How to Have Peace of Mind: The Sphere of Choice

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine was probably the best book I read all last year.

One of the most central and helpful ideas Irvine writes about is the distinction between what we can control (what the Stoic philosopher called ”the sphere of choice” or ”internals”) and what we cannot control (”externals”).

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that we should only focus on what is within our sphere of choice and that peace of mind comes from realising we cannot control or change certain things.

Since we cannot change the past, much of the natural world, the actions and thoughts of other people and even many things about ourselves (ageing comes to mind), we shouldn’t waste time worrying about such things.

Other Stoics, principally Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, also stressed the importance of developing a sense of humour and lightness for when events and people turn against us. They argued that allowing externals like these to bother us is irrational and a waste of time.

Epictetus went even further and stressed that only our character, our values and our opinions lie within our sphere of choice and should, therefore, be our primary focus. Externals should only provide the ’materials’ for developing our character and becoming a better person.

The next time you feel agitated about something ask yourself if whatever is stirring up these emotions lies within your sphere of choice. Does it have to do with your own character, your values and your opinions?

If it does, it’s something you can actually control and you should get to work on it.

If it’s not, it’s a matter of indifference and you should let it go. Life is too short for wasting time on stuff you can’t change.

This is, of course, easier said than done. You won’t be able to stop your mind from going crazy the next time someone is rude to you just because you’ve read this. It’s been conditioned to react that way.

But if you practice it, always reminding yourself about the sphere of choice when you feel frustrated, you’ll put a gap between the stimulus and your response and before you know it, you’ll be surprised at how calmly you react in the face of adversity.

”There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
– Epictetus