Stoicism for happiness: the dichotomy of control

Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

Naturally, I stumbled upon stoicism during one of the worst times of my life.

It was fall 2016. I have just started my first semester of grad school and had to take a social theories class that was required for all sociology majors. Quite frankly, that class made me feel so utterly incompetent and useless, I might have considered to mention it on a suicide note that I, thankfully, never got around to.

Despite the brilliant and very interesting professor, I could not figure out Foucault to save my life, and lucky for me, the whole course was on his theories. 

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Here’s an accurate depiction of me in that class: 

I hated the class. I loathed myself a lot, and soon I slipped into complete and utter misery.

The only good thing that came out of that class, and really what completely changed the course of my life, was an assignment I had to do on Foucault’s the care of the self.

I did pretty bad on the assignment, and I don’t even think I fully, or even partially, grasped Foucault’s main points. Besides, who really understands Foucault?

But, that assignment piqued my interest in ancient philosophy.

I went poking around Google to learn more about ancient philosophy and was introduced to stoicism.

To say stoicism and its teachings changed my life is a major understatement. For me, stoicism provided a series of guidance for attaining happiness and living the good life.

I’m also happy to report that shortly after, I started to grasp Foucault and even used his concept on biopower for my subsequent courses in my second semester, which also happen to be one of the happiest times of my life.


The dichotomy of control

While stoicism offers many different notions for living the good life, my favourite stoic concept is the dichotomy of control.

Put simply, the stoic’s dichotomy of control is the idea that some things are within our power and some things are not.

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

— Epictetus

The first time I consciously applied this concept was on the bus on my way to an important appointment of sorts. The bus was late, and I couldn’t stop obsessing over the consequences of being late to my appointment, and feeling upset that the bus was making me late. Then, I found myself thinking ‘is there anything I can do about this right now?’ I realized I didn’t.

I could have taken a cab instead, but I was already on the bus.

I told myself that I will deal with whatever the outcome of being late was once I get to my destination, and next time I will make sure not to put myself in the same predicament by leaving early or using other methods of transportation.

It felt good to focus on what was in my control and letting go of the rest.

Do you want to win that tennis match? It is outside of your control. But to play the best game you can is under your control. Do you want your partner to love you? It is outside of your control. But there are plenty of ways you can choose to show your love to your partner – and that is under your control. Do you want a particular political party to win the election? It is outside of your control (unless you’re Vladimir Putin!) But you can choose to engage in political activism, and you can vote. These aspects of your life are under your control.

The dichotomy of control helps us shift the focus from external events to focus on internal motives and achievements.

Sometimes the universe will favour us, and other times it will not, and that is completely out of our control.

A simple exercise to practice the dichotomy of control in your daily life is to write down things that are in your control versus things that are not in your control about the situation. Then, focus all your attention and emotional energy on the things that are under your control.

Below is a template for the exercise.

SITUATION: ____________________________

Things that are not in my control

Things that are in my control


A great introductory book that I recommend is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and, of course, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.


2 thoughts on “Stoicism for happiness: the dichotomy of control”

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