Finding the Good by Focusing on the Bad? The Surprisingly Useful Practice of the Stoics

We are always told to focus on the positive and be grateful for what we have, but this is hard to do. Our pre-wired evolutionary instincts make us always want more. That’s how cave men survived and got ahead, and that’s why after a few weeks that new car, guitar, or boyfriend doesn’t continue to fill us with joy and satisfaction. The fancy term is hedonic adaptation (so called by Psychologists Frederick and Loewenstein). After we get what we want, we simply get used to it. Then we think of something else we want. Recently, I’ve tried a new daily practice that has been quite powerful in counteracting this feeling. Yet it goes against current conventional wisdom. Based on the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, it’s called “negative visualization.” While new-age ideas like The Law of Attraction say that our thoughts manifest our world, and therefore we should think positive, negative visualization encourages us to sprinkle our day with short reflections on all the horrible things that could happen. It sounds like a recipe for anxiety, worry, and despair. At first, I was skeptical. But it works. Here’s how to do it.

Negative Visualization as practiced by The Stoics is not a lesson in becoming a worry-wort. It’s actually a very practical way to re-focus your attitude and help you embrace the moment. Where it helps the most, I’ve found, is in nurturing a sense of gratitude and re-framing the mundane or average moments of life into something spectacular. Here’s an example.

Recently, I took my kids ice-skating. My boys brought their hockey sticks. My daughter, after a few minutes on the ice, switched to her boots and climbed the snow banks. It was typical weekend stuff. I did not have skates, so I enjoyed watching them…for a few minutes. Then I got cold. Next I got bored. Eventually, cold and bored had a baby named annoyed. Annoyed had a twin named grumpy. As time went by, grumpy and annoyed started to stomp their feet and whine, “I’m cold and bored. When do I get to do something I want to do?”

Suddenly I dropped in some negative visualization. I imagined the loss of my children. I visualized the end of my very rich life. For fear of jinxing it, I won’t go into details of all the horrors my imagination is capable of. But after a few seconds of Stephen King-style day-dreaming, I returned to the ice and my kids with this powerful sense of gratitude and pleasure. I laughed in delight at my little girl’s three-hundred-and-fortieth request for me to watch her slide down the tiny hill she’d built. I felt like I had stepped into the finale of It’s a Wonderful Life. I was in tears, on the ground, kissing the earth.

Then I made them get in the car.

We humans are a restless and unhappy lot even when we get what we want. That’s hedonic adaptation at work. No cave man was rewarded in an evolutionary sense for sitting back and smelling the flowers. We evolved to crave more and survived because of it. The Stoics believed negative visualization could help us step off this carousel of desire. Negative visualization reminds us to embrace what we have in front of us because it too will pass.

The practice has helped me at work as well. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not always doing cartwheels of delight on my way into the classroom. But after a quick, thirty-second reflection on getting fired, foreclosing on my house, working in a coal mine for twelve hours a day, I’m smiling at my students, grateful for the niche I’ve found.

Essentially, with negative visualization, you’re playing Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, hanging out with the Ghost of Christmas Future for a few seconds before you quickly wake yourself up and run off to save Tiny Tim.

It’s important to remember that this practice is not about worrying. Sitting on a beach while on vacation worrying if your house is burning down is not productive. You cannot do anything about that. That’s useless worry and anxiety. The Stoics focused only on what was in their control. You can’t control the future. But if you’re sitting on a beach annoyed at the clouds overhead, perhaps you need to take a moment to imagine how much worse it could be, and then you’ll appreciate the beach more.

The key is to take the situation you’re in, the one you’re failing to appreciate at this moment, and use negative visualization to rekindle your gratitude. When I get down about our tiny, drafty house, I visualize a tornado taking it out, and suddenly I’m grateful for my castle. 

The Stoics thought negative visualization was most useful in preparing for the death of our loved ones. As William Irvine points out in his great book on Stoicism, A Guide to the Good Life, it is not a pleasant thing to imagine the death of a loved one, especially a child. But which parent will have fewer regrets, the one who imagines their child’s potential death and therefore fully embraces every second they have together? Or the one who refuses to think of such things and takes their time together for granted?

Again, if you become neurotically consumed with fear, then you’ve taken the practice in the wrong direction. Surprisingly, the fruits of negative visualization can be pleasure, joy, and lightheartedness. The more I build it into small moments of my day, the happier I feel.

Stoic’s believe negative visualization is actually a good way to build a healthy amount of detachment and preparedness for disaster. Not only do I appreciate my little house much more after I’ve contemplated it’s destruction by a tornado, I’ve also prepared myself a bit for it’s destruction. If it is eventually wiped out, I’ll be a little more accepting. Plus I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I appreciated it while it was around.

As the saying goes, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. This practice is supposed to save you from this fate.

As a caveat, I believe this practice only works when you do it with yourself. Nothing is worse than when you tell someone your troubles and they reply with that awful cliche of the un-compassionate: “Well, it could be worse.”

Don’t take my word for it. Take the practice on a test run yourself. Start with mundane or mildly unpleasant moments when you’re feeling that general existential angst we all get. Visualize a much worse scenario. Then see how you feel when you return to the moment.

Of course, Negative Visualization can be useful with young people, too. Kids are the worst when it comes to hedonic adaptation. By the end of the holiday season, my kids think Christmas cookies are a food group and every adult on the planet owes them a present. It’s not like you want to sit down with your kids and have them imagine the world ending. But there are some good, kid-friendly documentaries out there, like HBO’s “What’s Going On?” series, that highlight some of the struggles of children in other parts of the world, including kids in Brazil who pick through trash for a living and girls in India who work instead of attending school. This might be a little bit of what they need in order to appreciate their own lives.

Next week from The Stoics: the uses of adversity. Why making yourself (and your kids) suffer (a little) can promote happiness.

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 Tall Trees Grow Deep is about sharing resources that inspire mindfulness, contemplation, creativity, compassion, and AWEsomeness in our young people. Explore our free resources. Get our e-book of classroom or kitchen table activities for free by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter.

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8 Comments

  1. This is a particularly well timed post for me. Thank you for writing.

    I vividly remember practicing this concept when I was a runner. Somehow I knew my running ability wouldn’t last forever (and it ended around age 27 due to neck pain) so I decided that each run could be my last and so each run was that much more pleasurable. I enjoyed runs in the bold landscapes of Spain, Italy, and Switzerland. I regularly hugged trees on my runs. I really appreciated that my feet and legs and arms worked and that my eyes and other senses were able to take in such beauty.
    LIfe was simpler then without owning a house, having kids, and keeping up a job and marriage but the experiment worked no less.

    I will apply this to marriage, parenting, work, and homeowning…. heck even paying my bills and see how it works. I think it will do wonders.

    thank you!
    best,
    Michelle

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  2. I briefly just imagined a life with no Annamarie this morning as I dreaded throwing another birthday party for her and using up a day off on cooking and cleaning up after kids and entertaining them. I was so glad to celebrate my daughters life…and that she has some good friends who play well together.

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    1. Nicely said. It’s brave to admit, but some days it’s very hard to remember how special those moments are when they become normal and feel like work. I was with the boys on a snow pile today, and I was so sick of playing Lord of the Rings again that I wanted to kill myself off. A little negative visualization did bring me back…at least for the moment.

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  3. I’m always telling my kids: Drama, they do it because your friends love drama. And they do! Annamarie’s 11 year old friends and even Felicity’s 7 year old friends in class create drama over such little things because they are bored, I believe, and want some excitement or attention in school.

    Like

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