We’re continuing our exploration of Stoic wisdom from William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life, with the practice of negative visualization. Irvine says that “…the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.” This practice involves visualizing the worst that can happen, to prompt us to pay more attention to what we have. Doing this gives us a better perspective on our lives and helps us be happy.

One perspective we gain is being proactive and preventing negative things from happening. If we invest our money wisely, then we may prevent losing it. Seneca points out a second perspective: we lessen the impact the negative event has on us. We may lose part of our money, but not as much as we would have lost had we not invested wisely. A third important perspective we gain is knowing that humans tend to be insatiable. We work hard for what we want and routinely lose interest in the objects of our desire. Then we repeat this cycle by working hard again and losing interest again. Irvine suggests that without this perspective we’re on a “satisfaction treadmill”.

Stoics look for ways to reverse this treadmill by cultivating a desire for the things we already have through negative visualization. What exists in our lives today? This would include comforts, challenges, and relationships. That cup of coffee or restful night’s sleep are comforts we can take for granted, thinking they’ll always be part of our lives. But they could be taken away. We may develop insomnia and have to quit drinking coffee in order to sleep. We’re appreciative and more present for our coffee and sleep by visualizing this negative possibility.

Challenges can also be appreciated. We tend to forget this when climbing, getting frustrated when it’s hard. Rather, we can be thankful that we have the ability to engage in a challenging climb. We could lose this ability if we become incapacitated. We’re more present for the challenges and can appreciate them more by visualizing this negative possibility. We also cultivate a desire for the relationships we already have. Epictetus counsels that we should visualize relationships coming to an end. We should reflect on the fact that when we kiss a child goodbye in the morning, that it may be the last time. Therefore, enjoy that moment. We may never have another opportunity to kiss the child. We’re appreciative and more present for the child by visualizing this negative possibility.

The Stoic practice of negative visualization seems pessimistic, but as Irvine suggests, it turns us into “full-blown optimists. We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees the glass as being half full rather than half empty. For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point…he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass…to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are. To such persons, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass, and it is half empty to boot.”

It’s important to remember that negative visualization doesn’t equate to worrying. The former is active; we visualize negative outcomes to change our behavior, take action, and alter them. We use our attention actively. Worrying is passive. We ruminate about the negative possibilities. We allow our attention to dwell on the negative outcomes without taking any action.

The main benefit of negative visualization, from a mental training perspective, is its effect on our attention. Instead of striving for happiness in the future, we focus in the present, finding happiness now. Doing this keeps us present and appreciative for the comforts, challenges, and relationships that we delight in. We’re happy and appreciative that we have lives to be lived now.

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