Let’s say you have a hamster spinning its wheel. The hamster has been at this for quite some time and is rather tired. There is nothing to stop the hamster getting off the wheel and going for as long a rest as it wants. You point this out to the hamster. The hamster looks at you distractedly. “Oh no, if I stop spinning I’ll hate myself. I must keep going.” And he struggles on.
Now we put our hamster into human form, give him a suit and a briefcase and an office to work in. Every morning and evening he braves the traffic. He allows himself to be ordered about and works diligently, sometimes far beyond the hours he is contracted to work. He feels miserable and fed up.
You point out that he could, in fact, give up his job and survive by living a simple life on his savings. He looks at you distractedly. “Oh no, if I stopped working, I’d hate myself. I must keep going.” And he struggles on.
So you put something in the public water supply that makes him like himself no matter what he does. Now he lies in bed in the morning and leaves the company car to gather dust outside. He doesn’t feel at all bad about this because he likes himself just as much as he did when he struggled to work every day.
His employers cannot repossess the company car because the men they would send to collect it prefer to sit at home watching Jeremy Kyle et al on their flat- screen TVs as they have found that they like themselves just fine while living this sedentary lifestyle.
I wondered the other day what would happen if I was to like myself unconditionally. I realised that I have no guarantee that I would do most of the things I now do if I could like myself whether I did them or not. In other words, if people learned to like themselves no matter what, the fabric of society would crumble. So we can’t and we mustn’t, despite the assertions of pop psychology.
Because if we start to like ourselves unconditionally, commerce will fall apart, the machines will stop running and weeds will grow through the streets. Soon, nothing will remain to break the silence but the occasional squeaking of an old hamster wheel.
Addendum: if you've ever told yourself that "this too will pass" or "it's not what happens but what you make of it that counts", you've probably inherited some stoic philosophy. If you thought the Stoics were ancient Greek and Roman chaps who have long since turned to dust, you'd be wrong.
Patrick Ussher of the University of Exeter tells me that Stoic Week is an annual international event and is in full swing at the moment. You can participate in various ways at bit.ly/thestoics where you can access videos, audio, articles and even test your own stoicism.
Many stoic ideas are simple to grasp, challenging to implement but well worth the effort. Epictetus, who is indeed long since turned to dust, divided events into two kinds: those we can control and those we cannot. Pouring our energy into controlling the uncontrollable gets us nowhere. Sounds obvious, but how many hours has it been since you last tried to control the uncontrollable and only got upset about it? What you can control is your own attitude to events and sometimes even that is tricky enough.
The effort to control other people’s emotions is another doomed project, but again we forget this fact on a daily basis. Irish people should be experts on the stoic approach because so many of us have taken a philosophical attitude to our economic crash instead of rioting in the streets.
That said, I suspect that if the boom comes back, we might drop stoicism in favour of those other types of behaviour that some ancient Romans got up to – but it won't make us any happier.
Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is free by email.