It’s a hard-knock life!’ sings Little Orphan Annie. And it really is for many of us.
Why is life hard? Well, why wouldn’t it be? Life is generally pretty hard for most sentient creatures on the face of this planet. Anyone who has watched a few nature documentaries will know that for most living things life is a desperate struggle for existence. Living things are often at constant risk of starvation, of physical attack by competitors and predators, and countless other threats. Only the toughest survive. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) famously argues that for someone living in a ‘state of nature’ outside of society, life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. By living together within a society governed by laws and a state with the power to enforce those laws, we can at least live our lives in relative safety, confident that we’re unlikely to be murdered in our beds.
True, for most contemporary Westerners life is much less hard than in the past, when the knocks were even harder. We were recently far more vulnerable to illness, pain, and abuse by others than we are today. Scientific, moral, and political advances have made our lives far more tolerable. Still, even today, most lives involve some degree of tragedy, and indeed many are filled with a great deal of it.
Given that life is hard, how do we cope? Perhaps part of the solution lies in managing our expectations. We often shield the brutal character of adult life from our children, coddling them in lullabies and lies. We tell them stories with happy endings. We insist that whatever they create is wonderful – ‘That’s beautiful, darling!’, ‘Oh, how lovely, we must put it on the fridge!’ – no matter how hideous their scrawls or tuneless their singing . We also tell them that they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. As a result, reaching adulthood can be a shock to the system. That tone-deaf kid, told that they could be whatever they wanted by the doting parent who praised their tuneless singing, is going to bitterly disappointed when they come up against reality. The hard knocks of disappointment will feel even harder.
If unrealistic expectations make things worse, shouldn’t we work on managing those expectations? This suggestion lies at the heart of the philosophy of the stoics, whom we have already discussed in ‘Why am I angry all the time?’, and ‘Did I make the right decision?’. The Stoics recommend we manage our expectations so as not to suffer disappointment when things don’t go to plan.
When Little Orphan Annie suffers disappointment, she optimistically sings: ‘The sun will come out tomorrow!’ The Stoics say: that is not a helpful attitude. Actually, the sun may well not come out tomorrow. In fact, you should expect it not to come out tomorrow, because then, when it doesn’t come out, you won’t feel nearly so bad. Optimism and hope are your enemy, not your friend. As the Stoic Seneca puts it: ‘Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.’
One of the techniques recommend by the Stoics is called premeditatio malorum (it has more recently been dubbed negative visualisation). Suppose you are the owner of a shiny new bicycle. The Stoics suggest you should remind yourself that bikes are often stolen or damaged, that shiny new things soon tarnish, and so on. That way, if and when something bad happens to your bike, you won’t be nearly so deflated and will be better prepared for the loss. Focussing on the potential loss of your bike brings another benefit too: you’re more likely to appreciate your lovely bike while you still have it.
The Stoics recommend that we apply the technique of premeditatio malorum to everything we value highly. We should consider losing our loved ones, losing our health, losing all our possessions, and so on. In that way, we’ll be better prepared for the hard knocks when they inevitably come.
It’s important to remember, however, that what the Stoics recommend is not that we develop an attitude of permanent deep, Eeyore-like gloominess. The idea is not that we make ourselves so glum that, when something bad happens, we haven’t got much further to fall emotionally. Premeditatio malorum is an intellectual exercise designed to help us develop realistic expectations and be prepared for bad things that will happen, not an emotional exercise designed to make us feel gloomy. The aim is to make ourselves happier, not sadder.