strange question, but it’s one of the most useful ones you can frequently pose to yourself throughout the day, every day.
One of the principles of Stoicism is that we have power over our own minds. Many people– perhaps most people– aren’t in control of their thoughts and instead let their thoughts control them. The first step to becoming the master of your own mind is to start observing what you’re thinking about constantly.
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
– Marcus Aurelius
If you aren’t aware of what you’re thinking about, you aren’t in control. Our mind has the power to be our greatest asset or our greatest enemy, depending on whether we are willing and able to master it.
“You become what you give your attention to. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.”
Who you are and what you do is determined by what you are spending time thinking about things and how you are thinking about things. If you spend hours a day longing for an ex you haven’t spoken to in a decade; chances are you’re going to be a lot less happy and a lot less successful than if you were able to recognize and overcome this thinking pattern.
When you are confronted with a problem or obstacle of any kind, this is the question to ask yourself. You’ll know when you’re confronting difficulty because emotions will well up inside you.
Let’s look at a simple example– you’re stuck in traffic. You’re late for an appointment, and you’re extremely frustrated by the situation. You’re furious at the car in front of you, even though it would be hard to blame the traffic jam on this one vehicle.
Ask yourself– “Is this in my control?”
“We must concern ourselves absolutely with the things that are under our control and entrust the things not in our control to the universe."
– Musonius Rufus
No. You are not in control of the larger traffic patterns of your city. You’re not in control of the fact that a car accident has slowed traffic to a halt or that rush hour is worse than usual this evening.
So is it providing any benefit to you to be upset about the traffic? Or would you be better served by accepting the fact that you will be late to your appointment, putting on some music, an audiobook, or a podcast, and enjoying a few minutes where you get to simply look around at the environment surrounding the highway?
The Stoics would argue for the latter.
In fact, Epictetus explicitly says that we should always be asking ourselves this question.
“We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?”
This question isn’t just appropriate for ultimately meaningless situations like being stuck in traffic. You can ask yourself this when diagnosed with a serious medical condition, when faced with relationship issues, or when frustrations arise from larger social, economic, or political circumstances.
The answer isn’t always a hard and fast “yes” or “no,” either. For example, let’s say that you and your spouse have been fighting nonstop for a few days. In this situation, you’ll find that there are elements that are in your control (the way you’re thinking about things, what you’re saying, the actions you’re taking) and others that aren’t (the way your spouse is thinking about things, what your spouse is saying, the actions your spouse is taking.)
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.
Similarly, let’s say you broke your leg and are reasonably feeling pretty bummed out about it. Is it in your control?
The fact that your leg is broken is out of your control. What is in your control, though, is the way you think about it, your mindset, and what you do. For example, you could mope around for a few months while it fully heals, or you could take this as an opportunity to start working on the book you always wanted to write. Similarly, you could self-victimize and lay in bed eating junk food all day, or you could exercise self-discipline and dutifully do your rehab exercises to help speed along the healing as much as possible.
After some pretty heavy questions, this is a nice one that allows you to exercise your mind to imagine the best possible day for yourself.
For some people, the first things they might think about might be something along the lines of “sleep in, eat junk food, play video games, binge watch shows,” or maybe the slightly more romantic “lay on the beach drinking tropical cocktails.”
Even if this is your instinct, this is useful information that will help you understand yourself. There’s a good chance that if you were granted your wish– particularly in that first example– you wouldn’t just be bored but depressed and anxious, too.
This is an opportunity to think about the things that really matter to you and the things you really enjoy. If you had complete freedom to spend a day any way you wanted, what would it look like?
As Seneca reminds us, “a life is made up of days.” If you don’t intentionally design your life and choose what your days will consist of, you will simply be blown around by the whims of other people and external events.
Even making little changes every day to improve your life and better yourself can have a tremendous compounding effect over time. Once you have a picture of your ideal day, you can start working toward that outcome. It probably won’t happen overnight, but you’ll be surprised how quickly life will start to improve when you take control of your time.
It’s easy to feel like we have an infinite amount of time in life, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can settle into routines where we go to work, collapse when we get home, go to bed and repeat the whole process over again until one day, we wake up and realize that years or decades have gone by.
Life is short, and the Stoics frequently remind us of this.
"This body is not a home, but an inn; and that only for a short time."
– Seneca the Younger
Even though life can feel like it flies by, Seneca the Younger also tells us that there is plenty of time in life if you actually use your time.
"Life, if thou knowest how to use it, is long enough."
– Seneca the Younger
What do you do when you have a free moment? Do you find something useful, productive, or meaningful to do or do you find yourself scrolling through social media? How conscious are you of how you are spending your time?
In American culture, there is a strong allegiance to the notion of individualism. While there are many potential benefits of individuals working to be self-sufficient, developing their own sense of self, and working to build their own understanding of the world, this evolution of this idea in society has left many of us completely disconnected from any sense of duty to the people around us, our nation, or the cosmopolitan city of the world.
"The highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom - that deed and word should be in accord."
– Seneca the Younger
Here, Seneca posits the idea that keeping our actions and our words in line with one another is both “the highest duty” and “the highest proof of wisdom.”
"We do not choose our own parts in life, and have nothing to do with those parts. Our duty is confined to playing them well."
This powerful Epictetus quote reminds us that we don’t choose the cards we are dealt in life, but we do have a duty to do the best we can with them.
"Everything - a horse, a vine - is created for some duty... For what task, then, were you yourself created?"
– Marcus Aurelius
What are your duties in life? What purpose were you created for? Are you upholding your duties, or is it time to make some changes?
Mark Twain once said, “some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” We invent entire worlds inside our minds about the worst-case scenarios and what can go wrong.
“If we let things terrify us, life will not be worth living.”
– Seneca the Younger
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should always just assume that everything will work out rosy no matter what.
The Stoics actually would practice what is known as “negative visualization,” both to help anticipate potential obstacles and to manage expectations. Another benefit of this practice, though, is to help you realize that the “worst case scenario” is often something that you will be able to deal with if everything does fall apart.
“Our fears are always more numerous than our dangers.”
– Seneca the Younger
Fear and anxiety can hold you back from really living your life. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? What would you do if you weren’t anxious?
What is important to you? What virtues and values do you want to live by? What vices do you want to avoid?
There are four Stoic virtues that can help guide you when you think about this question– wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage.
The good or ill of a man lies within his own will."
What does it mean to you to be good? What does the proper path of thoughts and deeds look like to you? What would it look like for you to live a bad life– what would you think and do if you were a bad person?
Outlining your values and virtues can help create a map for your life. Even if it doesn’t tell you exactly where you’re trying to end up, it gives you parameters that you can use to examine and make decisions about how to act and who to be.
Sleepwalking through life and letting other people and external events define who you are is a recipe for regret when you reach the end of life. Thinking about who you are can be a heavy task, and it gets harder and harder the longer you live on autopilot. It can be incredibly unpleasant to examine yourself after years of thoughtlessly floating through life, but a question worth periodically asking yourself and really taking seriously.
If you’re like most people, the answer is probably a resounding yes. The Stoics have a lot of wisdom to offer on the reality of death, which they claim isn’t a bad thing at all. What is bad is the fear we have surrounding death.
“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.”
Overcoming the fear of death can free you up to really live. If you don’t ask yourself this question with honesty, though, you’ll likely continue to meekly walk forward in life, avoiding reaching your full potential because of that looming fear of the grim reaper.
What are you doing with your life? Who are the people you’re surrounded by, what do you do with your time, and what do you focus your attention on? How did you get where you are?
“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”– Seneca the Younger
Socrates is said to have uttered, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” when at trial for corrupting youth. Have you examined your life? Did you make the path you’re on, or have you been aimlessly trodding down a trail that external events pushed you onto?
Maybe you have created the path you’re on– in that case, that’s great news! If not, though, this question can help you realize that you haven’t been taking control of the things that are in your power. It can serve as a real wake-up call and allow you to contemplate what you really want from your life.
Bad things happen to all of us, or at least external events happen that we categorize as “bad.” The Stoics teach us that many things in life are actually indifferent– tools or experiences that can be used for either good or bad– and that adversity is what makes us stronger, wiser, and more capable.
“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.”
– Seneca the Younger
There’s a good chance you can look back at your life and see that some of the hardest times you had actually bore many fruits you couldn’t have anticipated at the time. It’s a lot easier in hindsight, though, to see the benefits of hard times. If you can ask yourself what good could come from a bad situation when it’s actually occurring, it can be tremendously useful as you work to persevere.
It’s easy to fixate on the things that are going wrong in your life and what you are lacking. The Stoics understood just how important it is to appreciate what you do have and practice gratitude. They frequently discuss that the key to a happy life isn’t to get everything you want but to want less and deeply appreciate what you have.
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
You’ll find that your mindset and your life improve right away when you begin asking yourself daily what you are grateful for. This is a great addition to your journaling practice– consider writing down three things you are grateful for every day.
These don’t have to be major things– you can express gratitude for the pen you are using to write with or the piping hot cup of coffee you are drinking. Of course, it’s also good to look at the bigger picture and express gratitude for larger aspects of your experience. The Stoics would hold that no matter where you find yourself in life, there are things to be grateful for.
This might sound heavy, but it’s a question that is very much worth contemplating.
No matter who you are or where you are in the world, no matter your status, wealth, fame, or power, there will be a moment that is your last on this earth.
The reason this question is so powerful is that it can help you put your life in perspective. What will you think about when you only have a few thoughts left? What will you look back on your life and see?
This is a good question for anyone to ask themselves periodically throughout the day, but it can be particularly useful if you frequently suffer from anxiety and worry.
“Don't fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The more you practice putting your attention and focus in the present, the better equipped you’ll be to live a meaningful life.
The idea of being present in the moment is something that philosophers and spiritual thinkers have discussed for thousands of years. When you aren’t in the present, it’s easy to go into autopilot and wake up one day to realize that your children are grown, your body has aged, and you have fallen off the path you once thought you would walk.
Researchers have actually found that the feeling of life “flying by” only increases with age. Our perception of time accelerates as the years go on and the novelty of life diminishes.
This doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It means you need to deliberately practice being present in the moment now– no matter how old you are or how much of your life has passed you by.
When you keep your attention in the present moment, it expands your perception of time and your experience of life, even if it doesn’t extend the number of days you are alive.
There are always things to be in awe of or interested in if we are paying attention. Getting older isn’t an excuse for tuning out and escaping the present.
“Every man's life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The present moment is the moment in time when you can act. It’s when you can clean your room, start that business, or call an old friend. You have no power to act in the past or the future– only the present. So are you here right now? Or is your head lost in any moment but this one?
Have you ever realized that you spent hours thinking about something that is ultimately not that important? Have you hemmed and hawed over a decision that shouldn’t be that big of a deal?
When you’re fixating on something in your mind, ask yourself if it actually matters. You can ask yourself this question when you’re partaking in an action as well– is this an important action that is worth doing?
This question comes straight from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He says:
“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
– Marcus Aurelius
You can apply this question to everything in your life. You can ask yourself, “is this necessary?” when considering making a purchase, when creating your schedule for the week, and when contemplating what your goals are.
This is a question you can ask yourself when you’re deep in conversation with someone when you’re examining your marriage or relationships, and so much more.
So much of our lives is taken up by things that aren’t essential or meaningful. We get into fights about stupid things that don’t really matter, and we spend our time in ways that don’t enrich us or help us serve our purpose.
Throughout the day, ask yourself if what you’re working on, thinking about, or saying is necessary. If not, move on and work on something that is essential.
Some of these questions are best asked daily (such as “Is this necessary?” and “What am I grateful for?”), while others are best used periodically as a survey of your life plan and to make sure you’re on track.
You might find that many of these questions make you uncomfortable, especially at first. That’s ok! When you feel negative emotions arising in response to these questions, use it as an opportunity to watch how your mind is working. Hidden inside these feelings is endless information about your fears, anxieties, beliefs (or lack thereof), values (or lack thereof), and so on.
If you’re committed to leading a Stoic life, you can find lots of more information about practically applying Stoicism to your life, as well as insightful quotes from brilliant people on our Stoic Quotes blog.