Stoic Saturday – The Power of Negative Thinking

No, I didn’t make a mistake (not in writing the post title, anyway). No, it isn’t my natural pessimism throwing me off course.

Since Norman Peale’s bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking came on the scene in 1952, the benefits of optimism and positive visualisation have been widely promoted and accepted as tools to change one’s life for the better. There’s a lot to commend the work of Peale and those who’ve followed him: sports psychology is one modern field which puts Peale’s theory into practice by encouraging athletes to visualise the success they want to win. Or, to quote one world-famous positive thinker:

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Positive thinking and positive visualisation are powerful tools, with substantial proof for the claim that they can make a real difference. But what about the times when they don’t? What happens when, all visualisation to the contrary, your plans fail? What happens when you believe it, but can’t achieve it? A steady diet of optimism might be good for your health, but it can (ironically) increase your vulnerability to negative thoughts if things don’t turn out the way you hoped.

The ancient Stoics were well aware of the danger of positive thinking. Seneca the Younger counsels his readers that misfortune does the most damage to those who “expect nothing but good fortune.”[1] Epictetus, writing shortly after Seneca, agrees, advising against the assumption that one will always be able to enjoy the things one values.[2] Hope might spring eternal, but frustrated expectations are an easy path to anger, and even despair.

One simple Stoic answer to this danger is negative visualisation. The instruction is simple: instead of focusing on what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it, think about what you have and then imagine losing it. This goes for everything we find valuable in our lives, from material possessions to employment and security to friends and relatives. The loss of something valuable is just as hazardous to your happiness as a failure to gain or achieve something valuable. In some cases, such as the death of someone we love, the pain of loss can be great enough to overshadow any joy found elsewhere.

Negative visualisation is not intended to be a pleasant process. Imagining the loss of your health or wealth will be disheartening, while even just imagining the loss of a loved one can be painful. To the Stoic, the discomfort caused by negative thinking is comparable to the discomfort endured by an athlete in training. The athlete suffers short-term pain for the long-term gain of increased fitness and ability; the Stoic practicing negative thinking endures short-term discomfort for the long-term benefit of increased mental strength. Someone who has imagined the death of a loved one, resisting the temptation to push such unpleasantness away, will be better-equipped to survive such a tragedy happening for real.

Negative thinking doesn’t mean always imagining the worst. Unrelenting pessimism is no good for mental or emotional health: it runs counter to the purpose of Stoicism, which is to help people live their lives as well (and as happily) as they’re able. Negative visualisation is a tool to be used in times of reflection; a way to appreciate what you have without letting it control you, and without becoming a hostage to fortune.

The Power of Negative Thinking

To put negative thinking to work for you, set aside a brief period of time on a regular basis for reflection. This might be 5 minutes every evening before bed, or 15 minutes each weekend (the exact time spent thinking negatively doesn’t matter as much as your commitment to do it regularly).

While reflecting, contemplate the things and the people you value most. Imagine losing them: don’t resist any negative thoughts or emotions which come as a result, but try to feel them and process them as realistically as you’re able. Think about the future: how would your life be without that thing or person moving forwards? How would their absence feel?

As you finish your period of negative thinking, remind yourself that negative visualisation is a tool – a way to expose yourself to pain and loss before it reaches you. Enjoy the increase of appreciation for the people and things you imagined losing, and be proud of taking responsibility for your mental and emotional health.

Negative visualisation often involves thinking about death, but for Stoics the power of negative thinking lies in its ability to renew our appreciation for life. It’s a thought experiment which is also a powerful psychological tool; and the Stoic mission to help people endure hardships doesn’t end there. Next time I’ll be looking at the physical aspects of Stoic self-discipline: self-denial and taking on discomfort.

[1] Seneca, On Tranquillity, XI.6.
[2] Epictetus, Discourses, IV.V.27.

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