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Naive Stoicism: Why pop philosophy is bad for your mental health

Stoicism is popular today but often misunderstood and misapplied. In fact, a naive interpretation of Stoicism is damaging to your well-being.
A stoic man with a beard in a black and white photo.
Wikimedia Commons / Ana Kova
Key Takeaways
  • Stoicism is popular today but is often widely misunderstood. “Naive Stoic ideology” is one that interprets Stoicism as simply suppressing your emotions and having a masochistic penchant for pain.
  • A new paper from an international team of scientists and philosophers shows that this naive Stoicism is detrimental to our happiness and well-being.
  • It’s important to remember that this is not Stoicism as it was actually taught or understood. In fact, the paper even lends support to the idea that true Stoicism might be beneficial to your health.

Chrysippus of Soli was a Stoic. In fact, he was such a good Stoic, that he eventually became the head of the Stoic school in Athens. It might be easy to imagine Chrysippus today as some grave and solemn statue — the joyless offspring of Seven of Nine and the Terminator, perhaps. Yet this is not what Stoics were like at all. Chrysippus was hugely popular and was said to have died laughing at a donkey eating some figs. And it’s not just Chrysippus. Seneca displayed profound grief at the death of his friends. Marcus Aurelius admitted to feeling lonely often (and finding good in it). Epictetus insisted we must all “try to enjoy the great festival of life.”

The problem with Stoicism is that it’s often only partially understood. Millennia of misusing the word “stoic” as a synonym for emotionless has meant that Stoicism, as an ancient philosophy, gets tarnished unfairly. People assume Stoicism is about repression or about denying yourself feelings so that you can rationally and objectively treat the world. Not only is this a distortion of a complicated school of philosophy, but according to new research, it’s damaging our wellbeing.

Naive Stoic Ideology

In 2022, an international team of philosophers, scientists, and psychologists released a paper called “Misunderstood Stoicism: The Negative Association Between Stoic Ideology and Well-Being.” What this paper showed was that the more people practiced Stoicism, the unhappier they were. A philosophy meant to increase well-being was instead decreasing it.

It’s important to remember, though, that this isn’t Stoicism as it’s properly understood. This was what the team referred to as, “naive Stoic ideology.” Naive Stoic ideology is what the layman, with only a bit of research on the topic, might believe. It’s the half-read, half-understood Stoicism of someone who likely hasn’t heard of Epictetus or Seneca. According to the paper, naive Stoic ideology is defined by four assumptions:

Stoic taciturnity, in which emotions should not be talked about. Practitioners think they have to be brooding and silent all the time.

Stoic serenity is the idea that we should not feel strong emotions. Practitioners believe that people who laugh, cry, or get angry can’t be Stoics.

Stoic endurance is the belief that we should endure physical suffering, so some take their Stoicism with a dollop of masochism.

Death acceptance is accepting rather than fearing death. After all, memento mori is much more than a tattoo.

There are many Stoics and there are many variations of Stoicism, so it would be foolish to say that none of these are true to Stoicism. The authors label these beliefs “naive” because they are, at the very least, vastly oversimplified. And, as they go on to demonstrate, they are also damaging.

Naïve Stoicism is unhealthy

The team looked at the effects naive Stoic ideology had on two different types of well-being, hedonic and eudaimonic. Broadly, hedonic well-being has to do with satisfaction and how subjectively happy a person is. Eudaimonic, though, is about flourishing and finding meaning in life. For example, I could be satisfied with my apartment and enjoy a night drinking with my friends (which represents hedonic well-being) but feel like I’m coasting or languishing in life more generally (which represents eudaimonic well-being).

The authors found, “Stoic ideology was negatively related to both hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being.” That means naive Stoicism actually makes you less happy, both subjectively and in a deeper, existential sense. The factors largely driving this were Stoic taciturnity and Stoic serenity. As the paper puts it, “The tendency and desire to suppress one’s problems, both experience and expression, is related to lower well-being.” The more you try to deny your feelings, or the less often you talk about them, the more damaging it is to your health.

Actual Stoicism can be beneficial

The paper wasn’t entirely dismissive of naive Stoicism. Across all three countries the team examined (U.S., Norway, New Zealand), they noted that death acceptance and Stoic endurance were positively associated with eudaimonic well-being — that is, those who come to terms with their own mortality are happier on a profound, meaning-of-life kind of level. Likewise, if you are willing to endure or see suffering as an inevitable but bearable part of life, you are more likely to experience greater well-being overall. Curiously enough, both death acceptance and Stoic endurance are the facets that most likely do align with ancient Stoicism.

There is a notable limitation to the study. The authors used convenience sampling, which means they used college students who were within easy reach. They aren’t representative of the general population. Still, there are two lessons to take away from all this. First, repressing your feelings will decrease your well-being. Second, there are scientifically backed benefits to be found in ancient philosophies like Stoicism, so long as they are practiced properly.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is not to trust in half-baked pop philosophy. If you are going to commit yourself to a philosophy and live according to its ideals, you might want to learn about it first.


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