Views of Happiness Rooted in Ancient Philosophy: Voluntary Hardship


It was mentioned two thousand years ago, now it's backed by research.

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Without a doubt, one of the best things we can do for our financial prosperity and mental well-being is to practice putting ourselves in challenging circumstances.

You see, your happiness is like a priceless, fragile diamond. And it seems like all this modern lunacy that our society carries with it is targeted at scratching and damaging that diamond.

I like to describe the current state of humanity as living in a ‘comfortable hell.’ It’s never been so easy to get to the shops or eat restaurant food in our own homes. Life has been automated for us. Little do we know that by participating in this attractive ‘comfort’, we are making everything around ourselves significantly harder.

What if, in a hypothetical world, engaging in daily activities that challenge you through tolerable hardship, such as choosing to work at a standing desk rather than a sitting one, could have a drastic carry-over effect on your happiness. Furthermore, it could even have a drastic carry-over effect on your world outlook.

I guess I am the bearer of good news today. We live in such a world where not only is this possible, but it’s easy.

Rather than avoiding the hard things that seem tedious, we should be avidly seeking them out. Seneca the younger talks about this. He highlights the benefits of getting a taste for the ‘other side’ of life. The side that we fear: ‘Poverty’. Nowadays, we have slightly adapted this to corresponding with a lifestyle rule we like to refer to as ‘living below your means’.

However, it goes much deeper than this. Not only does it affect your finances, but it has an even bigger effect on your happiness, and this is why.

The Philosophical Approach

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The ancient philosophers of Rome like to dress up the idea of Voluntary Hardship in grandiose language, but the point still remains. Training yourself to endure hardship makes previously challenging tasks significantly easier. This is the view.

From a philosophical perspective, our perceptions of how we conceive everyday occurrences are a construct of the mind. According to them, we can choose what our reality is. I agree with this to an extent.

Choosing your reality is down to, in simple terms, asking yourself this question: “Does this have to affect me?”. You are in control of this answer in the context that if you think you are having a “bad” day then you don’t have to view it negatively as you typically would. You can choose to maybe take it as a sign to be more on the ball and sharpen up, to avoid typically perceived ‘bad’ things happening to you.

“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus

Where this relates to hardship is that yet again, hardship (or things we think to be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and undesirable) are not actually as bad as they seem. This is why philosophers like Seneca advocated for putting yourself into situations that you fear. For example, a common fear is losing all your hard-earned money and becoming ‘poor’.

It’s a justifiable fear. Again, you’ve most likely grown up being accustomed to being comfortable to a degree. So it’s only natural to fear the unknown. But what if the fear is greater than the suffering itself? In other words, you have over-dramatized the ‘other side’.

This can work in your favor to increase your gratitude as Seneca writes about in his 18th letter to Lucilius, titled On Festivals and Fasting:

“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”

Dwell on the question Seneca mentions. ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ By exposing yourself to these preconceived hardships, you will realize that they aren't so hard after all.

Voluntary hardship is attempting to do the things you perceive to be hard.

Seneca talks about how the act of immersing yourself in this so-called fearful hardship, fortifies the mind from stress, and I couldn't agree more. If you constantly stay in the high boat, indulging in the pleasures of life, you will get the shock of your life when you’re hit with the reality that most people live in.

I practice this philosophical activity in many ways, but most notably with food. One week out of the month, I’ll decide to eat the cheapest food I can lay my hands on. I’ll make the most simple mix out of some kind of beans/pulses with a plain carb source, as you can see below.

Am I weird for wanting to do this? Probably. Do I learn and develop my character through this? Hell yes. We can all probably agree that we are spoilt in the food department, I know I am. As ridiculous as that may sound, this is quite tough for me. But as Seneca mentions “is this the condition that I feared?”.

When I go back to eating regular food the next week, it makes it so much more worthwhile and enjoyable. And that’s how voluntary hardship works. It’s a concept that tricks you to be more grateful and happy.

“You will understand that a man's peace of mind does not depend upon fortune.” — Seneca

The Research Backing ‘Voluntary Hardship’

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This is where it gets interesting. Hedonism is “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life” according to the Oxford Dictionary. Living solely for the pleasures of life will figuratively and literally destroy you. Food, love, and fun are the three main catalysts of hedonism.

When we practice voluntary hardship we are rewiring our brains and short-circuiting hedonic adaptations. Placing yourself in hardship is a scientifically proven way to be happier because you are breaking away from the hedonistic precursors that you have applied to your life, or in simple terms we’ve become lazy.

Tim Ferriss in his podcast with Mr. Money Mustache raised the point about voluntary hardship and he described it like this.

“It allows you to realize it's possible to recalibrate yourself and experience greater happiness and wellbeing, without simply adding more and more.”

Because let’s be honest, materialistic happiness never equates to true happiness. And if you rely on these materialistic things, you are trying to fill an endless void that will never result in happiness. You can never have enough.

So why take the easy and comfortable way out. Sure, you may have a nice car, but why not choose to walk to work instead of drive? It’s adding these tiny hardships or challenges to your life that will truly benefit you. Or maybe choose to not buy something when you think you really need it. Materialism is ruining your genuine happiness

The hedonic treadmill (which is the psychological theory that can back up ‘Voluntary Hardship’) can be explained by this simple analogy. Have you ever wanted to buy a new car or a new gadget really badly? But then you get your hands on the desired object and realize that the “happiness boost” you were expecting didn’t actually last long? This is a constant cycle we have all been in and is a perfect example of the hedonic treadmill.

The hedonic treadmill, therefore, is the idea that your happiness returns to a baseline level after rising or falling due to a positive or negative event, like a breakup or getting a new car. Your level of happiness tends to move back to where it was prior to these occurrences.

So can this prove that happiness isn’t correlated to material pleasures and general life comfort? I certainly think so.

Why would we chase things for a temporary burst of happiness? It makes no sense if you look at it from this perspective. This is why I think voluntary hardship is so valuable. Not only can you realize the pointlessness of chasing these things, but you can also steer well away from this, save your money, and get happier in the process.

Mr. Money Mustache, the website and blog character phenomenon who retired at 30, and lives on 25–27k a year, swears by voluntary hardship. In fact, this man makes crazy amounts from his blog, and he credits voluntary hardship to being able to save more than 75% of his income and retiring early.

If we choose to do the harder things in life, like walking rather than driving or not buy a new phone even if we think we may need it, then we can be financially free but also happier.

Voluntary hardship is the gateway drug into a world of liberated happiness with no dependence on physical objects.

If other people aren’t doing something because it’s ‘too hard’, take it as a sign to do it every day of your life.

Final Thoughts

What is your ultimate goal in life? Is it to make as much money as possible in a short amount of time? Or to be genuinely happy and satisfied? No brainer, right? If you answered how I think you did, then make no hesitation to incorporate voluntary hardship into your life. Every day I am finding new ways to weave this beautiful little psychological trick into my daily habits.

My ultimate goal is to live modestly, comfortably to a degree, and continue to challenge myself.

Because challenge is the only way we can grow as rational human beings. Similarly, if you want to avoid an inflationary lifestyle, where you constantly chase more and want more as you attain wealth, then practice putting yourself in the shoes of the less fortunate.

Only this way will you realize that wealth is not as fulfilling as you may think and that true happiness is rooted in all walks of life.

Think simple for the biggest results. Do little things daily that challenge you, walk the stairs rather than the elevator, or run an extra kilometer in your workout. Simplicity is the best way to scale this practice into a happiness-fulfilling philosophy of life.

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I am an entrepreneur from London with a passion for reading and writing about self-improvement, productivity, fitness, history, philosophy, and happiness.


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