Can visualizing the most horrible things happening to us paradoxically make us happier and more appreciative of what we have? Ancient stoics thought so. But were they right?
Life has a funny way of tricking us. It does so by making us believe that we can attain happiness by figuring out what we want and then devising an effective plan to attain it.
This, of course, is what everyone does. You do it, and I do it too. Because it works. Any philosophy in life advocates this two-step program. The only problem with this approach is that the happiness attained is short-lived. There is no goal that can permanently satisfy us. Our desires are insatiable. There’s always that next promotion, sale, victory or sexier partner to aim for. Our hunger never dies.
This inbuilt pattern of hunger and adaptation is known as hedonic adaptation. Put simply, it means that we quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. It’s why in the long run lottery winners aren’t any happier and why paraplegics aren’t any unhappier than they were before those events.
That might sound like the biggest pile of horse shit, but it’s true.
Hedonic adaptation causes us to get used to new things in a matter of days or weeks, and before we know it, the new thing has become part of our new baseline for happiness. The thing we used to desire to make us happy turns quickly into yet another requirement for us to even feel normal.
Think about coffee. When you first started drinking coffee in the mornings, you were delighted by the jolt the caffeine gave you. But now coffee has lost its magic and you need your fix every morning just so that your morning isn’t a complete disaster.
This is how so many of us become jaded, numb and indifferent to all the great things in our lives. We start taking things for granted and spend all our time thinking of new things we want instead of appreciating the things we already have.
Here’s comedian Louis CK’s classic take on hedonic adaptation and our inability to appreciate what we have.
We all have so much to be grateful for. We live in the safest, healthiest and wealthiest time in human history. Yet we take all the incredible advances in science, technology, safety and convenience for granted. We’re just as miserable as we were before and we keep demanding more and more, as if that’s the answer to our unhappiness. But clearly, it’s not.
Fortunately, we’re not the first generation to deal with the problem of hedonic adaptation. A potential solution comes from as far back as the 3rd century BC from ancient stoic philosophers who used a technique to override this inbuilt adaption process and rekindle the contentment we seek in each moment. They called this technique negative visualization, and it’s what I am going to be practicing for the next 30 days.
What is Negative Visualization?
Negative visualization is based on the idea that everything we have – our health, our possessions, our relationships – is just loaned to us. They’re not ours to actually possess.
The technique involved in negative visualization requires spending some time each day imagining that you have lost the things you value most. Imagine, for example, that you have lost your job and are kicked out of your home because you can’t pay your bills, that your child or partner has just died, that you’ve contracted a terrible illness or lost a limb or the ability to see or hear.
Well that’s just a barrel of laughs, isn’t it?
It sounds bleak, but the stoics knew what they were doing. Their key insight was that adaptation diminishes our enjoyment of the world and that negative visualization brings it back. Contemplating the transient nature of life and everything in it helped the stoics rekindle their appreciation and enjoyment of life.
In fact, despite this morbid practice – or perhaps because of it – stoics were extremely positive, friendly and happy people. Similarly, Bhutan, a country where people contemplate death up to five times each day is considered one of the happiest countries on earth.
So there must be something to this practice. According to stoics, there are a number of benefits that result from the practice of negative visualization:
1. Appreciation of what you already have
One of the greatest Stoic philosophers, Epictetus instructed parents to contemplate the death of their child every time they kissed them. On the face of it, this kind of advice seems ghastly and absurd. But dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that this thought process actually makes you appreciate your child and each moment together with him or her more than ever before. Each moment becomes precious, because you realize it could be your last together.
There is no guarantee that your child will outlive you, yet most of us live as if there is. We believe we’ll have time for our children sometime in the future and therefore take the beauty and preciousness of the present for granted. By reminding yourself that your child may die tomorrow, you will make yourself more appreciative and grateful for each moment you have together.
Negative visualization doesn’t have to just be about people and death. It can be about your possessions too. For example, contemplate what it would be like if you no longer had a bed to sleep in. Sleep one night on the floor if you have to. You will undoubtedly appreciate your bed infinitely more afterwards.
In short, the promise of negative visualization is that you will increase your appreciation and enjoyment of whatever you choose to contemplate losing.
2. Inoculation against fear
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Indeed, the feeling of fear is usually much worse than the worst-case scenario that could actually happen. But because the feeling of fear is so strong – so violent, so personal, so urgent – we usually aren’t able to bypass it with logic. And when we can’t bypass our fears, they end up standing between us and many of the things we want most in life, causing us to live a life of avoidance instead of a life of pursuit.
When you spend time visualizing being stripped of your health, your loved ones or your prized belongings, you are forced to face the emotional impact of your fears. Every time you willingly absorb the emotional blow of those deep-seated fears, you become a little bit more inoculated against them, a little bit more free from their grip.
Many of our fears are thoughts we can’t bare to even think about. But the mere fact that we can’t bare to think about them is exactly why we should think about them. Shining the light of consciousness on fears illuminates their true nature and shows us that they’re usually not the giant boogeymen we thought they were.
The more accustomed you become to facing your fears, the less control they will have over you and your life, making you free to pursue the things you truly want.
3. Becoming more courageous
Usually we spend more time making sure we avoid worst-case scenarios instead of actually thinking what to do if the scenario actually happens. Obviously, we aren’t able to ever fully control external events, so it makes sense to spend at least a little time preparing to deal with negative scenarios.
Negative visualization offers us a way to prepare by forcing us to think through to the end of the scenario. The benefit of this is that if one of those scenarios actually happens, we will be much more prepared to face it and, perhaps more importantly, more capable of taking action instead of being caught on our back foot.
If you have already considered how terrible it would feel to be fired from your job, you will be more prepared to deal with it if it actually happens. You won’t be nearly as shocked by the situation and you won’t need to spend as much time processing the emotional impact of the event. Instead, you will be more likely to be able to direct your focus on what you should do next to make the most out of the terrible situation and move on.
Rules of the challenge
The rules of this challenge are simple. I will spend 5 minutes every day contemplating the loss of everything I hold dear in life – health, relationships, and possessions. The more vividly I can imagine the loss, the more benefit I should receive from this practice.
I don’t have a preset list of things to contemplate. Each day, I will pick something that seems meaningful and roll with the punches from there.
This challenge is ultimately about putting life into perspective by periodically entertaining thoughts about death and loss. Happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a state of mind.
Very few moments in life are perfect in every possible way. But that doesn’t mean those moments are wasted. Some days it rains but you still have to take the dog out. Sometimes your baby keeps you up the night before a big meeting. Not every meal or encounter is going to be mind blowingly great.
And yet, here we are, alive and breathing, in a world that is profoundly beautiful, if only we make it our business to see it for its beauty.