Stoicism: the key to your own happiness?

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Emily Rautenberg
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

In almost every war movie, there is a momentous scene where the soldier stares across the field of destruction, completely expressionless—stoic.

Stoicism can be one of those words that is difficult to define, but not so difficult to imagine. For many people, this image embodies the spirit of the stoic warrior.

“But what does stoicism mean?” asked Jaclyn Urmey, Director of Psychological Health at the 514th Air Mobility Wing during her first in a workshop series entitled “The Stoic Warrior.”

“Stubborn,” one attendee joked.

Other words used were “reserved,” “emotionless,” and “strong.”

The workshop series is inspired by the book, “Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind,” by Nancy Sherman, in which Sherman discusses this stoic philosophy and how it is tied into the military. During each class, Urmey will cover topics from a new chapter in Sherman’s book. The first class was called, “A Brave New Stocisim.”

What it means for you is all a personal take, said Urmey. It is a philosophy which comes from the Greek Stoics, who believed happiness stemmed from being in control of one’s own emotions. It is the belief that you are in control of your own happiness.

Urmey told the group about U.S. Navy Cmdr. James B. Stockdale, who read about, and later embodied, the philosophy of stoicism. During the Vietnam War, Stockdale was captured in Northern Vietnam and held as a prisoner for seven and a half years. When he became the senior officer among fellow prisoners of war, stoicism became the foundation of his leadership style.

“The root of stoicism is all about control and self-discipline,” Urmey said.

“‘The idea that one’s happiness could depend solely on one’s own virtue and that one’s agency and control might be bulletproof’ was appealing,” she said, reading from “Stoic Warriors.”

Stoicism is about reducing your vulnerability and preparing yourself, she said. If you know what kind of person you are, and you work on your strengths and weaknesses, you can better prepare yourself and become stoic.

In addition to the positive aspect of stoicism, Urmey added that there are downsides as well.

According to Sherman, stoicism can “over idealize human strength and minimize human vulnerability.”

The focus, then, should be on the power in controlling one’s own happiness.

“Our opinions, desires, and emotions are within our power in the sense we can monitor our attitudes and reactions to the circumstances that befall us,” Sherman writes.

A lot of discussion around the concept of “controlling emotions” arose from the group. Instead of trying to control an emotion, it was pointed out that instead, the focus should be on controlling the reaction to an emotion. If a person is angry, he or she shouldn’t simply try to suppress their anger or suddenly flip a switch to feel happy again. Instead, that person should recognize that anger and try to consider what is and isn’t within control, as well as what a productive reaction to that angering situation could be.

Controlling your emotions, then, might not be as important as controlling how you express those emotions.

“The circumstances may be beyond our control, but ultimately what affects us for good or ill are only our own judgements about them,” wrote Sherman.

“We give away our power if we don’t take responsibility,” Urmey added. “Do we undermine ourselves if we rely on external factors for happiness instead of choosing it for ourselves? Will honoring grudges or resentment get you anywhere?”

It is also important to recognize that we all take on different roles in our lives. At any given time we could be children, spouses, parents, friends, students, teachers, leaders, followers, civilians, airmen. Our own expectations, and the expectations of others, can change in each role we take on.

Often, one role expects the others to be put on hold, said Urmey.

Whether your commander expects you to miss your civilian work to attend annual tour, or your civilian employer doesn’t understand why you have to miss work for the military, or your spouse and kids want you to be at a soccer game instead of drill, there can be a lot of turmoil and conflict between these different roles.

It makes sense then, that constant stoicism won’t fit in every role or be appropriate one hundred percent of the time. For example, at home you might be more expressive and open than you are in a military capacity where you are trying to retain a professional military bearing.

Additionally, stoicism may mean and feel something different to each individual. For many, this reserved kind of attitude may be difficult to master. Ultimately, it is a lifestyle and philosophy you have to choose for yourself.

“You need to ask yourself, ‘is stoic something you want to be?’” asked Urmey.

 The next class in the series, “Sound Bodies & Sound Minds,” will be held during the February Unit Training Assembly.