Daisy's photo and blog title
18 May 2021

Getting philosophical

In Week 5 the senior school wellbeing program focused on philosophical thinking in general, and stoicism in particular. Philosophy may not appear to fit in a wellbeing program, but it is linked to the school's values of integrity and resilience very clearly, and it is timely at the moment in the middle of this 'wellbeing' push post COVID-19. 

The funny thing with a lot of wellbeing literature is that it is easily co-opted by those who promote two very different ideas - the first is toxic positivity, and the second is the need to cotton ball ourselves from external triggers. 

Toxic positivity, as defined by psychologist Jamie Long as "the excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state across all disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions." 

Toxic positivity also falls into the trap that self care can fix everything, and by self care I don't mean talking about effective forms like rest, diet, exercise, positive relationships and a healthy work/life balance. I'm talking about selfcare of bubble baths and morning routines that involve sage sticks (if my morning routine includes coffee I'm happy.) 

Wellbeing literature is also harnessed by many around mental health including using terms around anxiety and depression. I want to be careful here not to make it sound that I don't take these conditions seriously, because I do, but there is a proliferation of social media accounts that write about managing anxiety, trigger warnings and issues around students at universities needing 'safe spaces' that Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks about far more eloquently than I. 

Now as a wellbeing geek, I think it is great our social emotional literacy has improved so we understand mental health far better than we used to, but is there also something to be said for just being a bit more stoic? 

Stoicism is the school of philosophy founded in Ancient Greece by Zeno of Cyprus who, with just his name and location (i'll be going as Daisy of Waverley from hereon in), 2300 years ago focused on virtue, tolerance, and self-control. 

Stoicism became very popular throughout the Greek world and by the last Good emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations. 

To give you an example of why teens can benefit from stoicism, consider you were to hear the phrase "that is so unfair", uttered by a teenager, a huge stretch of the imagination, I know, but please try. 

Someone too focused on the external events - on triggers and the like, might say 'that sucks, that is so unfair!" They might ask why you find it so triggering, which for the 7% of teenagers who experience an anxiety attack, can be very useful to examine their own responses, but for many others, it can turn into navel gazing instead of dealing with the situation at hand. 

Someone who unknowingly proclaims toxic positivity might say "it's not that bad, you'll be ok" which, despite best intentions, will only receive an eye roll as a response from most teenagers. 

A stoic, however, might respond with "that sucks, I get you're upset, but you will get through this." Here's the kicker – the stoic does both. They accept it is tough, but they believe we get through things. Because life is difficult, and while it can feel to many that life is a personal attack on them "I feel so seen", "I'm triggered" and "It Me" memes abound to prove my point, in fact, you can't control what happens to you, only your responses. 

Marcus Aurelius, writing in the 2nd Century CE, wrote "your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed by the colour of its thoughts." If our first reaction to everything becomes "that' s unfair" we put ourselves in a victim's shoes, and that is what we become, victims. Instead, focusing on what we can control and returning ourselves to self control, or as Aurelius said "habitual recurrence to harmony will increase your mastery of it." 

Life is not always easy, and bubble baths, wonderful as they are, won't always fix things, but focusing on what we can do autonomously, on our "inner locus of control" we will be more likely to have stronger physical health, a healthier relationship with stress, and a higher self esteem. That's research not from 2000 years ago, but ten years ago, and is replicated. 

Parents who encourage independence and the consequences of their actions in their children, are more likely to have kids with an inner locus of control, or as Aurelius said, an understanding of the need for "a good disposition, good impulse, and good deeds." 

Optimism is of course important, we know optimism is great for our health as well, but it is not about ignoring negatives in life, but recognising we can work on them getting better. 

Ms Daisy Turnbull

Director of Wellbeing

Find more information about our wellbeing program here.

We would love to welcome you and your daughter to our school at one of our Open Mornings so you can get a feel for the way we approach education.