Advice From an Ancient Roman Emperor on Facing the Day Ahead of You

One of the most critical times we face in a day happens just as we are waking up. The thoughts we listen to and the mindset we take on just after opening our eyes will captain the ship of our life throughout the course of the day. Wake up thinking positive thoughts and your day will run more smoothly; wake up thinking negative thoughts and your performance and enjoyment during the day will suffer.

During each day, we encounter people who test our patience and disturb our inner peace. Often, the thought of facing others, especially those who might be toxic for us, makes us want to pull the sheets over our heads and go back to sleep. Negative thoughts of these encounters can dull the shine of an otherwise bright day ahead.

So how do we capture those thoughts during our waking moments and turn them into a positive start to our day? Let’s look towards Ancient Rome to find an answer:

A Roman Emperor’s Advice on First Thoughts in the Morning

Marcus Aurelius is widely considered as the last of Ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors. He is best remembered for his contributions to philosophy as one of the most influential Stoics. His insights on living a positive life given over 1,800 years ago are still very relevant today.

Here is what Marcus Aurelius offers as self-talk at the beginning of each day to maintain maximum sanity and inner peace, taken from his Meditations (translated by Gregory Hays):

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but of the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”

While this may sound harsh to some, remember that he was an emperor and had to deal with all sorts of people. While you can certainly change up many of the adjectives he used in regards to those who grate on you, the basic tenants of working together in community remain the same.

But what if it is not toxic people who turn your morning thoughts towards negativity? What if your workday is the cause of foreboding in your first waking moments? Marcus Aurelius offers some insight here, too.

Marcus Aurelius’ Advice on Preparing for the Workday

Before we get to the emperor’s advice on preparing for the workday, it is important to understand the impact of positive or negative morning thoughts on our day and its outcome.

A 2015 Study by Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk, published in the Academy of Management Journal, provides evidence that the way a person feels when they start their workday can have a significant impact on how their day unfolds. In the study, customer service representatives (CSRs) who started their workday with positive emotions handled calls more quickly and more competently and were less affected by negative customer behavior. CSRs who started the day with negative emotions experienced the opposite effects.

Psychologist Ronald Riggio says that this is the takeaway: “a negative start can make it hard to part the clouds for the rest of the day, making work and healthy interactions more of a challenge. Starting the day on a positive note can lighten up your whole day and help you to perform demonstrably better.” This is applicable to any type of work, whether in an office, at a construction site, or within the home.

So what does our good emperor Marcus Aurelius have to say about a positive perspective for the workday?

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”

He goes on to say in another meditation:

“When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic— what defines a human being — is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one — more innate and more satisfying.”

The struggles and insights from the ancients are still relevant to us today. How we let our day unfold can, in large part, depend on how we focus our thoughts first upon waking. By focusing on the positive and keeping a firm perspective on who we are and what we are meant to do, our day can become pleasurable and uplifting, a bulwark against those who are unpleasant or toxic to us.


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