There is a constant struggle between our wants and the disregard that life has for our wants. Constantly throughout life we are met with disappointments, humiliations, failed expectations, failed hopes and dreams and yet, somehow, through all of this, we are meant to still be happy.
How can that be?
For Seneca, such happiness could be achieved through self-contentment.
The wise man is content with himself […] We must be quite clear about the meaning of this sentence and just how much it claims to say. It applies to him so far as happiness in life is concerned: for this, all he needs is a rational and elevated spirit that treats fortune with disdain; for the actual business of living he needs a great number of things.
Seneca put forth the notion that our happiness depends on our attitude rather than our circumstances and that the wise man understands this. The attitude is that whatever we have, is enough. That we must find happiness within ourself. Seneca understood how little control we have in life. Much of life is random or uncertain, at any moment the absurdity of it can strike and shift our life to a new direction. If our happiness is rooted in our lifestyle and if that lifestyle is disrupted then so is our happiness.
Which is why the wise man has disdain for fortune for he knows how fickle it can be.
The wise man needs hands and eyes and a great number of things that are required for the purposes of day-to-day life; but he lacks nothing, for lacking something implies that it is a necessity and nothing, to the wise man, is a necessity.
This is a mindset that needs to be practiced. An attitude that needs to be nurtured where one is able to detach themselves from things that can be changed by fortune.
One of the ways this detachment can be practiced is by keeping a journal like Marcus Aurelius did. The Roman Emperor constantly reminded himself how easily fortune changes, how quickly death can come and how little control he had over his life. Through repetition, Marcus Aurelius was able to keep in mind the kind of attitude that was required to be happy.
Another way detachment could be practiced was how Seneca lived.
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.
Not only do we come to practice what we fear such as a shift in our living conditions, but we also come to strengthen our attitude that even if a shift unexpectedly occurs, we can get through it, our attitude doesn’t have to change.
But the important point of these examples is that they are practices which we must do on a consistent basis to keep the right mindset. There is no magic trick to snap the mind in place once and then that’s it. Instead, the mind requires regular reminders, constant repetition, the same way we formulate habits is the same way we develop the right attitude towards life.
This can be a difficult process because of the daily grind. But nothing good comes easy anyways. Any change made without effort is unlikely to stick.
At the end of the day, you can be happy with nothing and you can be unhappy with everything. Both of these spectrums exist. Stable happiness won’t be found in things that are outside of your control.
As the Stoics say:
A man is unhappy, though he reigns the world over, if he does not consider himself supremely happy.