Monday, March 25, 2013

Stoicism and quitting smoking (part 1)

I decided to write a post on this topic because we get a few hits every week from people searching for information on the Stoic approach to quitting smoking.

There are three common approaches to quitting smoking : 1) Cutting down, 2) NRT and 3) Will power.

I think cutting down is the hardest possible approach.  It seems logical:  ween yourself off nicotine by gradually reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke. But any smoker who has tried this method will know the agony of rationing the remaining quota of cigarettes and counting the minutes until you can smoke again.  For non-smokers, try to imagine being very hungry and sitting in the kitchen watching a timer tick down while smelling the delicious food cooking in the oven.  That's how a smoker feels every day while trying the cutting down method.  Nicotine is a drug addiction and your body builds up a certain level of tolerance for the drug over time meaning you need to smoke more and more in order to satisfy your cravings.  This is why cutting down generally doesn't work.  Going cold turkey is in my opinion easier. 

NRT (nicotine replacement therapy) also appears logical.  You replace cigarettes with another form of nicotine such as patches, gums, mints etc which are less harmful and then gradually reduce your intake until you are free.  But the problem is people remain addicted to nicotine and may become addicted to the nicotine replacement. I've read stories of people using patches to overcome their addiction to nicotine mints.   But the bigger flaw however is that the desire to smoke is still there.  I quit for six months using nicotine mints.  Then one day I walked into a shop and bought 20 Marlborough light thinking 'Sure I already quit six months ago. I'll smoke these, enjoy myself and stop again'.  Only it wasn't that easy.  A colleague quit for three months using NRTs before doing the exact same thing as me. 

Will power is probably the most common method. Here you just say 'I won't smoke ever again' and try to stick to it. This method just suffers from the problems of both other methods and I think people need strong motivation such as a health scare to quit smoking using pure will power. 

So what is a possible Stoic approach to quitting smoking? To answer we must first understand the Stoic concept of the human mind :
All living creatures process the dual facility of impulse and impression, that is, the facility of responding to the external world. Assent, meaning ‘go along with’ or ‘to commit oneself’ is evaluating the truth-value of impressions. It is a facility of the mind that deals with both cognitive powers and character. 
Perhaps strangely  the Stoics argued impulse will follow assent, that is, they see cognitive facility as a mediating factor between stimulation (impressions) and impulse (desire). If the mind declines to assent, the impulse remains inactive. This may sound overly rational but remember willpower and choice are alien to Stoicism. Assent is both conscious and unconscious. Impressions are evaluated and if found false, we will not desire them. [link]

In summary: As self-aware and reasoning creatures, we have ability to examine impressions received from our senses and if our reason dictates the impressions are false, we will not feel any desire to perform the action.  So one possible Stoic approach to quitting smoking is to target the actual desire to smoke.  We do that by analyzing why we smoke in the first place, which I will do in [part 2].

“Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire.” - Epictetus. 

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