I’m all about the possibilities, about optimism, about positivity. So when I heard about negative visualization on a Hidden Brain podcast I was stumped. Why would anyone spend time focusing on what they don’t want to happen? As I listened it made total sense and actually is a great strategy for building happiness and mental strength.
The guest on the podcast was William Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University and author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Irvine talked about the hedonic treadmill. This is the tendency of humans to return back to a base line level of happiness after a really good thing happens.
Irvine goes on to explain that there is this happiness gap that many people experience. This is where you think you’ll be happy when…
- when you get a raise
- when you find the perfect partner
- when your kids are happy
- when you lose 20 pounds
- when the pandemic is over
- when you change jobs
Irvine suggests a better way to increase happiness now is to:
Learn to want what you already have.
One concept he studied from ancient stoic philosophers is the idea of imagining what you currently value going away. For example, if you briefly imagined something happening to someone you love dearly your appreciation level for them will likely rise (and your annoyance at the dishes left in the sink will likely diminish). This type of brief negative visualization has the power shift you from a state of wanting to one of deep appreciation.
Negative visualization can also get you prepared if something does go wrong.
If things don’t work out as you planned, how would you deal with it? This type of contingency planning is very helpful. Even if things do go as you expect, being ready for an alternative outcome can help you be more resilient and flexible.
I didn’t realize I do this naturally until I heard of negative visualization. One of the biggest realizations I had on a 7-day silent retreat is that I have a fair number of disasterizing thoughts. These thoughts happen so quickly that they barely registered before I quieted down enough to notice them. Here’s an example of a typical thought: If I fall on this trail, will anyone find me before it gets dark? Or, if this storm gets worse and I lose everything in my office, including my laptop, what will I do? These types of thoughts don’t stay with me very long or turn into worries. Instead, I think they help me to think of what I would do.
The biggest take away for me is to remember – want what you have!
So give negative visualization a try and let me know how it works for you.
Every good wish,
P.S. And when you’re ready and the time is right, let me know if you want to have a conversation about how to listen to and understand your own thoughts and beliefs when it comes to money. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “money thoughts” in the subject line.
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