What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Some days are harder than others. For me, it would be rainy days. The rain made me feel trapped inside the house. I didn’t like feeling wet so I’d avoid going outside. Being stuck inside made me think of all the things I was missing in life: the super successful job, the huge house, the Tesla. It became a vicious cycle of victim mentality and self-criticism. Being so negative reminded me of something I read on Stoicism and the practice of negative visualization.
What is negative visualization?
Negative visualization is a practice where you think about what your life would be like without your loved ones or possessions. Sounds simple at first, but the exercise is quite profound.
By practicing negative visualization, we enjoy every moment as if it were our last. The Stoics recommended that we imagine losing our most valuable people and possessions. We must imagine our loved ones dying, our house burning down, or losing our job. By doing this, we learn to appreciate our loved ones, house, and job more than we normally would.
The final step that many Stoics believed would be imaging our own death. By contemplating our own death, we discover what really matters.
Don’t believe me? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had a similar practice called “regret minimization framework.” Bezos imagined himself at 80 and whether or not he regretted trying this decision. Also, former Apple founder Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
Practicing negative visualization is essentially thinking with the end in mind. By thinking of the end, we are able steer our lives towards the end result we want.
How to do negative visualization?
Practicing negative visualization is really quite easy. The main method is to ask what if. “What if my loved ones died suddenly? What if my car was stolen? What if I lost my job?”
Negative visualization does not have to be just the big things. We can find value in the small things as well. Tired of your iPhone because it’s not the newest one out there. Try imagining what if you didn’t have a phone at all. Now you can value your current phone and all the wonders that it can do like call, text, surf the web, and watch anime.
3 lessons I learned from practicing negative visualization
If every time is the last time, then make every time the best time.
Practice every goodbye as the last goodbye. When I say goodbye to Kari (my fiancé) before work, I imagine that might be the last time I see her. By thinking that in my head, I am refocused on the moment. Thinking that this may be the last goodbye, I hold on to her a little bit longer and stare into her eyes with more precision. What normally would be a pat on the back and peck, becomes an intense embrace and kiss.
When I am alone with my sons, instead of waiting for time to pass by, I imagine that this might be the last time I played with them. All of a sudden, dancing with them becomes more fun than annoying. Letting them ride me like a horse doesn’t cause as much back pain. I get to enjoy their presence instead of being annoyed by it.
Keep in mind, the Stoics focused more on actions rather than words. I do not tell Kari or my sons that I’m thinking of their death, I only think and act with it in my mind. Otherwise, I don’t think they would take me thinking of their death the right way.
By contemplating that everything is only temporary, we are forced to realize that this might be the last time. So if it is the last time, might as well make it the best time.
To be happy is to desire what we already have.
By imagining the loss of everything we own, everything we own becomes much more valuable in our eyes. The other day, I dreaded waking up early to walk our rescue dog, Coral. It was freezing and the sun was not out yet. I just wanted to spend a few more minutes in bed. While in bed, I imagined what if Coral died later today and this might be the last time I walk her. Like with Kari and my sons, walking Coral became a blessing rather than a chore.
I thought the same thing to when I was stuck in California traffic the other day. All around me I saw Teslas, BMW’s, Lambo’s zoom past me as I was driving my mom’s Toyota Camry. I sure longed for the nicer car, but then I reminded myself, what if I couldn’t drive anymore? What if I had to take the public transportation to get where I was going? Not to hate on public transportation, but it’s essentially nonexistent where I live. Driving became fun and I was glad I could.
Negative visualization is not resignation.
Although we are pretending that we might be living our last day, this isn’t meant to change what we do. The point, the Stoics believed, was to change how we thought about what we do. Instead of giving up on everything or making dumb decisions a la “YOLO” (You Only Live Once), we should still continue our daily lives and remember to appreciate today. So don’t go spend your life savings because you might die tomorrow. Instead, continue to save for your goals and appreciate that you are able to do such things because you might die tomorrow.
Life can feel hard. Life can feel mundane. Life can feel unfulfilling. By practicing negative visualization, we can learn to appreciate the now and make the best of today. So practice saying your goodbyes as if it were your last goodbye, make every time the best time, and feel blessed with what you have. For me, what if it was that last time it rained? Wouldn’t I miss it? I sure would, so I put on my rain coat and took the boys outside.
Want to learn more about negative visualization? Check out this awesome book, A Guide to the Good Life, by William B. Irvine.
What if this was the last time you read this blog? What would you comment?