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The #1 Stoic Rule for Living a Good Life

The #1 Stoic Rule for Living a Good Life June 30, 2021

negative visualization
Dorrell Tibbs via Unsplash

I was recently watching news coverage of the horrific condominium collapse in Miami Beach. (Maybe you did, too.) A woman standing not far from the debris field had apparently lost her mother in the disaster. She made a comment that stuck with me. Through tears, she said:

“I want to go back a day and change everything.”

Her grief is more than understandable. Who hasn’t lost a loved one, or had something really bad happen in their life, and wished they hadn’t handed things a little differently or could wind back the clock. But as we all know, misfortune can strike when we least expect it. And there is no way to push a rewind button on life and go back to a happier time.

All we can do is make the most of each day.

I’m talking about today, the day you’re now living through. The future is promised to no one. Which got me thinking about a particular point of Stoic philosophy, one that author William B. Irvine, in his book A Guide to the Good Life, calls “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.”

For some background, Stoic philosophy dates back to the first three centuries before the birth of Christ and there’s doubt that its ideas have staying power. The technique that Irvine is referring to is called negative visualization and, to paraphrase Irvine, the thinking behind it goes like this:

We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted the things we value most in this world. This may include our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. To do this, we need to 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.

Sound crazy? Irvine points out that all we have in life is “on loan” and can be claimed back by the gods of fate without our permission—and as we saw in the recent Florida disaster, with no advance notice. For that reason, we should periodically stop to reflect on the real possibility that all the things and people we love will one day come to an end. Perhaps even through our own unexpected death.

Negative visualization helps us appreciate the things we have now.

I’ll let Irvine, one of the world’s leading Stoic philosophy experts, take over the next part of the conversation. I first became aware of the teacher and author through his The Stoic Path series on the Waking Up app. The words in italics come from A Guide to the Good Life and have been reordered and lightly edited.

The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have. This advice is easy to state and is doubtless true; the trick is in putting it into practice in our life.

As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity. This will make it less likely that we will squander our days.

Spend time thinking of all the things you have and reflecting on how much you would miss them if they were not yours. This includes your house, cars, clothing, pets, and bank balance; your ability to speak, hear, walk and breathe. How would you feel if you lost your freedom?

The point is to avoid taking our lives for granted.

Irvine points out that because of a trait called “hedonic adaptation,” as soon as we find ourselves “living the life of our dreams, we start taking that life for granted.  Instead of spending our days enjoying our good fortune, we spend them forming new, grander dreams for ourselves. As a result, we are never satisfied with our life.” Negative visualization is a way for us to avoid falling into to this trap. Irvine continues:

Negative visualization teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. It simultaneously teaches us to prepare for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.

Much like the Buddhists, Stoics counsel us to contemplate the impermanence of the world. To quote Seneca, “All things human are short-lived and perishable.” When we come to realize the impermanence of everything in our personal universe, we’re forced to recognize that every time we do something, it could be the last time we do it. Irvine tells us “this recognition can invest things with significance and intensity. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life.”

A few words of advice on making this work: don’t overdo it.

We’re reminded by Irvine to not overdo our negative visualizations. He says that “it’s a mistake to think that the Stoics spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes. It is instead something they do periodically. A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his or her enjoyment of life to think about how all the things he or she enjoys might be taken away.” Some parting words of wisdom from Irvine:

The key as you move forward this day and every day: Look at your life not in terms of what you are lacking but in terms of what you have and how much you would miss it if it were suddenly gone. Consider how lucky you are to be alive, to be able to walk, to be living where you live.

I started this post talking about the disaster in Florida and I’ll end there. Another interview I heard on the news featured a man who had lost both of his elderly parents in the disaster. As he sobbed, he told the interviewer he had seen his parents the night before the collapse. He had an enjoyable dinner and conversation with them, hugged his father and kissed his mother before he left, telling them both how much he loved them. It is an act the Stoics surely would have appreciated.

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