Pro tips from ancient thinkers: why are people in their teens and twenties suddenly so obsessed by the Stoics?

Works of Seneca and Cicero having unlikely resurgence as a new generation embraces some old-school philosophy

It’s not easy being young in 2024. Historically our teenage years and twenties are supposed to be messy, the era defined by parties, mistakes, sex, love, travel, nihilism, debauchery – all the things that are chaotic in the moment and nostalgic in our older, wiser eras. But modern life has put paid to that somewhat; climate change, higher tuition fees, a housing crisis, a cost of living crisis, constant political crises at home and abroad: the picture looks bleak for those just embarking on adulthood, who seem to have more responsibilities, and less opportunity to mess up and start over, than ever before. What’s surprising though, is how Gen Z is dealing with that landscape. Not by spiralling, but by embracing stoicism.

On TikTok, stoicism – the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of life that advocates maximising positive emotions, reducing negative emotions and, in practice, enduring pain and hardship without complaint – has flourished. The school of thought’s combined hashtags have around half a million views, with videos praising the philosophy’s key figures, from Seneca to Marcus Aurelius. The platform’s favourite classic mythological character however, is Sisyphyus: sent to Hades, his everlasting punishment was to push a boulder endlessly up a steep hill.

The absurdity and futility of the task was the focus of a 1924 essay by Albert Camus, which explored themes of absurdism, existentialism and of course, stoicism. On TikTok, the myth that became an essay has reduced even further; now it’s become a meme. In one post on the app, with nearly two million likes, Sisyphus’s boulder is accompanied by a flow chart that reads, do you have a problem? Can you do something about it? If the answer is no, the only outcome to the chart is: then why worry?

But stoicism doesn’t just captivate TikTok. Some of our most popular podcasts, namely The Daily Stoic, also celebrate the philosophy. Hosted by Ryan Holiday, author of the New York Times number one bestselling self-help book of the same name, the podcast features audio versions of the Daily Stoic’s email meditation, airing two- to three-minute snippets meant to help us ‘live our best lives’. It sounds simple, but clearly it works – The Daily Stoic boasts 150 million podcast downloads, with a further 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, and 750,000 people following their email newsletter blasts. Along with their meditative prompts, the podcast also interviews high-profile advocates of stoicism, from Matthew McConaughey to Malcolm Gladwell and pop star Camila Cabello.


There are stoicism YouTubers and “influencers” like Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, who embrace the philosophy’s inherent calmness as a way to be more productive at work. Last year London even hosted a “stoicism festival” (Stoicon, as it’s known, takes place in October, at the end of “National Stoic Week”). But as it’s become more popular, it’s possible that the tenets of the philosophy are being lost. One post on the “stoicism” forum on Reddit (with two million members) asks a bewildered community why people, from CEOs to TikTok teens, are suddenly so obsessed with the stoics? At its most fundamental level, it’s probably because stoicism’s ideals are easy to communicate and adapt for the modern world, despite the fact they were developed thousands of years ago.

What actually are those ideals? In a nutshell, 2024 stoicism is all about not letting things upset us, but making judgments about how to deal with negative emotions (fear, anger, jealousy) and realising that other people’s actions and beliefs about us are not things we can control. And, if we can’t control something, then we shouldn’t waste our time worrying about it. It’s all about being clear-headed, rational, unselfish and having integrity in our beliefs. It encourages us to think carefully about time, a precious resource, and how we spend it – and crucially, who we spend it with. Rather than ignoring, avoiding or crumbling when faced with the negative experiences we’ll all encounter in life, stoicism encourages us to see pain instead as an opportunity for growth. Think turning lemons into lemonade, but make it more ... Latin.

If all that seems difficult to define, then that’s perhaps why stoicism-via-social-media relies mainly on quotes from the philosophy’s biggest players. Expect to see lots of inspirational Instagram graphics featuring wisdom like “we suffer more in imagination than in reality” (from Seneca), “you have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength” (from Marcus Aurelius) and “let your desires be ruled by reason” (from Cicero – who was technically more of a sceptic than a stoic, but the internet has never let details get in the way of a good re-gram). Online stoicism’s favourite diktat is one you’ve undoubtedly read already, probably in the form of “be kind” – it’s so ubiquitous that you might be unaware that it can allegedly be traced back to Socrates, the man himself, who said, depending on the translation, “be nicer than necessary to everyone you meet. Everyone is fighting some kind of battle”. Yes, the motto you’ve seen on chalkboards and embroidered throw pillows came from the stoics.

By this point you’ll realise that stoicism, in its current Zoomer/millennial iteration, is closer to what we might think of as “wellness” than any kind of classicist philosophy. The writer Brigid Delaney, who created Netflix’s Wellmania, has written about the overlap between wellness and stoicism at length. Her 2022 book Reasons Not To Worry: How To Be A Stoic In Chaotic Times depicts stoicism as a modern-day “medicine”, much like the ancients treated it, and use it to advocate for rational thinking. Quoting the Roman stoic Epictetus – who wrote “within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing” – Delaney simplifies it further. If it’s in our control, we can think about it. If it’s out of our control, we shouldn’t be wasting our time and energy worrying about it.

“A colleague is in a bad mood and snapping at me? Her mood is not in my control – but my response to her mood is,” she writes. “Inflation is causing a spike in the cost of living? I can’t control inflation – but to some extent I can adjust my spending. Stoicism is useful if you’re making a case to your boss for a pay rise. You can’t control their decision – but you can control that you try your best in your job, therefore strengthening your case for better pay.” The stoics, at heart, wanted us to avoid suffering twice; once in worrying about what might happen, and second in the instance after it does happen to us. As Seneca said (on TikTok and in the history books), “we are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in the imagination than reality”.

Is this a flattening of a concept that you might have spent years studying at university? Is it merely platitudes for a social media audience that will absorb quotes fleetingly before scrolling on to the next thing? Well ... yes. But perhaps a better question is, is that a bad thing? So stoicism is having a moment. As Aurelius or Socrates might say, so what? Compared to other social media trends that tend to dominate our timelines and column inches – silly positive thinking fads like “lucky girl syndrome”, for example, which encourages us to merely think that good things will happen, ignore all worries and negative thought patterns and hope for the best – stoicism is less flimsy in its application to the often toxic arena that is “wellness culture”. Stoicism doesn’t say we have to lose weight or give up smoking or go to Pilates three times a week or spend a fortune on anti-ageing products. Nor does it advocate for passively hoping for the best, for the universe to deliver for us.

Instead it advocates individual responsibility for what we can control, and tries to ease our anxiety about what we can’t. For a generation frequently accused of being lazy and entitled, and a generation that are frequently derided for being anxious and depressed about the state of the society they’re just embarking on adulthood into, this can only be a good thing. If we’re going to be glued to our phones forever – and it looks like we might be – then why not look at something positive and educational, even if it’s not the nuanced take on stoicism that the classicists might like us to understand fully? Thousands of years of philosophy can’t be wrong, even if the ancients didn’t know the horrors the For You Page would unleash upon our lives. What they did know was timeless: we can’t control the world, we never have and we never will. What we can control is our reaction to the uncontrollable chaos of it all. A comforting task in theory, a Sisyphean task in practice.