What a Roman Emperor Can Teach You About Happiness

By Leo Gura - June 26, 2013 | 2 Comments

Profound lessons from Marcus Aurelius. See how a Roman Emperor’s personal reflections about life can help you find lasting peace and happiness.

Big Ideas

One of the earliest — and still best — self-help books of all time is Meditations, by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Despite being 1,900 years old, this work is chock full of truth and wisdom.

In today’s fast-paced culture we tend to think that our generation is “the-shit” and that everything’s new and different. Truth is, the human condition hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years. Our psychology has stayed the same. The prerequisites for attaining peace and happiness have stayed the same.

About the Meditations

Meditations is not a typical self-help book. It is a private journal. Marcus writes to himself. In fact, the original title, “To Myself”, was changed to “Meditations” by scholars only centuries later.

Marcus wrote Meditations to himself as a reminder of his higher self and the ideals he wanted to live. His intention was to read through a part of his journal every morning to ground himself in the conduct of his day.

It’s interesting that the human mind requires this approach. Intuitively we assume that hearing wisdom once is enough. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. You can’t just think about these things once and BAM! your life is perfect. You have to remind yourself of your ideals and reflect on them daily, over and over again. The idea is that your mind yields slowly over time.

Marcus reflects on issues of life — issues that remain as relevant today as they were two millennia ago:

  • Coming to terms with death
  • Not getting caught up in pettiness and trivialities of life
  • Coping with emotions like anger, lust, envy, and fear
  • The challenge of staying on your purpose vs being distracted
  • Being honest and truthful
  • Controlling your own desires
  • Not judging people and events
  • Not chasing after fame or praise
  • Not over-eating or over-drinking
  • Accepting constructive criticism
  • Using your own mind to contemplate
  • How to bear physical pain and loss of loved ones
  • How to achieve peace of mind
  • How to avoid addition to pleasure
  • How to be satisfied and content in life, and not complain
  • Being a good human being
  • Being a social human being

The Importance of Gratitude

Marcus starts off the Meditations with a long list of things he’s grateful for: his father, his mother, his brother, his teachers, his education, his upbringing, and his good fortune.

He doesn’t just gloss this over. Marcus goes into a lot of detail. He writes about all the great things he’s learned from the people in his life, from family to friend to mentors. He also writes about all the qualities in these people that he admires:

  • Undeviating steadiness of purpose
  • Refraining from fault finding
  • A disposition to do good
  • Self-governance and not to be led aside by anything
  • Cheerfulness in all circumstances
  • Doing what was set before them without complaining
  • Mildness of temper
  • Love of labor and perseverance
  • Being agreeable without offensive affectation
  • Sobriety in all things and firmness
  • Love to stay in the same places and employ themselves about the same things

Marcus goes into detail about how fortunate he’s been. Fortunate to have a good upbringing, good parents, good mentors, and to have made the choices he did.

An important function of the Meditations is to console and to ground. It’s hard to be content with your life if you’re never grateful. If you never look back and savor and cherish everything you acquired then you will feel restless and unfulfilled even if you’ve accomplished a lot.

When was the last time you sat down for 5 minutes and thought about all the things in your life that you’re grateful for? Do it right now! It’s an amazing experience if you haven’t done it in a while.

This exercise is especially useful if you’re a high-achiever who feels unfulfilled. It’s hard to be content with your life if you’re never grateful.

In a busy world and culture that encourages consumption, the rat-race is an acute problem. We’re not in the habit of acknowledging just how much we’ve accomplished, so we forever remain restless, chasing after one thing only to chase after another.

Gratitude is a whole topic unto itself, but for now I just want to point out the psychological effect gratitude has. If you’ve ever tried a 30-day gratitude challenge — where you spend 5 minutes every morning writing out all the things in your life that you’re grateful for — you’ve felt the effect.

Gratitude causes you to slow down the pace of your life and be happy with what you already have. Try it and you will notice just how little credit you give yourself for your accomplishments. You’ll also notice that you become about 20% more happy after 30 days. This has been documented in university studies.

The Need to Remind Yourself

When thou art troubled about anything, thou hast forgotten.

— Marcus Aurelius

The single biggest function of the Meditations was to remind Marcus of how he wanted to live his life. He recognized that it’s one thing to set ideals and totally another to actually live them. He re-read the Meditations daily to make sure that he didn’t forget.

It’s said that wherever he went, Marcus ordered a servant to follow him around and whisper in his ear, “Look behind you! Remember you are only a man.”

This would to remind Marcus of his mortality, and that he was not superior to anyone else.

The problem is that we forget. We simply forget! We have realizations. We form principles. We draft up plans. We make resolutions. But then we simply forget to act them out when the circumstance calls for it.

It’s really amazing. In fact I can make the argument that forgetting is one of the biggest reasons why personal development is so challenging.

Your brain has only so much “RAM” — your short or medium-term memory — and most of the time you run on habit. Acting differently takes conscious effort at decisive moments. If you forget to apply the new behavior as an opportunity arises, you will never change.

The problem is that you miss most of your opportunities to change, so you find it difficult and frustrating. It feels like taking one step forward, then one step back.

Example: Better Eye Contact

One of the things I’ve worked on in the past is having stronger eye contact. I wanted to look people firmly in the eyes. I wasn’t a very social kid, so my eye contact tended to be meek — looking down at the floor, off to the sides, or at the person’s face. I would look everywhere BUT the eyes.

It took me a long time to even become aware of this issue, but once I was aware, it became clear what I needed to do to correct it: I needed to force myself to look into people’s eyes more. The problem was that I kept forgetting to do it!!!

Changing a habit like eye movement requires that you seize every opportunity to apply the new behavior. If I speak to 5 people every day, I have 5 opportunities to either perpetuate the old pattern or instill the new one. If I remember to do it on the first encounter of the day but forget the other four, how successful do you think I’ll be?

So herein lies the trick! You have to bring focus and intention to the things you want to change about yourself. This uses up willpower and takes focus away from the dozen other things you’re doing throughout your day: work, school, hobbies, fitness, nutrition, family, kids, friends, etc.

What’s the solution? Well… there’s no magic pill. You have to focus your actions and force yourself to follow-through. This is the chief reason why personal growth must happen on a timescale of weeks, months, and even years. Days don’t cut it. Your focus is too limited for that.

As a good rule of thumb, don’t try to set too many personal development goals at once. Each behavior change you’re making requires willpower and focus. If you make too many changes at once, chances are you’ll backslide on all of them. Keep this in mind as you plan.

What Does a Roman Emperor Need to Remind Himself of?

A lot! Recurring topics include death, being at peace, simplicity, duty, purity of though, controlling desires, dealing pain, gratitude, contemplation, being present, and not judging others.

I really encourage you to pick up a copy of the Meditations so you can savor the tone and thought-process in full. But since I know you’re busy, I’ve compiled my own “best-of” Marcus Aurelius. The following excerpts are the most powerful ideas from the Meditations, and represent the entire work fairly well.

On Death

Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less him who died long ago.

How small a part of the boundless and unfathomable time is assigned to every man! For it is very soon swallowed up in the eternal. And how small a part of the whole substance! And how small a part of the universal soul. And on what a small clod of the whole earth thou creepest! Reflect on all this.

A brief existence is common to all things, and yet thou avoidest and pursuest all things as if they would be eternal.

— Marcus Aurelius

A lot of Marcus’ thoughts throughout the Meditations are about death, the fear of death, and putting death into proper perspective. How easily we forget! We need to constantly remind ourselves of just how short our lives actually are — not to be morose, but to be appreciative and un-seduced by petty things.

On Praise

Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, not having praise as part of itself. Is such a thing as an emerald made worse than it was, if it is not praised? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a little knife, a flower, a shrub?

— Marcus Aurelius

Marcus looks down on praise, reputation-seeking, and fame. What are these things really? Praise doesn’t actually make a thing better, it only makes it more agreeable to the masses. And fame is shallow and worthless. What good does it do you to be admired by people — many of whom are wretched — who will all be dead within a matter of decades? If you seek praise or fame, examine why you do it. With enough reflection you will see that it’s a worthless pursuit.

On Being at Peace

Men seek retreats for themselves: houses in the country, seashores, and mountains. But it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere, either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble, does a man retire than into his own mind.

I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.

— Marcus Aurelius

Contemplation and periods of solitude are necessary to live a purposeful, content life. This does not mean you have to become a recluse or monk. Marcus ran the Roman Empire and devoted himself to public service, yet he was a private, contemplative man. This tends to be a characteristic of self-actualized people — they need time to reflect and center themselves.

On Simplicity

How worthless everything is after which men violently strain.

For the greatest part of what we say and do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly on every occasion a man should ask himself, Is this one of the unnecessary things? Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts but also unnecessary thoughts, for thus superfluous acts will not follow after.

— Marcus Aurelius

Everyone feels they have busy life. This is the number one issue my clients come to me with: How do I get more stuff done in the day? The ultimate answer is to look at what you’re chasing after and cut out everything unessential. The reason you’re so busy is because you’re mindlessly filling every minute of your day. Reflect on what you’re pursuing. Cut out all unessential activities — realize how little worth they actually have.

While you’re at it, cut out all unessential thoughts. Thoughts about disagreements, politics, obstacles, feuds, revenge, etc are all weighing you down. By examining what you think about on a minute-by-minute basis you can become aware of and eliminate everything unessential. You cannot be happy while you’re weighed down by petty thoughts. Your thoughts should be constructive and purpose-focused.

On Duty

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into this world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in bedclothes and keep myself warm?

But it is necessary to take rest also. — It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds on this too: she has fixed bounds on both eating and drinking, and yet though goest beyond these bounds.

— Marcus Aurelius

I love this quote because it shows me that 1900 years ago the Roman Emperor had the same problem I do!

Every day you make choices between comfort and duty. If you’re on purpose, you know what your duty is. If you’re not, you still have rules and ideals that you want to live by. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. If your comfort zone happens to be your bed, do it literally!

On Beating Yourself Up

Be not disgusted, nor discouraged, nor dissatisfied, if thou dost not succeed in doing everything according to right principles; but when thou hast failed, return back again, and be content if the greater part of what thou doest is consistent with man’s nature, and love this to which thou returnest.

— Marcus Aurelius

This is the safety-valve in Marcus’s philosophy. You don’t want to be a perfectionist. Your will won’t always win out over your emotions. If you expect to have perfect self-mastery you will drive yourself mad. Instead, be grateful for those things that you did right. If you follow this principle your character will be stable. If you don’t, you will swing your pendulum.

On Purity of Thought

About what am I now employing my own soul? On every occasion I must ask myself this question, and inquire, what have I now in this part of me which they call the ruling principle? And whose soul have I now? That of a child, or a young man, or of a feeble woman, or of a tyrant, or of domestic animal, or of a wild beast?

Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of [good thoughts].

Every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself.

Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others, when thou does not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility.

— Marcus Aurelius

How much time and effort do you waste on useless, unproductive thoughts every day? How much misery and consternation are these negative thoughts causing in your life? If you’re like most people, then a lot! A staggering amount!

Consciousness, or self-awareness, is one of the most important ways to develop self-mastery, and it starts by monitoring your thoughts. What do you think about minute-by-minute? What kind of topics? What is the tone of your self-talk? Only by cultivating constructive thoughts will you gain happiness.

On Controlling Desires

Let the part of thy soul which leads and governs be undisturbed by the movements in the flesh, whether of pleasure or of pain; and let it not unite with them, but let it circumscribe itself and limit those affects to their parts. But when these affects rise up to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy that naturally exists in a body which is one, then thou must not strive to resist the sensation, for it is natural: but let not the ruling part of itself add to the sensation the opinion it is either good or bad.

— Marcus Aurelius

There is a daily struggle between acting out of fear vs. acting out of courage — acting for the sake of comfort vs. acting for the sake of growth. But your mind can be conditioned to react less to pleasure and pain than it currently does simply by not judging the pleasure and pain as good or bad. You don’t want to relinquish your dignity in order to chase pleasure or run away from pain.

It’s important that Marcus talks about natural bodily appetites. You shouldn’t try to resist those. Just don’t make them worse by obsessing over them with your conscious mind.

When thou hast been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to thyself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for thou wilt have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.

— Marcus Aurelius

It’s not as though reading these principles will make you perfect. They have to be practiced, and you should not assume that you can practice them perfectly. You will get thrown off course. Your willpower will falter. The critical thing is what you do when you go off course. Are you going to spiral into a pit of defeat or bring yourself back to center?

One man prays thus: How shall I be able to lie with that woman? Do thou pray thus: How shall I not desire to lie with her? Another prays thus: How shall I be released from this? Another prays: How shall I not desire to be released? Another thus: How shall I not lose my little son? Thou thus: How shall I not be afraid to lose him?

— Marcus Aurelius

Personal power and happiness come from managing your desires and impulses, not by satisfying them slavishly. Intuitively we think that if we satisfy a desire it will go away. Actually, satisfying one desire often spawns another, and another, and another — creating an rat-race that can never be won. To break free of the rat race, think and plan on a higher plane: look for ways to eliminate desires altogether.

What remains after you eliminate all desires? Peace and happiness.

Never be overpowered either by the motion of the senses or of the appetites, for both are animal; but the intelligent motion claims superiority and does not permit itself to be overpowered by the others.

— Marcus Aurelius

Whenever your goals or commitments to yourself are overpowered by petty desires for things like food, alcohol, sex, comfort, etc your integrity will suffer. Do this long enough and you will lose all your personal power. You can break your own promises to the point where they mean nothing to you, and you become a puppet driven by desires, never satisfied.

On Pain

Pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting, if thou bearest in mind that it has limits, and if thou addest nothing to it in the imagination.

The pain which is intolerable carries us off; but that which lasts a long time is tolerable; and the mind maintains its own tranquility by retiring into itself, and the ruling faculty is not made worse. But the parts which are harmed by pain, let them, if they can, give their opinion about it.

— Marcus Aurelius

Living this principle is difficult, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Most of the “pain” in pain comes from the fear and judgment that your ego adds to it. The sensation of pain itself is not intolerable, especially in most cases. Sure, if someone breaks your leg the pain will be intense, but your mind will not be harmed by it, and you can lessen pain by shifting your focus to something else and by not catastrophizing it your mind.

On the Power of the Mind

I was once a fortunate man, but I lost it. I know not how. — But good fortune means that a man has assigned for himself a good fortune; and a good fortune is good disposition of the soul, good emotions, good actions.

— Marcus Aurelius

Some of us are luckier than others. Some of us win the lottery, some of us get robbed. The important part is how you manage your luck internally — because that’s all you have control over. Your luck is maximized when you chose to be cheerful, positive, and take right action. Being upset or angry at a situation is never a good strategy.

Do not despair when external circumstances don’t go your way.

It is in thy power continuously to fan thoughts into flame. I can have that opinion about anything, which I ought to have. If I can, why am I disturbed? The things which are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind.

— Marcus Aurelius

The problem is not that you have problems, it’s that you make your problems much worse than they are. You have the power to think whatever thoughts you want. Don’t feed into your fears. Don’t judge your own situation. Don’t make pain out to be worse than it is.

Remember that the ruling faculty is invincible, when self-collected it is satisfied with itself, if it does nothing which it does not choose to do, even if it resist from mere obstinacy. What then will it be when it forms a judgment about anything aided by reason and deliberately? Therefore the mind which is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and for the future be inexpugnable.

— Marcus Aurelius

Your high-self is much stronger than you think it is. It can shield itself from pain, bad luck, and desires. Cultivating your mind to rule over itself and your emotions is how you develop personal power, and ultimately peace, happiness, and security. You only have direct control over your own mind. Peace and happiness can only come from within.

He who follows reason in all things is both tranquil and active at the same time, and also cheerful and collected.

— Marcus Aurelius

Think about a time in your life where externally things weren’t going your way, yet because you were focused and collected, you were still calm and effective. That’s what it means to follow reason. You don’t need external results to be happy — at least not as much as you think you do. It’s usually sufficient to just start following reason.

On Accepting Criticism

If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.

— Marcus Aurelius

You’re never perfect and you always have something to learn. Valuing truth above feelings, politeness, or propriety — especially when it comes to the truth about YOU — is necessary for effective personal growth. Don’t build up an ego around being perfect or being right — then you never learn. Instead, take happiness out of situations where others show you how you might improve. Consider these situations as bricks in your castle.

On Gratitude

Think not so much of what thou hast not as of what thou hast: but for the things which thou hast select the best, and then reflect how eagerly they would have been sought if thou hadst them not. At the same time, however, take care that thou dost not through being so pleased with them accustom thyself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if ever thous shouldst not have them.

— Marcus Aurelius

Think of all the things you have today that you didn’t have 5 years ago. Really think about it! Make a list. You will be astounded at how much more you have today. Yet you hardly think about it. You take too much for granted. You forget.

Common ingratitudes include: family, friends, education, health, country, and technology.

What if you spent more time appreciating what you’ve acquired? Do you think that would make you more fulfilled? Do you think it would relieve some of that feeling of having to constantly achieve, acquire, and deliver?

On Being Present

Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine thyself to the present.

Do not disturb thyself thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall these: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable?

— Marcus Aurelius

Be in the moment. By thinking too far into the future you forget the fact that in this very second there is hardly anything wrong. In fact, this second is wonderful! You’re so busy worrying about controlling your future that you spoil the present. Take the opportunity to enjoy it. Don’t let yourself live in the future.

On Finding Happiness

For thou hast had experience of many wanderings without having found happiness anywhere, not in syllogisms, nor in wealth, nor in reputation, nor in enjoyment, nor anywhere. Where is it then? In doing what man’s nature requires. How then shall a man do this? If he has principles from which come his affects and his acts. What principles? Those which relate to good and bad.

— Marcus Aurelius

Think about all the things you’ve chased in your life and to what degree they’ve brought you lasting happiness. Have to tried earning money? Have you tried seeking fame? Have you tried building an ivory castle? Have you tried indulging in food, alcohol, sex, drugs, TV, internet, or shopping? Which of these brought you lasting happiness?

Being happy is about being on your purpose in life: having a sense of direction and taking conscious action towards it every day. Without purpose or principles you will be lost, chasing after things that only seem important. Many pursuits in life seem like they will make you happy but actually never will.

On Accepting What Is

If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion?

And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain? But some insuperable obstacle is in the way? Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on thee. But it is not worth while to live if this cannot be done. Take thy departure then from life contentedly, just as he who dies in full activity, and well pleased too with the things which are obstacles.

— Marcus Aurelius

Stop complaining. You can either act, not act, or complain about how things are. If you can change the situation then just do it. If you cannot change the situation, then stop hitting your head against the wall and just accept it. Don’t whine and complain. You pain yourself more than the situation pains you. Let go of the judgment.

Enough of this wretched life and murmuring and apish tricks. Why are thou disturbed? What is there new in this? What unsettles thee? Is it the form of the thing? Look at it. Or is it the matter? Look at it. But besides these there is nothing.

— Marcus Aurelius

Sometimes you just have to cut the shit. You should be happy to be alive, whatever your circumstances. Things not going your way? Cut the shit! You’ll be dead before your know it! Life if good. Life is wondrous. Return to that. Stop being disturbed by things so easily. You should be grateful just to be conscious right now.

On Integrity

No longer talk about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.

Neither in writing nor in reading wilt thou be able to lay down rules for others before thou shalt have first learned to obey rules thyself. Much more is this so in life.

— Marcus Aurelius

Don’t judge others. Don’t tell others what to do unless you’re doing it yourself. Hold yourself to the highest standard. Preaching, mental-masturbation, and hypocrisy ultimately hurt you much more than they hurt others. Once you lose integrity, your words will lack punch — first-and-foremost with yourself — and you will have no personal power.

On Judging Others

When thou art offended at any man’s fault, forthwith turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou err thyself; for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. For by attending to this thou wilt quickly forget thy anger.

Consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that thou art a man like others; and even if thous dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them.

Consider that thou dost not even understand whether men are doing wrong or not, for many things are done with a certain reference to circumstances. And, in short, a man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgment on another man’s acts.

— Marcus Aurelius

See the irritations of others as a reflection of your own follies. When you sense yourself starting to get angry, get curious about how you commit similar errors. If you focus on how someone wronged you, you will just get angrier, act irrationally, and feel bad. If you focus on what you can learn from the behavior that irritates you, you will remain calm and promote your own development.

Many times, the things you detest in others are the very things you detest and repress in yourself. You get angry because someone else’s bad behavior reminds you of your own struggle to block this behavior out of your life. Anger towards someone else is a valuable clue for which parts of yourself, and reality, you haven’t come to terms with yet.

Bottom Line: Make time to contemplate your life and your ideals regularly. Turn inward to remind yourself of the principles that guide your life. Stop being upset at things.

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Yasmin says:

This articles pains me. Why does pain me? I feel a weird feeling slightly churning in my stomach. A feeling identical to that when one is about to have an interview with a bunch of presidents at once, except a slighter version of that.

Kaz says:

Marcus Aurelius. What can I say? Except so far he’s my favourite Roman Emperor of all time! I absolutely love his ‘Meditations’. Even though it’s confronting as all shit and gives me full frontal what a horrible person I’ve been just about my whole entire life. But he always forgives me, gives me a chance to redeem myself and moves on I enjoyed reading what he has to say about death too.

It was the first book I read when I first came across Leo’s site. I read it four times and took copious amounts of notes. I think it saved my life…that, together with Leo’s insights and videos of course

Thankyou Leo

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