These 5 things make us miserable, according to ancient philosophers

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These 8 things make us miserable, according to ancient philosophers

In our constant search for joy, comfort, and purpose, we often find ourselves pulled by the allure of what’s new—gadgets, trends, benchmarks of success.

But amid the noise of the present, it’s easy to overlook that the core challenges we face have been tackled by generations before us.

Age-old scripts, stone tablets, and traditions carry insights that remain strikingly relevant today.

Perhaps it’s time we revisited ancient wisdom to understand the roots of our shared discontent. What did our predecessors identify as sources of our misery?

Today, we delve into ancient philosophies and uncover the eight things they believed to be the architects of human unhappiness.

1. Unbridled Desires

This a huge one. 

In the age of online shopping, endless streaming services, and social media influencers, our desires seem to know no bounds.

It’s almost second nature for us to want the latest phone, the trendiest fashion, or that picture-perfect vacation. But this isn’t just a modern phenomenon.

Epicurus, hailing from ancient Greece, recognized this very human trait. He observed that when we allow our desires to run unchecked—especially those that aren’t essential to our well-being—we set ourselves up for perpetual dissatisfaction.

This is echoed by countless other philosophies but perhaps most so by Taoism. As well put by Science Direct, the founder of Taoism, Lao Zi “promoted giving up luxury and coming to simplicity, purifying one’s heart, and restricting one’s desires”. 

It’s not the mere act of wanting, but the relentless pursuit of more, often beyond our actual needs, that becomes the issue.

Think about it for a moment. How often have we acquired something we’ve longed for, only to find our joy fleeting and our sights set on the next big thing?

Epicurus would argue that the key to contentment isn’t in constantly fulfilling our wants, but in understanding and limiting them. When we can discern between what’s truly essential and what’s superfluous, we lay the groundwork for a more satisfied life.

So, next time the itch to buy that new gadget or trendy accessory strikes, perhaps it’s worth pausing and reflecting: Is this a genuine need or just another fleeting desire?

2. The Avoidance of Change

We’ve all been there.

Whether it’s a job we’re no longer passionate about, a relationship that’s lost its spark, or a daily routine that’s become monotonous, the fear of change can be paralyzing. It’s as if we believe that keeping things static will safeguard us from potential hardships.

Yet, the wisdom of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, challenges this notion. He famously observed that change is the very essence of life, famously stating: 

“You cannot step into the same river twice.”

As I see it, he means to remind us that life, in its essence, is in a state of constant flux, and our attempts to freeze it are not only futile but also counterproductive.

By resisting change, we inadvertently set ourselves up for stagnation and discontent. 

While it’s natural fear uncertainty, embracing change often leads to the most profound moments of growth and self-discovery. It nudges us out of complacency, challenges our preconceptions, and enriches our experiences.

One of the scariest things I have done was quit my corporate job, leave everything I knew, and move to a new country alone. That was almost a decade ago and can say with full certainty that was the action that inspired more growth than any other decision I have ever made. 

So, the next time change knocks on your door, instead of recoiling, perhaps consider it an invitation—an opportunity to evolve, adapt, and shape a new chapter in your story.

3. Lack of Self-Awareness

If you are a regular reader here, you will know how much we bang on about the benefits of self-reflection. But it’s true. 

In our fast-paced world, brimming with distractions, it’s all too easy to lose sight of who we truly are.

Socrates, one of the pillars of Western philosophy, firmly championed the importance of introspection with his compelling dictum: “Know thyself.”

At its heart, this isn’t just about knowing one’s likes or dislikes, but about understanding our motivations, our fears, and our aspirations.

When we drift through life without genuine self-awareness, we’re like ships without compasses, often swayed by external influences, or trapped in patterns that don’t truly align with our genuine desires.

Our actions become reactions, and we might find ourselves pursuing goals or dreams that don’t resonate with our true selves, simply because we haven’t paused to question them.

By dedicating time to introspection, whether it’s through meditation, journaling, or simply quiet reflection, we can recalibrate our internal compass. This isn’t merely an exercise in self-indulgence; it’s a pathway to authenticity, to living a life more aligned with our genuine desires and values.

If you are feeling a tad lost, or just in need of clarity, take a moment. Reflect. Look inward.

Often, the answers we seek aren’t out in the vast world but deep within us.

4. Being a Slave to Opinion

From the endless stream of social media commentary to the round-the-clock news cycles and the casual coffee shop debates, we’re constantly surrounded by a myriad of voices telling us how to think, feel, and act.

Laozi, the foundational figure behind Taoism , shed light on this very predicament long before the age of Twitter and 24-hour news.

According to Laozi, true contentment and equilibrium come from understanding and aligning with the Tao, or the natural way of things, rather than bending to external pressures. He wrote:

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”

The Stoics, also believed that true value and virtue lie internally.

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It’s not about dismissing the views of others entirely, but about discerning which opinions genuinely matter and which ones don’t. It’s about understanding that our self-worth isn’t up for public auction and that our contentment shouldn’t be outsourced.

So, next time you find yourself swayed by the latest trend or feeling pressured by external judgments, remember Laozi’s wisdom.

Stand firm in your truth, trust in your journey, and remember that your path, unique and individual, doesn’t require validation from every passerby.

5. Neglecting the Present Moment

In an era of notifications, future planning, and digital memories, it’s surprisingly easy to be everywhere but here, in the present moment.

Many ancient philosophies touch upon this theme. Buddhism, for example, places a strong emphasis on mindfulness—being wholly present in one’s current activity, whether it’s eating, walking, or even breathing.

Similarly, Stoicism, through figures like Seneca, emphasizes the fleeting nature of life and the importance of cherishing the present.

As Seneca once wrote, “The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

There’s profound wisdom in this.

When we anchor ourselves in the present, we become more attuned to our surroundings, our feelings, and the subtle nuances of our experiences. It allows us to engage more deeply, more authentically with life.

Consider the simple act of having a cup of tea. When truly present, you notice the warmth of the cup in your hand, the aroma wafting up, the nuanced flavors on your palate. It transforms from a mundane act to a rich experience.

But more than just elevating daily experiences, being present helps us navigate challenges more effectively.

Problems often become magnified when we project them into the future or layer them with past regrets. Addressing them in the now, with clarity and focus, often reveals them to be more manageable than our wandering minds made them out to be.

So, the next time you find yourself lost in thought, adrift in the sea of past memories or future anxieties, take a moment. Breathe. Anchor yourself back to the now.

After all, the present is the only canvas upon which we can actively paint.

The Bottom Line

While we navigate the intricacies of our modern existence, it’s both insightful and grounding to realize that many of our challenges aren’t new.

They’ve been observed, analyzed, and commented upon by thinkers from great thinkers of the past.

The wisdom these ancient philosophers offer isn’t outdated or irrelevant; on the contrary, it can serve as a guiding light in our own quest for contentment and understanding.

From the nature of our desires to the importance of genuine connections, these age-old insights offer more than just knowledge—they provide perspective. A perspective that reminds us to focus on what truly matters, to question, to grow, and to cherish the moments and relationships that truly enrich our lives.

As we move forward, equipped with both modern tools and ancient wisdom, perhaps we’ll find a more balanced, fulfilling path.

After all, sometimes looking back isn’t about dwelling in the past, but about finding our way forward.

Until next time.