In William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, he uses a term I’d never heard before, especially in connection with Roman philosophers.
Yet, after reading his book, then quickly devouring the works of Aurelius, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Seneca, I discovered that even though they didn’t use Irvine’s term, it was a common theme:
Simply visualizing something in your life and imagining what your existence would be without it.
We’re not talking about the negative things in life that you would rather not deal with, but the positive, and even seemingly neutral, things.
According to Irvine, negative visualization is to a good life what salt is to cooking.
Its primary purpose is to help you appreciate what you already have, and I have found this to be an exceptionally powerful practice.
For example, when out and about, walking with my grade-school-aged son, he quite often reaches up to hold my hand.
From the very first instance, this always warmed my heart.
But the first time I applied negative visualization, having the thought that someday he will no longer want, or be able, to hold my hand, my love increased for him a thousand-fold.
For, considering what the universe could have sent our way, it is pretty amazing that we are even holding hands right now.
He could never have existed. I or he could lose use of our hands. I could die or he could die. There are dozens of life occurrences that could arise leading to an absence of that hand-holding.
Extreme circumstances aside, probability dictates that in his teen years, he will go through a rebellious phase and want as little to do with me as possible, let alone hold my hand.
That’s another benefit of negative visualization: Aside from making me appreciate this very moment even more, it is actually helping to prepare me for what may someday happen.
But the practice doesn’t even have to be about such profound things as connections to loved ones.
The other day, I thought of how, if I’d been born within almost any other point in history, I would not have the eyeglasses that I now utilize. I would have spent years with severe astigmatism (and thus headaches), and as I aged, nearsightedness would take its hold, and I would not be able to see. Yet, every day, when waking up, there they are on my nightstand. And if they happen to break? I can have another pair in just days.
Also, when I hear people complain about Metro delays, I imagine how much more difficult my life would be without it. Walking to the heart of the city would take hours. Driving would involve traffic, paying for gas and repairs. Bicycling would be out of the question, unless I don’t mind arriving at my destination covered in perspiration.
One can take almost anything from one’s daily existence in a western, industrialized nation, apply negative visualization, and feel a bit happier about life.
But, you may ask, “If I’m happy and content with all that I have, won’t I get complacent and no longer want to strive for external goals?”
Of course not. The ancient Roman Stoics were all very much active with the external world. Seneca himself was one of the wealthiest men in the entirety of the Roman Empire.
But, contrary to what we are raised to believe, satisfaction can be had at any time, and is an integral part of a good life; and many people fail to see this since they are so intent on anger about the past or fear about the future.
Negative visualization can help lead one to the realization that all external things are transitory, and what is most important and most lasting in life are those things that are internal: your character, the choices you make, the ideals for which you live.
There is much talk in the political realm these days about the 1% having too much power and wealth; and it is certainly true that current economic inequality and imbalances are abhorrent, and need to be addressed.
However, if one frequently practices negative visualization, and perhaps studies a bit of the history of human kind, one would soon realize that at no other time in history have so many had access to so much safety, food, leisure, and knowledge. If you reside in a first-world, industrialized nation, regardless of your economic status, you can automatically claim to be in the top 1% of all the humans that ever lived in terms of life circumstances.
Recognizing that, continually, and understanding we are fortunate to have even the simplest of things we use every day, will lead to more happiness and contentment, therefore, to having a good life.
Acta Non Verba: Practice negative visualization frequently and wholeheartedly. You will be amazed at how truly fortunate you are, regardless of what politicians, pundits, and preachers would have you believe.
Wherever noble, industrious, and intelligent men go, they flourish and do not feel deprived. Indeed we do not need many things unless we want a soft life – Musonius Rufus
…fix your attentions on the finest and best that you have, and imagine how much you would long for these if they weren’t in your possession. At the same time, don’t become so attached to these things that you would be distraught if you were to lose them – Marcus Aurelius
The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive. – Seneca
…the happy man is satisfied with his present situation, no matter what it is, and eyes his fortune with contentment…-Seneca
For by looking ahead to all that may happen as though it were going to happen, he will soften the attacks of all ills. – Seneca
…the man who keeps himself within the bounds of nature will not feel poverty; the man who trespasses beyond them will be pursued by poverty even if he possesses the greatest wealth. – Seneca
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Patrick Hendry via Unsplash.com.