Why Negative Visualization Could Change Your Life.
Over the summer, my air conditioning unit broke down on a Friday afternoon during one of the hottest weeks of the year. I called the front desk of my apartment complex to place a work order.
Complex manager: “Oh, I’m sorry but our maintenance manager just left for the evening. He’ll be back on Monday morning to take a look at your unit.”
The next 72 hours were brutally hot. The thermostat reached 85 degrees at one point. I slept on top of the blankets. It was not an enjoyable weekend.
Fast forward to Monday. Maintenance came in and fixed the unit, bringing cool air back into my life. I had never been so glad to have air conditioning before.
We Rarely Practice Gratitude When Things Are Going Well
What’s funny is that I never took the time to be grateful for A/C during all the days when it worked perfectly fine. It was an amenity that I completely took for granted.
This is how a lot of things work in life. We’re not grateful for something until it’s broken. This goes for big things like health, family, relationships, and also for smaller things like internet, running water, and air conditioning.
When everything is humming along as it should be, we rarely stop and practice gratitude.
The Ancient Stoics would be disappointed in us. They believed that gratitude was something to be practiced on a daily basis and they used one particularly useful technique for doing so: negative visualization.
What is Negative Visualization?
Negative visualization involves visualizing negative (surprise, surprise) situations like the death of family members, the loss of material possessions, and the onset of serious health problems.
By imagining these awful situations and feeling the negative emotions associated with them, it becomes much easier to be grateful for the fact that none of them have taken place.
Imagine what it would be like if your mom, dad, sister, or bother got into a tragic car accident and passed away. Feel the sense of sadness that brings. Sit with that sadness for a moment. Really feel that emotion. Then come back to reality. Now feel how grateful you are that those people are still alive and that you still have time to spend time with them and make more memories with them.
Or imagine that your house burned down in a fire. Feel the stress, anger, and sadness of that situation. Then come back to reality. Now feel how grateful you are to still have a home.
Or imagine what it would be like to get into a serious accident and become paralyzed. Feel that sadness and frustration. Then come back to reality and notice how grateful you are to be in good health.
The Benefits of Negative Visualization
In A Guide to the Good Life, William B. Irvine explains the benefits of negative visualization:
“Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.”
Through imagining how much worse things could be, we’re able to truly enjoy how good things are in the present. By imagining what it would be like to lose family members, a job, our health, or material possessions, we’re able to enjoy them so much more when we still have them. This helps us avoid taking things for granted.
At the same time, by imagining negative situations we’re able to brace ourselves for misfortune before it strikes. We’re able to mentally prepare for worst-case scenarios and not be completely blindsided by them.
To reap the benefits of negative visualization, you don’t have to go around all day constantly imagining how much worse things could be. Simply use this technique from time to time to ensure that you actually notice all of the things going well in your life.
Visualize the potential negative to become more aware of the present positive.