Negative Visualisation: Contemplating The Worst to Make The Best

Sometime back my parents were discussing their investment details with me, so that in case something happens to them, I should be able to access their accounts and other things. In so many ways, we were discussing death, and how to prepare for it.

It’s a very grim subject to discuss, especially with a loved one. Death is inevitable, but giving consideration to the passing of a loved one is extremely difficult to comprehend.

Months later I still cannot shake the feeling of unease away. But the more I thought about it the more I realised how little time I might have with them. It hit me! At some level I felt that I’ve taken them for granted.

Humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable. After working hard to get what we want, we adapt to its presence in our life and lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we start getting bored, and in response to this, we go on to form new and grander desires. This phenomenon is called Hedonic Adaptation. Because of this, we often find ourselves on a satisfaction treadmill. Our possessions become commonplace and uninteresting. The people in our lives become invisible.

But how on earth do we create a desire for the things we already have? How can we avoid taking this life, and our loved ones for granted? The ancient stoics recommend a process called Negative Visualisation.

The process of negative visualisation forces you to image losing the things you value—your spouse, your job, or your house. It helps you to stop and reflect upon your relationships and your belongings. It makes you realise how everything is so fragile, and that you can lose them any moment. Therefore it’s advisable to make the best use of the little time you have left with them. As Seneca says:

“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.”

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine two sons. The first one periodically reflects upon his parents’ mortality, while the second one isn’t comfortable entertaining such gloomy thoughts. He subconsciously assumes that there’s plenty of time for him to enjoy his time with them.

The first son appreciates the fact that their time together is limited, and is therefore likely to be more attentive and loving than the second. He would try to take full advantage of opportunities to interact with them throughout the day.

The second son, in contrast, would be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his parents. He would fail to take advantage of opportunities to interact with them in the belief that such interactions can be postponed until later. And when he finally does get around to interacting with them, the delight he derives from their company will most likely not be as profound as the delight the first son would experience from such interactions.

This same experiment can be extended to friendships, relationships, and even our very own self. Friendships can end, our loved ones might leave us, and we might die tomorrow.

While most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have, according to the great Roman Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius we would be much better off to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours. Doing this can dramatically enhance the enjoyment of our life.

The most common misconception of negative visualisation is that if we continuously think about how people might die or leave us, how things might go wrong, or how we might break our ankle while playing cricket, it would deter us from enjoying anything.

But there’s a difference between contemplating something bad happening, and worrying about it. Contemplating is an intellectual exercise, similar to second-order thinking, or falsification, and it’s possible to conduct such an exercise without affecting our emotions.

Worrying on the other hand is more like a rocking chair. Unlike contemplation, worrying gives you a lot of things to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. You can make yourself mentally sick by worrying about unnecessary things. But if you engage your System 2 and look at things objectively, you are only making yourself mentally strong.

On top of that, negative visualisation doesn’t require spending all your time contemplating potential catastrophes. Only once in a while should you pause and reflect upon your life, your happiness, your enjoyment, and think about how it all could be gone.

We all make plans for the weekends—we go out for dinner, or catch a movie with our friends and family. Weekends don’t last forever, so we try to get the best out of it. Same goes for vacations. Since they are going to end, we try to squeeze in as much fun as possible. Negative visualisation asks you to look at your life in a similar way. As Steve Jobs says:

“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. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

But when we contemplate our own death, the commonest form of advice is to live each day as if it were our last. This is good advice but it is commonly misinterpreted. If it were our last day today then we are essentially free to do whatever possible without having to face any consequences. But advice isn’t asking us to live wildly and engage in all sorts of hedonistic activities.

The advice, instead, is to appreciate the gift of today, for tomorrow we won’t exist. The advice is not to change our activities, but to change our mindset as we carry our those activities; by doing our very best work possible.

It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan for tomorrow. It means that as we think and plan for tomorrow, we must remember to appreciate today as well.

Tomorrow you might die. Even worse, a loved one might die. Negative visualisation may not help you with your grief, but it can surely help you be free of any regret.

Consider the two sons earlier. They both would grieve after losing a parent. But the second son would be full of regret for having taken his parents for granted. He is likely to be racked with “if only” thoughts: “If only I had spent more time with them! If only I had gone to the vacation with them!” The first son, however, will not have similar regrets. Since he appreciated his parents, he would have taken full advantage of opportunities to interact with them.

He would be in grief no doubt, but this son can take solace in the knowledge that he has spent well what little time he had with his folks. The second son will have no such consolation. His feelings of grief will be compounded by feelings of guilt.

“Negative visualisation, 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. This in turn means that by practising negative visualisation, we cannot only increase our chances of experiencing joy but increase the chance that the joy we experience will be durable, that it will survive changes in our circumstances. Thus, by practising negative visualisation, we can hope to gain what Seneca took to be a primary benefit of Stoicism, namely, ‘a boundless joy that is firm and unalterable.’”

— William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

Having discussed this, it is still extremely uneasy to contemplate the death of a loved one. What if our worst fears become real! It would be hard not to blame ourselves. I hope my good friend Marcus Aurelius can give you some guidance in this matter:

“As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, ‘He may be dead in the morning.’

Don’t tempt fate, you say.

By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?”
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