Loss Aversion: Stoics Don't Lose

Loss aversion affects us all. Humans are wired to feel pain when we lose and that pain is sharper than an equivalent win. A hundred dollar payment to the IRS hurts more than a hundred dollar tax return feels good. Studies show this fact with such consistency that we can even say how much more loss hurts; about 2.5 times greater than a gain. This may be irrational, but the brain didn't evolve by solving logic puzzles, it evolved through survival.

The wise will start each day with the thought...Fortune gives us nothing that we can really own.
- Seneca

Stoics avoid the pain of loss by not gaining anything that can be taken away. I'm not referring to a vow of poverty. The Roman Senator Seneca was not hurting for possessions. No, if we take any vow of poverty, it's a poverty of control. Stoics understand that the only thing we truly control is our own mind, and a small sliver of it at that. Everything else that comes our way is ours for stewardship, not ownership.

Zeus giveth, Zeus taketh away.
- The Immoderate Stoic (being ridiculous)

Obviously, it takes some work to adopt a non-ownership view of the universe. That's why Seneca advised daily practice. Fortune gives us nothing that we can really own is a powerful thought to dwell on in the morning. His meditation continues with, "Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl." Stoics are big on the mutability of the universe. Change is to be expected.

How ridiculous, how strange, to be surprised at anything that happens in life!
-Marcus Aurelius (being serious)

Seneca goes on to talk about how a city can be devastated by an earthquake in moments. He reminds his readers that even empires can fall apart and then he closes with three thoughts. We live in the midst of things that are destined to die. Mortal you have been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.  For the Stoic, a consistent acceptance of universal change frees us to concentrate on what is in our control, which is our response to the world that is. 

So what's the benefit of adopting a Stoic view of ownership and change? In my opinion, both peace and courage. If you demand that the things you have this moment remain with you forever, you will live defensively, seeking to hold everything you value much too tight. I've yet to watch an episode of Hoarders and think, "that person knows what he wants and is living the life!" I believe that all of us learn to act like the unfortunate souls in that show, we just tend to manage it better. However, if we internalize the fact that fortune gives us nothing that is truly ours, we can learn to cherish relationships, objects, and events, during the moments we have them. As G.K. Chesterton said, the way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost. Beyond this, when we give up attachment to impermanent things, we free ourselves to act with courage according to our beliefs. We can make bold bets on the way things should be because we're willing to lose how they have been.

I know internalizing this viewpoint isn't simple. At least, I don't find it to be. It's too easy to claim an acceptance of impermanence when what I'm really doing is holding the world at arm's length. I work to be Stoic, not stoic. When I persevere, I find contentment and, often, a bit of a runner's high for life. I hope to press on, because there are things I need to do. Fortune may be fickle, but I'm told it favors the bold.