Calm composure even in the midst of difficult or undesirable circumstances.

a.k.a. calmness, tranquility, upekkhā, ataraxia/άταραξία

Complementary virtues

Contrasting vices

  • anxiety
  • frenzy
  • nerves / nervousness
  • stress
  • upset
  • being a worrywort

Virtues possibly in tension


How to acquire or strengthen it

Does anxiety interfere with your serenity? Be careful to attend to both the symptoms (what to do when you’re feeling anxious) and the causes (what brought about your anxiety, is it really necessary, could you be setting boundaries in a way that heads off such things?)

One theory holds that there’s a two-part process to being stressed about something. Part #1 is to distinguish the something s potentially relevant & threatening. Part #2 is to then decide that your coping resources are or may be inadequate to deal with it. It may therefore be useful to examine which part of this seems to be over-active and to address your work to that part in particular. Constructive coping techniques can include changing how you determine which situations are threatening (appraisal-focused), changing the stressful situations themselves (problem-focused), or changing how you cope with your reaction to the stress (emotion-focused).

Environment (e.g. noise, crowding, racial discrimination) can also boost stress. Factors that are correlated with better stress-tolerance: social support, hardiness (commitment + feeling of control + appetite for challenge), and optimism.

See resilience as a way to work on coping resources. It’s good to have a variety of coping strategies (says C. Cheng in papers on “coping flexibility”).

Epictetus (Enchiridion) counseled that you would be wise to examine the things that are distressing you to determine which ones are things that are under your control and which ones aren’t. The ones that aren’t you shouldn’t worry about at all, as worrying won’t do you any good. He recommends:

How do you train yourself not to be anxious? Start with small things. For example, you have spilled something on the carpet or something small is stolen from you. Say to yourself, ‘This is such a small price to pay for tranquility and peace of mind.’

Marcus Aurelius recommended beginning the day with the expectation that something is going to come at you to try to throw you off your game. That way, when it comes, you are prepared and can see it as the challenge you’ve been waiting for. “When you first rise in the morning, tell yourself, ‘I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous, and cranks.’” (Meditations, 2.1)

Notes and links

  • Skills You Need: Stress Tips
  • M.E. Kemeny “The psychobiology of stress” Current Directions in Psychological Science (2003) pp. 124-129 — long-term stress is bad for you
  • C.A. Stratakis & G.P. Chrousos “Neuroendocrinology and pathophysiology of the stress system” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (1995) pp. 1-18 — ditto

Mentioned elsewhere

Inspirational quotes

  • “How much dissatisfied with ourselves, how absent, and how burdensome to ourselves are we after a train of hours which we have trifled away or spent in doing wrong, and how serene, how happy to reflect upon our conduct, and to give audience to our ideas at the close of a well spent day!” ―Baron Knigge
  • “The true felicity of life is to be free from perturbations; to understand our duties toward God and man: to enjoy the present without any anxious dependence upon the future. The great blessings of mankind are within us, and within our reach; but we shut our eyes, and, lie people in the dark, we fall foul upon the very thing we search for without finding it.” ―Seneca
  • “To see a man fearless in dangers, happy in adversity, composed in a tumult, and laughing at all those things which are generally either coveted or feared; all men must acknowledge that this can be nothing else but a beam of divinity that influences a mortal body.” ―Seneca
  • “To bear trials with a calm mind / robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” —Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus
  • “The noble man is calm and serene, the inferior man is continually worried and anxious.” (Analects of Confucius, VII.XXXVI)
  • “He who is free from disturbance within himself also causes no trouble for another.” (from the Vatican collection of Epicurean sayings)
  • “Calm is contagious.” — Navy SEAL maxim