Turning 40 – thoughts on the virtuous life, self indulgence, and cheap dopamine

December 16, 2022

The dentist drill whines.

A puff of smoke floats past my eyes.

After a minute, the smell of burning enamel.

The dentist and the hygienist hover over me, in facemasks and protective goggles, drilling out the pulp, filing down the nerves.

Eventually, they have to inject the spaces inside my roots with citric acid, then alcohol, then citric acid, then alcohol. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

This part takes the better part of an hour, and the dental dam is leaking.

I try to detach and remain calm, but all the while, my throat is filling up with spit, blood and acid.

I can’t speak, so I gurgle a protest, and the hygienist sucks the fluid out with her little vacuum. Momentary relief. But it happens again. And again.

It’s my first root canal. I’ve just turned forty, and let me tell you: so far, it’s not going well.

Finally they stop the bleeding. Next there’s the hot poker round, in which they heat up a pointy piece of metal with a blowtorch and jab me with it.

When we’re done, I ask the dentist: “So when you said this wasn’t going to hurt at all, that was quite an exaggeration, wasn’t it?”

She shrugs. “Pues, ya ves.”

Pretty non-committal, this one.

I leave the office after two and a half hours, with a strange plaster substitute for my old molar, 500€ poorer and feeling like I’ve just been physically and emotionally abused.

Getting old… it really makes you think

Or at least it makes me think. Most guys my age are probably better at dealing with these things in the “normal” ways: distracting themselves with mindless entertainment, video games, hookers and blow. Maybe they go out and buy a sports car.

Not me, though. Leaving the dentist, I go out and pick up a book on Stoic philosophy. Cicero’s On Living and Dying Well.

I need a drink. And a couple of hours alone to process what just happened.

Judging from the new joint pains I’ve been feeling, and the fact that my routine dental check-up just turned into a much more expensive and bloody endeavor than planned, it would appear that this new decade of my life might be a bit different than the previous one.

man turning 40
Pico de Abantos in Madrid, a few years ago.

Anyway, on the topic of old age, here’s a Cicero quote:

The best Armour of Old Age is a well spent life preceding it; a Life employed in the Pursuit of useful Knowledge, in honourable Actions and the Practice of Virtue.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (103 BC – 43 BC)

Well, that certainly doesn’t sound like anybody I know. Words like honor and virtue, actually, seem pretty antiquated, and not exactly in step with the prevailing philosophy of the times.

In centuries past, presumably, you might be complimented by your peers on your character or integrity. Being “serious” might be considered a positive. These days, though, it seems like most people would prefer to be thought of as cute, popular, nice or “fun”.

Just imagine the following conversation:

Person A: You should really go out with my friend Daniel. He’s got a lot of character.

Person B: What, you mean he’s ugly?

Person A: No, his character. Integrity. You know. Honor. Nobility of spirit. All the old-school virtues.

Person B: OMG he’s definitely ugly! I can’t believe you’re trying to hook me up with your ugly friends now. What did I ever do to you?

And so on. Maybe there’s a Christian dating app where people use the word “character” in their profiles, unironically. And maybe there are cultures around the world where these things are still valued… The nomadic herders of Mongolia, perhaps.

But us modern, secular Westerners, card-carrying members of the cult of Romantic Consumerism, would rather buy all the stuff and feel all the feels than sit around exercising self-control and developing an Aristotelian “greatness of soul”. Because where’s the fun in that?

Well, as I’ve mentioned before, and actually suspected for quite a while now, “fun” is largely an empty pursuit. At least it’s never appealed much to me.

So what is this Practice of Virtue, exactly?

In the Cicero quote above, he says that the best way to arrive at old age is the Practice of Virtue as a younger person. But what does that mean, really?

It’d be easy to gloss over the word “virtue” as generally “being a good person”.

Online (and offline) virtue signalling seems to be mostly about that: I’m a good person because I parrot all the acceptable political views, fret about climate change (or whatever), and pay sufficient lip-service to “tolerance”…

In any case, it doesn’t involve actually doing much. It’s barely a practice.

Not Cicero, but Marcus Aurelius, another great Stoic. Photo by Nicholas Hartmann, CC BY-SA 4.0

And of course, being a “good person” can mean very different things for different groups of people.

Personally, I try not to base my life on ambiguous buzzwords, so “good person” in itself doesn’t do much for me. And neither does “Practice of Virtue” without a lot of clarification.

Luckily, Cicero (elsewhere) explains what he means by Virtue – in fact, he lists four Stoic virtues, which I’ll paraphrase here. The original, of course, is in Latin, so forgive me if I don’t pick up all the nuances.

Cicero’s Four Virtues are:

  • Wisdom (knowing what is good vs evil, and being able to choose good).
  • Justice (contributing to the common good and not harming others).
  • Courage (a noble and unconquerable spirit).
  • Temperance (AKA moderation or, if you prefer, discipline).

That also sounds quaintly old-timey, but at least it’s specific. The problem is that nothing in my upbringing or culture seems to value these things.

The word “virtue” itself sounds, at best, like you’re about to get some long scolding about abstinence from someone’s Puritanical aunt.

And the idea of “controlling your passions” and resisting temptation clashes with literally everything about life in a consumer society.

“Bro, relax. Stop striving for excellence of character and have a few cupcakes. Indulge yourself!” Such seems to be the reigning philosophy – because honestly, what kind of square sits around conquering his passions when there’s so much FUN to be had?

So what about those four virtues?

It’s interesting to note that if you dig in, the words wisdom, courage, justice and temperance have specific meanings that aren’t exactly what you might be expecting.

Wisdom, for example, is more than just knowing information: it’s knowing how to act. You can learn knowledge from a wise man, but you can’t learn his wisdom – that comes from experience. Knowing what’s in your control, what’s not, and how to act on the things you can impact.

Justice, in ancient Greece and Rome, meant something different than it does today – something along the lines of “make sure everyone gets their due”. Needless to say, in a violent society run by aristocrats, with slavery, gladiatorial spectacles and feeding Christians to lions, it didn’t mean “equality”, “social justice” or even “fairness” in the sense we now think of it. It also includes an admonition to help the public good, and do no harm, but those things were also understood rather differently two thousand years ago.

Courage seems a bit more self-explanatory, but then again, what does “a noble and unconquerable spirit” mean if your life consists of working in an office, shopping in a mall, and sleeping in a climate-controlled house? Probably not much. The Brené Browns of the world would suggest that it has to do with honestly expressing your feelings… Because these days, we’re hardly (most of us) going off on long journeys to slay a dragon or wage war against Gaul. For a lot of people, I suppose courage just amounts to things like asking your boss for a raise, or going up to talk to that girl you like.

Temperance, AKA discipline or moderation, still seems fairly popular – at least among some. If you take it to include things like going to the gym, giving up drugs, and putting down the donuts, a lot of people would agree. But moderation is harder today than it’s ever been. The Greeks and Romans lived in a world without a lot of cheap dopamine. They didn’t have Instagram, they didn’t have Call of Duty or frappuccinos. They certainly didn’t have companies lobbying the government for the right to call ultra-processed sugary snacks “part of a healthy diet”. Apart from wine and prostitutes, they probably had to earn most of their fun the hard way.

The modern devil is cheap dopamine. Photo by Courtney Cook on Unsplash

Still, the four virtues seem worth keeping in mind, even though the social situation has changed. Moderation will help you live a long life, courage will help you get what you want, and wisdom and justice will ensure that you have a good reputation. All good things.

But will they make you happy?

How to achieve happiness – a Stoic view

The cultural conversation about happiness has also changed in the last couple of millennia.

Whereas these days, we’re told that happiness comes from external sources – good things happen to you, therefore, you feel happy – the Stoics had things the other way around. Seneca thought that the happy life was achieved not through bodily enjoyment, but once again, through the use of reason and the practice of virtue. And Aristotle said about the same thing, that eudaemonia was the product of virtuous activity in accordance with reason.

And consider Seneca’s letter On Festivals and Fasting, in which he suggests practicing poverty:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD)

This practice, Seneca assumes, will train the spirit to face future situations of difficulty and deprivation, which will make you better at dealing with stress in your normal day-to-day. Many religious traditions suggest something similar: everyone from Buddhists to Mormons to Jewish people and Muslims fast from time to time as part of their spiritual practice.

(Incidentally, I’ve been doing some fasting myself lately, and it’s definitely useful if you want to create some self-discipline. Turns out, it’s mostly mental. My recommendation: get the Zero app for Android or iPhone. It’s a simple fasting timer, and it’s great.)

In any case, the Stoics weren’t waiting around for good things to happen before they allowed themselves to be happy – they were finding happiness within themselves, through the practice of virtue… often despite what was going on in their tumultuous times.

Personal development and the hedonic treadmill

All this sounds a bit different than the goals of self-help or personal development promoted by popular gurus these days: rather than cultivating character, most will help you achieve more worldly aims: set better goals, manage your time, earn more money, or develop better abs…

Pursuits which, it is assumed, will make you happy.

Otherwise, they might suggest ways you could be happy without any of that – don’t worry, just meditate! But most gurus stop far short of offering a moral prescription or demanding that anyone practice specific virtues.

Buddhas in Bangkok, photo by Dr Ondrej Havelka, CC BY-SA 4.0.

A glance at the popular self-help books on Amazon makes it clear that most people want to learn about self-love, self-care, how to “be a badass”, “let sh*t go” and “not give a f*ck”.

Also, this is not really my scene, but from what I’ve heard, even a lot of modern American Christianity has devolved into thinly-disguised self-help, which focuses on “be a nice person” and “don’t worry, be happy” type messages rather than giving any serious instruction about what to do in difficult moral situations.

All of which may be useful to some… but it’s certainly not Aristotelian.

However, everyone from the Stoics to Jesus and the Buddha would at least partially agree that “not giving a f*ck” is an important life strategy – they just wouldn’t express it that way.

(Maybe Mark Manson could re-write the New Testament to make it appeal to younger people. “And Jesus spoke: Consider the fucking lilies of the field, how those fuckers grow. They work not their asses off, nor do they join some fucking knitting circle, but I’ll be goddamned of those motherfuckers don’t look fly as shit.” Coming soon to every airport bookstore on the planet.)

So can you be fulfilled just by achieving goals?

Or by not giving a f*ck about goals at all?

Here’s my view: I’ve spent some time in my life meditating (though not much recently), and plenty of energy achieving worldly goals, and I agree that both are good things.

But achievement can easily lead one to the hedonic treadmill, where you need bigger goals every six months to avoid the feeling of emptiness. And meditating to transcend your desires takes years of practice, and you’re always in danger of using “spirituality” as an excuse to become some useless bohemian who just gets high all the time and doesn’t care about anything.

In other words, I don’t think achievement and / or not giving a fuck is all a person needs, in the long term. Which is why I’m writing this, and spending the first weeks of my 40s thinking about capital-V Virtue.

Humility, self-esteem and countercultures

David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, writes…

The social system we are part of pushes us to live out one sort of insufficient external life. But we have […] time to rectify it. The question is how. The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture. The answer must be to join a counterculture.

David Brooks.

Elsewhere in the book, he talks about people from previous centuries who accomplished big things despite being generally self-effacing and humble – people who certainly practiced the four Stoic virtues, and didn’t want to make it “all about me”. People who served something larger than themselves, and who intentionally chose work that couldn’t be completed in a single lifetime.

All this he describes in contrast to the philosophy of “the age of the selfie”, in which everyone considers themselves special, and building a healthy self-esteem out of nothing at all seems like a worthy goal.

Boxing on the beach here in Barcelona.

(Personally, I’m overjoyed every time I read something about how mainstream psychology is now deciding that self-esteem is bullshit. I’ve always thought that anyone who’s capable of sitting around loving themselves for no reason was some sort of dangerous and delusional maniac. And the author of the above-linked article – a real psychologist, by the way – comes to the same conclusion I have: self-discipline is way better than self-esteem.)

Turning 40: Welcome to the second half of your life…

Friends in their 40s have assured me it’s the best decade – mostly, they say, because you can “do whatever you want”. Doing whatever I want, however, is how I spent most of my 30s, and it (largely) seems to be a dead end.

What I mean is, it’s fine for a younger person than myself, and for a limited number of years. But at some point I started to think I’d had enough self-indulgence for one lifetime.

In fact, for a while it’s been pretty clear that most people (myself included) need more struggle rather than less. We need to do some hard things, right some wrongs, and practice courage, even – especially – when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

And with the right mix of courage, justice and temperance, we might eventually achieve the wisdom of old age.

One friend said something that stuck with me more: that it’s a privilege to reach this age at all. It’s true. We all know people who haven’t made it to 40. I know people who didn’t even make it to 20.

People in my family tend to live a long time. But of course, nothing is guaranteed.

Either way, I’m most likely about to enter the second half of my life.

And I’m planning to make it a good one.

Virtuously yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If all this seems like a rather masculine point of view, that’s because it is. However, when I googled “turning 40” most of what came up were articles by women worried about wrinkles. Maybe there’s some good reason why women might think about aging differently than men do… but then again, what do I know? I’m not a biologist. (Women, please chime in down there in the comments section.)

P.P.S. My next update, hopefully, will be from India. That’s another story, though. Here’s a few articles I wrote on my previous journey: one about Mumbai adventures, one about two towns in Goa, and finally, some Indian travel tips. Enjoy!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. I appreciate you recognizing the particularly male slant of your piece. Also the exclusively white male thinkers and writers you cite, minus B. Brown… I’m a gay white woman in her 40s, teacher and artist. In addition to still *tending* to do more caregiving of children, women still towards “helping professions” like teaching, nursing, etc. And unfortunately western capitalist society doesn’t value this “pink collar” work as it should……so I think that the practice of savoring (in moderation) the pleasures of the body the senses and prioritizing whatever ludic activities we enjoy for the heck of it can in fact give our lives great meaning and in fact serve as an antidote to dominant cultural values and pressures and stresses of a day-to-day spent largely in the service of others. I think for some people, “self care” in its truest form is a necessary counterbalance in a world that treats them as less than, or even disposable. Here’s to moderation, pursuit of knowledge, and love in various forms as paths to meaning making. I am myself trying to learn more from sources of wisdom outside the Eurocentric canon… I’d love to hear more of your thoughts /reflections on other writers, thinkers, etc. Especially on ethics and interconnection. Congrats on your wedding! And perhaps all you need to sustain you in your midlife refocus is to cultivate the company and friendship of others who, in various ways, try to live more meaningfully.

    1. Hey Rebecca, thanks for your comment. When I get philosophical it’s usually more Buddhist, although I guess I’ve probably quoted Seneca and Marcus Aurelius on here before. And I’m now working on the Bhagavad Gita… but really all these philosophies are saying fairly similar things: don’t take “pleasures of the flesh” too seriously, work to serve others, understand that most things (except your actions / thoughts) are out of your control. And depending on what you mean by interconnection you might check out Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Being Peace”. Anyway, I agree with what you’re saying about self-care… I just don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all philosophy everyone’s going to agree on these days. Thanks again!

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