290 – Laughing With The Stoics: Finding Humor on the Path to Virtue

Do you think that Stoics are too serious and all business? Do you think that if you adopt Stoic principles that you can’t have fun? Today I want to talk about humor and some of the misconceptions of Stoicism.

“It’s better for us to laugh at life than to cry over it.”

— Seneca

When you picture a Stoic, you might imagine someone with the emotional range of a sloth, but surprise! The Stoics weren't the ancient world's equivalent of grumpy cat. They actually had quite a bit to say about living "according to nature," and let's be real, what's more natural than snorting milk out of your nose from laughing too hard? Exactly.

So, how does humor fit into Stoicism?

The Stoics often talked about achieving eudaimonia, also translated as ‘good spirit’, which for the Stoics is about reducing negative emotions, and cultivating positive emotions. Since we are emotional creatures, we aren’t expected to not have emotions, and for me, having a good laugh certainly helps me get closer to having a ‘good spirit’.

Absurdity of Life

Because stoicism is about trying to see the world for exactly what it is, we can laugh at the absurdities of life. Seneca was all about chuckling at life's curveballs when he said, "Fortune is like that drunk friend who tries to help but ends up knocking over the lamp." Life is unpredictable, so why not have a laugh when things go sideways?

When you think about it, this is what Amor Fati is all about. It’s about not just accepting everything that happens in life, but loving everything that comes our way, and what better way is there to love everything that comes your way when you find humor in even the darkest times?

When we take things too seriously, we often get stuck ruminating and stressing out over things that are small or even imagined. When we get stuck in this mindset, our thinking becomes more narrow as response to stress, which it makes it hard for us to make better decisions. In these situations, often times the best thing we can do is laugh about it. Lightening our mood helps us relax which in turn helps us think more positively and be more open to possibilities.

The Stoics recognized that joy is not the same thing as being frivolous. They understood that joy is part of a well-rounded life. The Stoics themselves practiced self-deprecating humor in order to not take themselves or life too seriously. Epictetus was known to have a very dry and ironic wit. You can totally picture Epictetus cracking a smile and reminding us that just because we're after virtue, doesn't mean we can't enjoy a good meme. When talking about death, he once said, “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

It was reported that Chrysippus literally died from laughing at the sight of his intoxicated donkey trying to eat figs. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome, once cracked, "I get up in the morning because the universe isn't done with me; also, someone has to feed the ducks." Keeping yourself grounded with a little self-mockery is very much in line with Stoic principles.

Keep Perspective

Laughter helps us to keep things in perspective. When we are in good spirits, we are better able to see things as they are, or imagine how they could be. When things don’t go the way we want, we’re better able to roll with things, focus on what went right, and move forward in a more positive direction. When we are stressed or pessimistic, then we’re more likely to catastrophize, only see the downsides, and wallow in why things didn’t work out.

Seneca gives us some good instruction on keeping a humorous outlook when comparing the serious and sullen Heraclitus the more cheerful Democritus. He wrote:

“We ought therefore to bring ourselves into such a state of mind that all the vices of the vulgar may not appear hateful to us, but merely ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter of these, whenever he appeared in public, used to weep, the former to laugh: the one thought all human doings to be follies, the other thought them to be miseries. We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to laugh at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.”

Laughter is the Best Medicine

When comes to health, laughter is truly good medicine. With the pace of the modern world, we’re all under a lot of stress, which is detrimental to our long term health. Since stress hormones, those released for our ‘fight or flight’ instincts are meant to get us out of short term danger, such as escaping from a saber toothed tiger, we’re not meant to operate under this type of duress for long periods.

Exposure to these hormones over longer periods increase our risk for obesity, heart disease, cancer, depression and many other illnesses. Laughter, as it turns out, helps counteract many of these problems by relieving stress, increasing oxygen intake, and releasing healthy chemicals into our bloodstream.

Strengthening Social Bonds

The Stoics stress that it’s important for us to build community and be a productive member of society. Laughter is something that brings people together and helps to strengthen social bonds. Sharing a good laugh with family and friends or even strangers can help us form better social connections.

At a very simplistic level, when we laugh with others, we relax around them and are better able to just be ourselves. It feels like the other person ‘gets us’. We associate good feelings with them. Our memories of them are positive, which means it’s more likely we’ll want to spend time with them, or be willing to help them out when they need it.

For example, even though I had a difficult relationship with my father, some of my fondest memories of him are when he shared funny stories or we watched a movie that had us rolling on the floor. I can still remember his deep belly laugh and when he’d have to take off his glasses because he had tears in his eyes.

When we can see the lighter side of life, we are also better able to be compassionate to other people and more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. When we’re stressed or pessimistic, we’re more likely to place blame on them when things aren’t working out.

Wisdom in Humor

There are many ways to learn and often humor is the best way to communicate wisdom. The best teachers I had growing up were usually those that could make learning fun or add some humor into their lessons. A bit of humor in the class often made the difference between really enjoying a class or just getting through it.

Sometimes, the truth is so blunt, it hurts. But wrap that truth in a joke, and it becomes wisdom you can approach with a smile. Some of the best comedians share hard truths about life with humor that otherwise would be uncomfortable. By shining a light on hard things with humor, we’re more willing to look at things that we might otherwise would have avoided. By making us laugh, they open us up to seeing things from different perspectives that we may not have considered before.


When we can learn to laugh about the hard things in life, we become more resilient. When the going gets tough, rather than letting it drag us down, we’re able to make something good of a tough situation. With a shift in perspective, what may have seemed like a frustrating situation, can be turned into something more neutral or even a funny story to share with friends later.

Learning to laugh at life also helps us in embracing imperfection. Nobody's perfect and Stoics get that. A well-timed joke about our own blunders reminds us to accept our flaws. I can imagine that if Marcus Aurelius had social media, he'd probably tweet, "Messed up today. #JustEmperorThings."

Looking at the Bright Side of Life

So how can you get better about looking at life from a more humorous perspective?

A big thing for me is to just watch some good comedy. Last Sunday night I was working on some business ideas and was finding myself stressing out about it. I found that my thinking was narrowed and it was really hard to generate ideas. Then I would get even more frustrated because I couldn’t seem to get out of this downward spiral.

So I went to a comedy show. It was small show but the crowd was really fun and the comedians were great. Some of the topics broached were dark, but still funny. I also made friends with the couple sitting next to me. Two hours of laughing reset my mood and started the week off with a much better outlook.

Since the Stoics are big on having awareness of what you are thinking, pay attention to when you’re getting critical towards someone or something else. Approach the situation like a comedy writer. Can you stop and see if you can find something funny about the situation? Can you laugh at yourself for getting too serious about something? I found that if I think about how I could turn it into a funny story to tell someone later can help to lighten my mood.

But with this said, be careful not to take things too far. Humor can be a great coping mechanism, but it can also be used to avoid having difficult conversations or dealing with challenging situations. Also, laughing at the expense of others is one way to burn bridges rather than building them.

The Stoics teach us to practice temperance, so make sure that you use humor at the right time and in the right doses. Trying to be funny at the wrong time can backfire and may cause more harm. Life isn’t all doom and gloom, but it’s not a laugh-fest either. Finding that sweet spot between levity and seriousness can help you strike the right balance in any situation.

Like they say, know your audience.


In essence, Stoicism with a dash of humor isn't just palatable; it's downright enjoyable. It turns out, you can pursue virtue and still have room for a good laugh. So next time you're pondering the Stoic virtues, remember to lighten up and let humor be your companion on the path to eudaemonia.

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