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The Power of Negative Visualization

When Norman Vincent Peale wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking” sixty years ago, he received a stack of rejection slips from publishers.

Dejected, he threw the manuscript into the trash, forbidding his wife to remove it. She didn’t.

The next day, however, she took the manuscript, still inside the wastebasket, to a publisher who accepted it. The book became a foundation stone of the human potential movement, selling more than 20 million copies in 47 languages.

Much of Peale’s homespun advice sounds quaint or even amusing to us today. Still, the book did a good job of articulating a basic truth: To a great extent, you create your world with your thoughts. Most personal achievements begin with an abiding faith that we can and will accomplish them.

Even realizing your goals, however, will not lead to lasting satisfaction. That’s because human wants are insatiable.

Most of us are trapped on what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill. We work to achieve what we desire. Those things satisfy us for a while. But we soon adapt to them and dissatisfaction returns.

So next time we set the bar a little higher…

Our lives can easily become a pastiche of unfulfilled desires. We yearn for a better-paying job, more recognition, greater social status, a newer car, a bigger house, a firmer abdomen, perhaps even a sexier spouse.

Dissatisfaction is not all bad, of course. Desire can motivate us to achieve good things in our lives, too.

But a continual sense of lack creates anxiety. It undermines our satisfaction. Peace of mind eludes us.

Fortunately, the ancient Stoic philosophers knew a technique to override the adaptation process and recapture the contentment we seek. It’s called negative visualization.

Negative visualization is spending time each day imaging that you have lost the things you value most. Vividly imagine, for example, that your job has just been terminated, that your house – with all your possessions – has burned to the ground, that your partner has left you, or that you have lost your sight, your hearing or the use of your limbs.

This sounds horribly bleak at first, I know. But the Stoics were onto something here.

They understood that everything we enjoy in life is simply “on loan” to us from Fortune. Any of it – all of it – can be recalled without a moment’s notice.

Epictetus reminds us, for example, that our children have been given to us “for the present, not inseparably nor forever.” His advice: In the very act of kissing your child, silently reflect on the possibility that she could die tomorrow.

The Roman philosopher Seneca advises us to live each day as if it were our last, indeed as if this very moment were our last.

He’s not suggesting that you drop your responsibilities and squander the day in frivolous or hedonistic activities. He’s encouraging you to change your state of mind.

Most of us are already living the dream we once had for ourselves. Along the way, however, we become jaded, bored, numb to the blessings that surround us. The Stoics’ goal is to wake us up, to make us appreciate what we have today.

Some will argue that negative visualization is fine for those of us who are happy, healthy and prosperous, but how about the troubled, the less fortunate?

Negative visualization works for them, too. If you have lost your job, imagine losing your possessions. If you have lost your possessions, imagine losing the people you love. If you have lost the people you love, imagine losing your health. If you have lost your health, imagine losing your life.

There is hardly a person alive who could not be worse off. That makes it hard to imagine someone who wouldn’t benefit from this technique.

Adaptation diminishes our enjoyment of the world. Negative visualization brings it back.

It also prepares us for life’s inevitable setbacks. Survivors of tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, for example, may suffer terribly.

Yet afterwards they often tell us that they were just sleepwalking through life before. Now they are joyously, thankfully alive.

No one should need a catastrophe to feel this way. You can attain the same realization through negative visualization.

Moreover, it can be practiced regularly, so its beneficial effects, unlike a catastrophe, can last indefinitely.

Try it and you’ll see. I’ve found it’s perfect for when you’re standing in line or stuck in traffic, time that would be wasted anyway.

By contemplating the impermanence of everything in your world, you can invest all your activities with more intensity, higher significance, greater awareness.

In sum, Norman Vincent Peale got it half right.

Positive visualization helps you get what you want. Negative visualization helps you want what you get.

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