Negative Visualization: The Key to Lasting Happiness

For the most part, we have this concept of happiness completely wrong. We tell ourselves (and others) that if we work really hard we will be more successful, and when we get more successful, then we’ll be happy.

If we can only find that great job, get that next promotion, lose our excess weight, move into a better house or buy the newest gadget, then happiness will follow.

But modern research has shown that this formula is actually backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around.

Rigorous research in psychology, neuroscience and management studies has shown that when we are happy our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energized, resilient and productive (1).

If we want to be happy, it’s crucial to understand how we can have true, lasting happiness and how we can avoid falling into the traps of what conventional wisdom tells us.

The Adaptation Principle

Imagine two people running into very different life scenarios: The first one wins a 20-million-dollar lottery jackpot and the other one becomes paralysed from the neck down.

The first person gets freedom from all of her economic distress and can pursue her dreams, help others and live in comfort. The other person gets more limitations than a life in prison. She has to let go of all of her goals and dreams and depend completely on other people for help with eating and going to the bathroom.

Now, of course it’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but actually not as much as you may think. Many people think they would rather be dead than paraplegic, but they are mistaken.

You see, whatever happens to you, you’re likely to adapt to it – you just don’t realise it upfront. We are bad at what psychologists call ”affective forecasting” (2), our ability to predict how we’ll feel in the future. When it comes to our emotions we grossly overestimate their intensity and duration.

Within as little as a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way back to their baseline levels of happiness.

The human mind is extremely sensitive to changes in conditions, but not very sensitive to absolute levels. The lottery winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level.

The paraplegic experiences huge happiness losses up front and thinks her life is over. But just like the lottery winner, her mind is sensitive more to changes than to absolute levels, and after a few months has gone by she has begun adapting to her new situation and setting more modest goals.

This is the adaptation principle at work: Our judgement about our present state is based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which we have become accustomed.

And because of this, we’re all stuck on what’s been called the ”hedonic treadmill” (3). No matter how much we increase the speed and accumulate wealth and social status, we won’t get ahead. We’ll just raise our expectations and keep chasing after the next thing we think will make us happy (4).

The Progress Principle

The pleasure we experience from getting what we want is most often fleeting. Whether you receive that big promotion, get accepted to a prestigious school, or cross the finish line on a huge project you’ll might be euphoric for a couple of hours or maybe even a day.

More typically, though, you won’t experience any euphoria at all. When success seems all the more probable and some event confirms what you’ve already begun to expect, the feeling is rather one of relief. When we achieve a big goal our first thought is rarely ”Yay!” or ”Good job, me!” but rather ”Okay, so what now?”.

From an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense. Whenever animals do something that advances their evolutionary interests and gets them ahead in life they get a hit of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. Food and sex gives pleasure, and that pleasure then serves to reinforce and motivate later efforts to find food and reproduce.

For humans, the game of life is much more complex. We ”win” by achieving high status and good reputation, cultivating friendships, finding the best mate, accumulating resources, and raising children to be just as effective at the same things.

So why don’t we receive a huge and long-lasting shot of dopamine whenever we succeed at an important goal? Because reinforcement works best when it comes only seconds after the behaviour. If you want to try this hypothesis out, fetch your dog a snack 10 minutes after each successful retrieval. It won’t work.

This is the progress principle: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them (4).

The Power of Negative Visualization

Okay, so a lot of what we assume to be true about happiness doesn’t match up with reality. But what can we do about it?

In his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (5) author William B Irvine describes a technique the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism used to deal with the progress and adaptation principles:

The Stoics recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.

This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.

Seneca describes the negative visualization technique in the consolation he wrote to Marcia, a woman who, three years after the death of her son, was as grief-stricken as on the day she buried him.

In this consolation, besides telling Marcia how to overcome her current grief, Seneca offers advice on how she can avoid falling victim to such grief in the future: What she needs to do is anticipate the events that can cause her to grieve. In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice.

Thus, “we should love all our dear ones . . ., but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.” . . .

To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes this advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy.

The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her.

The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.

How to Use Negative Visualization in Your Own Life

If you’ve ever had one of those dreams in which you’ve screwed up really badly you have a good understanding of what this practice is all about. In your dreams , you may have messed up your relationships, set your house on fire, and/or missed work for several days in a row because you seem to be moving super slow.

And then… You wake up in your comfortable bed with all of the disasters conveniently erased. You’re very grateful and breathe a deep sigh of relief before moving on with your day.

Practicing negative visualization is very similar to this. What you do is deliberately imagine worst case scenarios as vividly as you can and then reap the benefits by becoming much more grateful for the important things in your life.

Here are some ideas for when to practice:

These are just ideas of course. You need to find the moments to practice what works for you personally. The neat part about negative visualisation is that you don’t really have to set aside any extra time to practice it. Instead you just get into the habit of imagining what your life would be like if Fortune didn’t grant you the blessings you have become accustomed to.

As you keep doing this, you’ll soon find that you have a more positive and grateful attitude toward life and the people around you. And that is everything you’ll ever need to be happy.

“Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have.”
– Rabbi Hyman Schachtel

Sources/Suggested Reading

  1. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work
    by Shawn Achor
  2. Affective Forecasting: The Perils of Predicting Future Feelings
  3. Hedonic Treadmill
  4. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
    by Jonathan Haidt
  5. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine