I used to think of small sacrifices as trivial or worse. After all, what could possibly be the point of giving up chocolate or wine or Facebook for some period of time? Then I met someone who introduced me to Stoic philosophy, and I tried giving up alcohol for 30 days. That experiment turned out to be more meaningful than I could have imagined.
In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, I learned that Stoics weren’t the emotionless, dry philosophers I had imagined. For example, Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest emperors of Rome, was a Stoic. I learned they also shared quite a bit of philosophy with Buddhists. They embraced the impermanence of life and sought to be mindful and grateful for what life had to offer. Part of this was practicing self-denial.
“What Stoics discover[ed] is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. They will, as a result, be thoroughly in control of themselves. This self-control makes it far more likely that they will attain the goals of their philosophy of life, and that in turn dramatically increases their chances of living a good life.”
What didn’t happen in 30 days
When I mentioned to someone that I wasn’t drinking, the typical reaction was one of surprise. “Why not? Are you sick?” After I meekly explained the experiment I was trying, they’d ask “Do you feel any different?”
My answer was usually a simple “No.” I didn’t lose weight or lose my desire for a nice glass of red wine. Perhaps I ate more dessert.
The reason I tried this experiment with alcohol was that my drinking had become unthinking. I didn’t feel it was excessive. Perhaps a glass or two of wine 4-5 times a week, sometimes more. But it was a habit, and I was uncomfortable with that.
Perhaps I could change it.
The things that changed
During this time I was also reading The Brain That Changes Itself, a review of the science of neuroplasticity - how our brains are capable of being rewired in ways we thought were impossible just a few decades ago.
By giving up alcohol for 30 days, I was actively rewiring my relationship with alcohol. I was more mindful about drinking. More precisely, I became aware of the environmental cues that made me drink and so I was more conscious - literally, by engaging my prefrontal cortex - of when and why I wanted a drink.
Also, when I had a glass of wine on the 31st day, I was more grateful for the smell, taste, and after-effects of a glass of wine.
The wisdom of the Stoics can now be found in more modern scientific works like The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control and The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Work, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.
It isn’t the particular sacrifice that’s important. It’s the act of exercising your willpower. I’m looking forward to my next 30-day experiment.