Why Positive Thinking is Overrated

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

They say you should always think positive. Just visualize the positive things that you want in life and all will be delivered like a glorious gift from Jesus himself! This is the #Positivity cult's maxim for life (plus or minus Jesus' role in the matter).

I'm going to argue that you should do the opposite.

You should contemplate the bad things that will happen to you. You should visualize exactly what you don't want to have bombarded upon your life.

If 2020 has taught you anything, it's that bad things will happen. You don't know how, you don't know when, but you can be certain that at some point something bad will happen.

No amount of positive thinking will change this inevitability. But with practice, we can change how we react to the bad things that happen.

The ancient Stoics were masters at rolling with the punches. Through virtuous cultivation, these philosophers of life learned to lessen the impact of the endless troubles that came their way.

The key practice the Stoics used to cultivate happiness in spite of their circumstances is called negative visualization. As the name suggests, the Stoics would periodically contemplate on the bad things that can happen to them so that they can lesson the impact when the bad inevitably arises.

In using negative visualization, they not only learned to become unshakeable in the face of bad outcomes, they found gratitude and appreciation for all that they're fortunate to still have.

If the Stoics knew anything it's this: shit can always be worse.

Marcus Aurelius had a particularly "negative" way of embracing this reality.

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Seneca offered a similarly preemptive message.

“He who robs present ills of their power has perceived their coming beforehand.”

By continually reminding yourself that the worst could be yet to come, you won't be caught off guard when you're smacked in the face with a stinging right hand of reality. And you might just learn to be appreciative of the few teeth you have remaining.

In fighting, it's the punches you don't see coming that deliver knockout blows. Even an unexpected touch of the chin can put your lights out.

But if you not only see the punch coming but move your head to flow with the impact, what would have put you on your ass can be eaten with just a bruise for your troubles. And bruises heal.

To sum it up, negative visualization is the practice of __earning __happiness by wanting what you already have. To do this, the Stoics recommend you imagine having lost things that you value. In the end, you do lose the things you love (including your own life), but by practicing negative visualization, you can learn to enjoy and appreciate what you value with the fullness and presence it deserves.

How I Use Negative Visualization

I try to practice negative visualization at least once a day while doing some morning journaling. I use the technique as described by William B. Irving in his practical introduction to Stoicism that I highly recommend, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. You can also find a great audio walkthrough in the app that I insufferably recommend in damn near every blog post, Waking Up. Along with a new Stoic course from William B. Irving, there's a ton of great introductory and advanced courses on non-dual or effortless mindfulness practices from Sam Harris, Loch Kelly, and many great teachers.

  1. Think about your life. Your relationships. Your circumstances.
  2. Pick one thing that plays an important role in your life. (Spouse, partner, job, kids, friends).
  3. Take a few moments to imagine that thing disappearing. Visualize what that would look and feel like. What might be some of the consequences? Fill in these details and let it sink in for a few seconds or more.
  4. The goal here is to change your perspective on your circumstances. Instead of taking these important parts of your life for granted, you can learn to cherish all that you're lucky to have.
  5. Rather than spending your time wishing you could upgrade some facet of your life, what if that part of your life was instead severely downgraded?
  6. Practice as needed (it's always needed).

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