In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Find joy and rest in one thing alone: in moving from one socially useful act to another, while remaining mindful of God.” (6.7)
In general, Marcus, like other Stoics, wrote about being indifferent to both pleasure and pain, and hardly touched on the question of whether the good life is pleasant. However, if there would be one kind of pleasure Marcus could allow himself, it would be precisely this one — to engage in one selfless action toward another with God in mind. That’s where he found both happiness and stillness.
Marcus again emphasized on this idea in Book 12: “Salvation in life comes from always seeing everything as it really is, by distinguishing its matter and its cause, and from wholeheartedly doing right and speaking truth. Then all that’s left is to enjoy a life of linking one good deed with another, leaving not the slightest gap between them.” (12.29)
This reminds me of the anecdote where Jerry Seinfeld, the widely popular American stand-up comedian, was approached by a young aspiring comic named Brad Isaac who asked him for tips on how he could become a better comedian. Seinfeld said that the way to become a better comic was to come up with better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every single day. He told him about a unique calendar system that he used that kept him accountable for writing every day. He asked him to get a big wall calendar that had the entire year on one page and hang it on a wall that was visible to him at all times. The next thing he asked was to get a big red marker. He told him that for each day he completes his task of writing, he gets to put a big red X over that day. After a few days, he'll have a big red chain appearing on the calendar. He asked him to keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. As time passes, he'll like the sight of his growing chain. Seinfeld then told him, “Your only job now is to never break that chain.” He emphasized by repeating it again: “Don't break the chain.”
This technique highlights that the easiest way to consistently produce new and engaging work (jokes in the above case) is to transform your work sessions into a simple habit. Success, then, becomes a function of momentum. The more you create, the easier it gets to keep going, and the better you get at your craft.
While Seinfeld employed the chain method to create better comic material, we can use this tactic, as suggested by Marcus, to perform good deeds on a daily basis.
We humans are naturally virtuous beings. In another book of Meditations (Book 7), Marcus tells us, “Dig inside yourself. Inside you, there’s a wellspring of goodness, which is capable of gushing all the time, as long as you keep digging.” (7.59) If you choose, you can perform as many noble deeds as you wish. There’s absolutely no limit!
Why not choose to prioritize a kind, unselfish act every day and start a chain of goodness? Start with one day helping an elderly neighbor carry their groceries, or giving away some spare change to a homeless person on the street, or doing any other selfless activity you come up with. Then, do the same the following day, the day after that, and keep doing it. Build your own chain and then work not to break it. The longer your streak, the more delight and tranquility you’ll bring into your life.