Stoic Negative Visualization: Learning to Want What You Have

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What’s Stoic negative visualization? How can it actually make you happier?

You can develop a Stoic practice by following six basic techniques derived from ancient philosophy. The first technique is negative visualization. Considering that Stoicism aims to offer a path toward joy, this practice is counterintuitive. But, it works.

Continue reading to learn what Stoic negative visualization is and see how you can use this technique to appreciate more, handle disappointments better, and even grieve with less pain.

Stoic Negative Visualization

One of the main goals of Stoicism is to tame desire. One key skill to learn is how not to want things you don’t have. According to Irvine, one of the best ways to do so is to learn to want the things you already have by taking time each day to imagine losing them. Irvine says that this practice, known as negative visualization, teaches you to appreciate what you already have and helps you deal with actual loss when it happens. The point of Stoic negative visualization isn’t to dwell on negative thoughts or generate anxiety about what could go wrong—it’s to remind yourself to pay attention to and enjoy the life you already have. 

(Shortform note: “Negative visualization” is a contemporary term for a practice that doesn’t seem to have had a specific label among the ancient Stoics. In fact, the practice didn’t originate with the Stoics—scholars believe it may date back to the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, one of the precursors to Stoicism, from whom it was adopted by the Stoics and their rivals, the Epicureans.) 

Stoic negative visualization makes you happier in several ways. First, negative visualization makes you appreciate what you have instead of wanting something more. For example, maybe you’d rather be driving a swanky new sports car than a 15-year-old SUV. But if you take a moment to imagine crashing and destroying the SUV, you might find yourself suddenly grateful to have a vehicle at all (and grateful not to be enduring the trauma and probable injury of a major auto accident).

(Shortform note: What separates negative visualization from the negative thinking that characterizes anxiety, depression, and other disorders is its focus on gratitude. Research shows that regularly practicing gratitude benefits you psychologically and physically. In addition to negative visualization, you can practice gratitude by meditating, keeping a gratitude journal, and regularly expressing thanks toward others.)

Second, anticipating calamities prepares you to deal with them when they do occur. Irvine says it’s helpful to remember that sooner or later, you’ll lose everything you have—your possessions, your loved ones, and eventually, your life. Realizing this in advance means you won’t be surprised when it happens, and you’ll even have had some mental practice in dealing with the associated emotions. For instance, if you do get in a car accident, your visualization will have prepared you for at least some of the consequences, and you might even find yourself relieved if, say, your SUV is totaled but you’re unhurt.

(Shortform note: For this reason, the philosopher Seneca likened negative visualization to a soldier training during peacetime. The point isn’t to figure out how to avoid misfortune—it’s to accept that misfortune is inevitable and to be as prepared as possible when it happens. As Seneca put it, wise people are never surprised by misfortune, and as a result, they experience it less keenly than those who hope (and possibly believe) that nothing bad will ever befall them.)

Third, Irvine argues that you can ease your grief after a loss with a variation on this technique—think about what your life would have been like if you’d never had the person or thing that you’ve lost. For example, if a loved one dies, Irvine suggests that you can temper your grief by imagining what it would have been like if you’d never known that person in the first place. By realizing what you could have missed out on, your sadness will give way to gratitude for what you did experience. Note that the ancient Stoics considered grief to be normal and natural—they didn’t seek to eliminate it, but rather to minimize its intensity and duration.

(Shortform note: In addition to these kinds of hypotheticals, the ancient Stoics also coped with death by falling back on their rationality. For instance, in his Meditations, Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius pointed out that death is a necessary natural process and is therefore, by definition, not a bad thing. He also argued that there’s no rational benefit to having a longer life and therefore no reason to worry about our mortality. In fact, Marcus Aurelius recommended being inspired by your mortality: If, as part of your negative visualization, you remind yourself that you could die at any time, you’ll force yourself to think about what you want to do with your remaining life.)

Stoic Negative Visualization: Learning to Want What You Have

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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