Negative visualization makes me happy – weird concept, I know.
In a world where positive thinking, gratitude journals, and law-of-attraction-dominated world views reign supreme, it’s almost taboo to admit that you purposely look for how things can go wrong. The idea that thinking about darker possibilities might have some utility, or could even make you happier, seems crazy to many people.
Yet this is a cornerstone meditation of stoicism, a philosophy which has influenced me since I came across the journal of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius when I was a teenager. The Romans called this practice of negative visualization, “premeditatio malorum” (literally, foreseeing bad things). They had some classic suggestions for using it, which I’ve adapted to fit my own needs.
In this article I’ll explore how negative thinking can improve your life, and then give you a few exercises to help you put these ideas into practice.
Enhancing Gratitude With Negative Visualization
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Gratitude is a useful thing, and well-worth contemplating. The ancient stoics emphasized that appreciating what you already have is a good way to find contentment, and modern science has demonstrated that appreciation of what is makes your relationships better, leaves you happier, fights depression, and changes regions of your brain for the better 1
But if you’ve ever tried keeping a gratitude journal for a few weeks and noting things you’re glad to have in your life, you may have noticed a pattern.
After the newness of a relationship, car, job, pay raise, home, or other item wears off, it tends to get harder and harder to appreciate them with actual feeling. It’s one thing to mechanically write it down things you know you should be grateful for in a journal , and it’s another entirely to actually experience gratitude. But no matter how awesome your subject is, it often becomes ho-hum in your mind’s eye as time passes.
A similar phenomenon has been noted by researchers studying life satisfaction after positive occurrences. They’ve dubbed the brief bump in happiness that follows a positive life occurrence the “hedonic treadmill”. This is because our happiness level tends to return to baseline after the newness of the experience wears off, and we don’t seem to continually muster much ongoing enthusiasm for them after awhile 2.
This is where negative thinking makes a big difference.
One of the best way to feel increased gratitude for a thing you already posess is to imagine your life without it. If you have a decent romantic partner, they probably added something positive to your life when they entered it, even if you now take those additions for granted.
If you lost that person, you’d feel the loss of them and their positive contributions to your life.
The stoics urged practitioners to regularly remember that their beloved mates, children, and friends were not theirs, but merely someone they were gifted with for an unknown period of time. Injury, disease, old age, war, or shifting social dynamics can steal your most precious friends and family away at almost any time with little you can do about it.
Tonight may be the last time you can play with your son or daughter after work. Tomorrow may be the last time you get to cuddle with your mate in bed. Why not take a few moments to remember this and be grateful that you have them right now? You will find it reinvigorates your time with them, and keeps you in the moment.
A stoic philosophy would suggest you spend a bit of time every day, or a few times a week, thinking about some of the things in your life and imagining yourself stripped of them. How would you life be worse? How hard would you strive to get them back?
When I do this, I almost universally find that I feel genuine gratitude for what I’m contemplating the loss of. It feels great to be be able to step off the hedonic treadmill and experience real appreciation for how great my already life is.
*Shrug*: It Could be Worse
“Meh…It could be worse,” may seem an off-handed remark, but it contains the seed of a powerful way of viewing misfortune.
Bad things happen to us, and we often get caught up in thinking about how horrible these occurrences are. Yet in almost all cases, six months or a year down the line we’ve fixed or adjusted to these problems to the extent that we rarely think about them.
Yet how much of your life have you lost to anger, annoyance, or worry over things that have have never ruined your life?
The other day I found myself seething, and worried about my future ability to do something I love. I’d been in a bike accident with a car due to no fault of my own. I’d taken a significant injury to my neck and left shoulder because someone else wasn’t being thoughtful, and it pissed me off that I was the one suffering the consequences.
A lot of people would be angry over that, but my favorite hobby is partner acrobatics (check out my instagram page if you want to see what I do). With my neck and arm messed up, I can’t really do it right now.
I let myself be pissed off about this for a few days, but then I started applying negative visualization.
I’m so lucky that I escaped a collision with with a giant gas-powerd battering ram with my life and bodily functions mostly intact. My arm isn’t even in a sling – it’s just weak and restricted in its range of motion. My neck can move through much of its range without pain – it’s only a few angles that really cause me problems.
I could have lost a limb, or I could have spent the rest of my life in a wheel chair. I could be dead.
Remembering just how remarkably able-bodied I am now, even after an injury, really makes me think about how much room there was for a worse occurrence. No matter how bad the situation, it can almost always be worse.
The Escape Hatch: Death
Although a final element to this may raise hackles, I think it’s well worth thinking about. The stoics always said that if life became unbearable, there’s no reason why you can’t kill yourself and end your suffering.
This may seem like a morbid sentiment, but I find it freeing. When something really horrible has happened and you can’t stop focusing on something negative, try asking yourself – is there truly nothing left that’s worth living for? Are there no joys left to experience? No contributions you’d still like to make?
There have been a few low points in my life when I was truly in a funk, and when contemplating this question, my answer has always been that there was plenty of things worth living for.
Even if I was stripped of some of my joys and ability to contribute, there’s still so much more I can try. It just seems like it would be a gigantic waste to throw my life away, and that I’d be ashamed of myself for doing so from any sort of wider perspective of the situation.
Asking myself this question when I’m at a low point almost inevitably gets me out of a funk. Killing myself seems ridiculous, and remembering how many great things there are to explore in the world makes me excited to concentrate on the things I haven’t lost.
Four Stoic Negative Visualization Exercises:
Please note that there are other stoic negative visualization exercises, but these are four that I’ve found useful. Five-ten minutes is plenty of time for any of them.
One: “Without Them”
Think of an important relationship in your life. Maybe it’s someone who you’re in conflict with, or a mate who’s lose their luster. Think about what exactly they contribute to your life, and how you’d feel and experience life differently if you lost them.
Remember that you could lose them tomorrow to disease, an accident, or some other vagary of fate. How would you feel? Would you feel ashamed of how you treated them during your last few days together, or would you be ok, because you gave them your all? Would you give them more time, or more love? Would you feel more content?
William Irvine, the author of an excellent book on modern stoicism, wrote the following about negative visualization, and I’ve come to believe that he’s right on:
“By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent . We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. Some people, I realize, will find it depressing or even morbid to contemplate impermanence. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.”
Two: “It Just Got Worse”
Did some misfortune befall you? Spend some time imagining how it could be worse in vivid detail, and how that would effect your life. Finish off the exercise with thinking about the many things and people in your life which you now have more time and space for now that you’ve lost this thing.
Three: “The Onlooker’s Desire”
Sit out in a public space – perhaps a busy public park, As the people go by, think about the things in your life which others – maybe these very people – are seeking right now. Do you already have a great job, enough money to meet your needs, a fine house, fun or useful skills, a flourishing social life, a beautiful mate, or some other asset? These passerby’s might well be seeking out what you’ve long stopped appreciating.
If you lost this thing and were just like these seekers, how hard would you fight to get it back?
Four: “Preparing For Things To Go Wrong:”
One of the stoic practices that modern cognitive behavioral therapy has adopted is a focus on potentially bad scenarios while you consider that they are not as bad as they seem. Why are they not as bad as they seem? Because you have the inner resources to deal with them calmly.
Visualizing negative occurrences makes you fear them less, leaves you less anxious when they happen, and mentally prepares us to deal with the crisis them if they come along. You’ll also find yourself feeling elated when they don’t occur.
If you’re boss doesn’t treat you well, for instance, but you take a few minutes one your way to work to visualize this, you’re always prepared for your boss to be uncooperative. You’ll be super pleased when he unexpectedly treats you well. But even if he never does, you’ll be prepared and able to keep your cool.
I live in Austin, Texas, and traffic is the rule, not the exception: Our traffic is legendary. So I mentally prepare to get stuck in traffic when I travel by car. This has stopped a lot of frustration for me, and I’m always so grateful and celebratory when I cruise through I-35 with no traffic. I’m also so much more grateful when I the opportunity to ride my bike and bypass the gridlock, and more proactive about working in the community to better traffic-separated public transit and bike infrastructure to solve the city’s problems.
What Negative Visualization Isn’t:
Negative Visualization exercises are not about pessimism – they’re about being prepared for anything and grateful for what you have.
Remember that the stoics were not emotionless or complacent in their lives – they were emperors, business people, and senators They went about trying to improve the world in ways they perceived as best, and proactively dealt with life’s bumps as they came up.
Don’t let negative visualization dominate your life or keep you from happiness – just use it as a pleasant refresher and reminder about how great you have it.
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Kashdan, T.B. Et al. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam War veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 177-199. Link.
Watkins, P.C. Et al. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 31(5), 431. Link. ↩
Lykken, David; Tellegen, Auke (1996). “Happiness Is a Stochastic Phenomenon” (PDF). Psychological Science. 7 (3): 186–189. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1996.tb00355.x. Archived from the original on 2016-05-15. Link. ↩