Guide to the Good Life Book Summary and PDF 2

A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine [BOOK SUMMARY & PDF]

A Guide to the Good Life is an eye-opening read about how to live a happier and more meaningful life. The book challenges you to think about living life as an art. The art of living is a skill to be practised (rather than “misliving” and failing to acquire the happiness you want). William Irvine has curated the perfect guide to the good life that is well worth a read!





Who is this book for?

This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life. The Stoic philosophy principles may be old, but they merit the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling – who wishes, that is, to have a good life.

About the author

William B Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University, the author of seven books, including A Guide to the Good Life, and he is a contributor for the Huffington Post, Salon, Time, and the BBC. He lives in Dayton, Ohio.

In this summary

A Guide to the Good Life is an eye-opening read about how to live a happier and more meaningful life. The book challenges you to think about living life as an art. The art of living is a skill to be practised (rather than mis-living and failing to acquire the happiness you want). William Irvine has curated the perfect guide to the good life that is well worth a read!



Although Irvine is advocating Stoicism, it isn’t the only option available for those seeking a philosophy in life. Irvine highly suggests that we all find a philosophy to follow in our daily lives.

What is Stoicism, in a nutshell?

The goal of Stoicism is freedom from passion (or ‘pathos’ in ancient Greek, meaning ‘anguish' or ‘suffering’) through the pursuit of reason and apathy (or ‘apatheia’ in ancient Greek, meaning ‘being objective, unemotional and having clear judgment’). It teaches indifference towards external events – as in nothing external could be either good or evil – and equanimity in life's highs & lows.

For the Stoics, becoming a clear, unbiased and self-disciplined thinker allows one to understand the natural universal reason in all things (or ‘logos’ in ancient Greek).

Well-known Stoics include the Greek founder of the philosophy Zeno (333–261 BC), Epictetus (55-135 AD), and Romans Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), Musonius Rufus (20-30 – 101 AD), and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD).

For Epictetus, the primary concern of his philosophy was the art of living:

“Just as wood is the medium of the carpenter and bronze is the medium of the sculptor, your life is the medium on which you practice
the art of living.”

Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, begun each day by telling himself:

“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Let’s explore the philosophy, techniques, and application of Stoicism in our modern lives.


Negative Visualisation

We often contemplate the bad things that could happen to us. However, no matter how hard we try, we cannot prevent all of them from happening.

Seneca points out that contemplating the bad things that could happen to us will lessen their impact when they happen.

Exercising Gratefulness

We're often unhappy because we are insatiable; we work hard to get what we want, but then we lose interest in the object of our desire, becoming bored and forming new, grander desires.

The key to happiness for the Stoics is to prevent ourselves from taking for granted the things we worked so hard to get. That could include our family, our loved ones, our house, our well-being, and our job.

The Stoics spend time imagining that they’ve lost the things they value. This way, they exercise gratefulness and value the things they have even more.

External & Internal Change

The most important question in our life, according to Epictetus? Whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal.

While most people seek contentment and try to avoid harm from external things, Epictetus believed “for all benefit and harm to come from himself.”

That is, instead of changing the world around us, Epictetus advises us to seek contentment by changing ourselves & our own desires.

Outside of Our Control

“Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”Click To Tweet

It is foolish for us to spend time with things outside of our control. Marcus Aurelius observes, “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”

Instead, it’s worth focusing on what we have complete control of: the goals we set for ourselves, our values, and our character.

For example, when playing a tennis match, a Stoic would set an internal goal, over which she has complete control (to play to the best of her ability in the match), rather than an external one, over which she has some but not complete control (like playing to win the match).

By doing so, she will spare herself frustration or disappointment should she lose the match, and her internal tranquility will not be disrupted.

Fatalism Towards the Past & the Present

To preserve tranquility, Stoics approach the past and the present from a fatalistic perspective: 3e have no control over the past, nor do we have any control over the present (if by ‘the present’ we mean ‘this very moment’). Therefore, we are wasting our time if we worry about past or present events.

Instead, Stoics spent their days working to affect the outcome of future events. Even when they contemplate the past, they seek lessons that can help them shape the future.

Voluntary Discomfort

Stoics sometimes undertake acts of voluntary discomfort in order to appreciate what they already have and increase their enjoyment of life. For example, they may choose to go outside in the cold for a while and then come back in, in order to really enjoy the warmth and sense of shelter. Such minor voluntary discomforts can help them grow the necessary confidence to withstand major discomforts as well, easing future anxieties. Likewise, periodically forgoing opportunities to experience pleasure can teach us self-control.


At bedtime, Seneca’s teacher, Sextius, would ask himself:
“What ailment of yours have you cured today?”
“What failing have you resisted?”
“Where can you show improvement?”

By meditating on daily living, Stoics reflect upon their progress, how their relations with others have changed, and their reactions to certain events.

Signs of progress include less blaming others and boasting about ourselves, more ownership of their actions and, ultimately, diminished impulses and fewer negative emotions.

Stoics spend less time wishing things could be different and more time enjoying things as they are, experiencing tranquility.


On Loving Mankind

Other people are the cause of most of the negative emotions we experience.

They are also the source of some of the greatest delights life has to offer, such as love and friendship. And by working “with and for our fellow men”, as Marcus Aurelius said, we will enjoy a good life.

On Dealing with Other People

Seneca advises us to generally avoid people “who find pleasure in every opportunity for complaint”, because they are a foe to tranquility.

Yet, when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s words, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings, so we can become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of them.

On Putting Up with Put-Downs

When insulted, pause to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset with what is self-evident. For example, it’s not an insult if someone mocks you for being bald, when in fact you are bald.

How should you deal with an insult aiming to upset you?

Laughing it off implies you don’t take the insulter and their insults seriously. Refusing to respond to the insult is probably the most effective way. Both responses will likely deeply frustrate the insulter.

On Vanquishing Tears with Reason

To minimise the amount of grief they experience in life, Stoics engage in prospective negative visualisation: by contemplating the deaths of those they love, they remove some of the shock they will experience if they die.

In retrospective negative visualisation, Stoics imagine never having had something that they have lost, replacing feelings of regret at having lost something with feelings of thanks for once having had it.

On Overcoming Anger

Seneca says that the things that anger us generally don’t do us any real harm; they are instead mere annoyances. However, when we get angry over little things, we transform small annoyances into tranquility-shattering agitation.

Just because things don’t turn out the way you want them to, it doesn’t follow that someone has done you an injustice. Fight your tendency to believe the worst about others and their motivations.

Marcus Aurelius advises that we contemplate the impermanence of the world around us; many of the things that trigger us, in the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter.

On Seeking Fame

With social status comes the external goal to please others, says Epictetus, because to win their admiration means to adopt their notion of success. To avoid enslaving ourselves when dealing with other people, we need to be indifferent to what they think of us.

On Luxurious Living

Wealth can bring physical luxuries and pleasures of the senses, but it can never bring us contentment or banish our grief.

The real danger is that if we are exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, we might lose our ability to take delight in simple things. We become hard to please and celebrate our newly-found inability to enjoy “anything but the best”. In reality, of course, this simply impairs our ability to enjoy life.

For Seneca, our financial goal should be to acquire “an amount that does not descend to poverty, and yet is not far removed from poverty.”

On Surviving a Change of Place

To endure and thrive away from home, Musonius says, we must remember that happiness depends on our values, not on where we reside.

On Celebrating Being Old

Seneca argues:

“Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. The most delightful time of life is when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.”

In our youth, we assume we will live forever and take our days for granted, wasting many of them. In our old age, waking up each morning can be a reason to celebrate.

“If God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts.”

On a Good End to a Good Life

By contemplating their own death, Stoics fully understand that their days are numbered and seek the most out of life.

Those who have lived without a coherent philosophy in life, however, might want to delay death, so they can claim back the value they’ve wasted…


Without adopting a philosophy of life, there are lurking dangers: mis-living, spending our life pursuing the wrong goals or pursuing worthwhile goals in a manner destined to make us fail.

Our goal is not merely to survive and reproduce, but to enjoy a tranquil existence.

With Stoicism, we can become more virtuous, experiencing fewer negative emotions, such as anger, grief, disappointment, and anxiety. Meanwhile, we will also feel delight for the world around us. Practicing Stoicism takes far less effort than the effort one is likely to waste in the absence of a philosophy of life.


Key Takeaways

  • Irvine suggests that we all find a philosophy to follow in our daily lives.
  • Stoicism teaches indifference towards external events and equanimity in life's highs and lows.
  • Stop taking for granted the things you worked so hard to get.
  • All benefit and harm comes from ourselves, not from external things.
  • Focus on what you can control: your goals, your values, your character.
  • Go through voluntary discomfort to appreciate what you already have.
  • Happiness depends on your values, not on your possessions.

Further Reading

The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday. Holiday shows us how some of the most successful people in history have applied stoicism to overcome difficult or even impossible situations.

Meditations By Marcus Aurelius. This book is a timeless collection of extended meditations and short aphorisms that has been consulted and admired by statesmen, thinkers and readers through the centuries.

Guidelines is my eBook that summarises the main lessons from 33 of the best-selling self-help books in one place. It is the ultimate book summary; Available as a 80-page ebook and 115-minute audio book. Guidelines lists 31 rules (or guidelines) that you should follow to improve your productivity, become a better leader, do better in business, improve your health, succeed in life and become a happier person.

Action Steps

  1. Start practising Stoicism in secret, in order to avoid the outright mockery of your friends, relatives, and other people.
  2. Start with one Stoic technique, master it, and then go to the next.
  3. Visit the author’s website for more resources on Stoicism.
  4. Download the complete book on Amazon.

This summary is not intended as a replacement for the original book and all quotes are credited to the above mentioned author and publisher.

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