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#12: The Stoic Formula for a Good Life

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine



Take a look at the following formula:


It is not the formula for having a happy and meaningful life; it is instead the time-dependent Schrödinger equation. It describes how the quantum state of a physical system changes over time.

If you want to have a good life, you do not need to master this formula, which is a good thing since so many of us have forgotten how to do partial differential equations.

Now take a look at this formula:

          X = the number of days you have left to live

It is a formula that anyone can use, even someone with the most rudimentary mathematical ability. It also comes as close as anything to being the Stoic formula for having a happy, meaningful life.

For most people, most of the time, the exact value of X is unknown. But one thing that is certain is that X is finite: none of us will live forever.

Some people live in denial of this fact. Many more resent it: they wish they could live forever. But from a Stoic point of view, if we wish to have a happy, meaningful life, it is very important that we keep in mind that our own personal X is a finite number. Here’s why.

If you have X days left to live, today will represent 1/X of your life. Thus, if X = 2, today represents 1/2 of your life, and if X = 100, today represents 1/100 of your life. But suppose X were infinite. Then the value of today would be 1/∞, which is equal to 0.

What this means is that if you go through life believing that you are immortal, your days will have zero value. You can waste a day and not lose anything by doing so. You will end up like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day—which is, by the way, on my list of the top five “meaning of life” movies. Or you will end up like many young people who have not yet acknowledged their own mortality.

If you believe that you have finitely many days to live, though, they will be things of value, and the fewer of them you have, the more valuable they will be. You will realize that life is simply too short for the kind of nonsense that many people allow themselves to get distracted by. Time you spend on petty quarrels is precious time wasted. So is time spent worrying about things you cannot control.

I have known bedridden 90-year-olds who were vastly more appreciative of life and therefore more fully alive than many 20-year-olds. When a 90-year-old opens her eyes in the morning and sees the ceiling, it is cause for celebration: another day of life has been granted, another chance to get it right!

A 20-year-old, by way of contrast, might wake up angry about something, only to spend the rest of the day complaining about it. She might complain about her clothes, her hair, her job, her boyfriend—you name it. She might vent these complaints because she thinks it is the duty of other people to remove the obstacles to her happiness. Or maybe all she wants from other people is their sympathy. Either way, it is a recipe for a miserable existence. The illusion of immortality comes with a hefty price tag.

The Stoics spent time contemplating their own death. They didn’t fear death; nor did they fixate on it. But they did periodically entertain flickering thoughts about it. By doing so, they put their daily life into perspective: yes, today may not be going as planned, but it is nevertheless a precious thing. It is one of the X days that I have left to live, so I must not waste it. Indeed, I must do my best to savor it.

Yes, the person you are talking to may be annoying and even offensive. Yes, your boss may be overly demanding. Yes, it may be raining and you have forgotten your umbrella. Yes, yes, yes. And yet, here you are, alive and breathing, in a world that is profoundly beautiful, if only you make it your business to look for its beauty.

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