Stoic Tools for a Good Life: Negative Visualization

Stoic Tools for a Good Life: Negative Visualization

Stoic Tools for a Good Life: Negative Visualization

 In this short series, we’re going to discuss a few actionable tools for improving your life – significantly. The goal is to provide clear tools that you can use today in a clear manner that provides answers to the questions of what, why, and how. If you find these tools interesting and helpful you may be interested in learning more about Stoicism and its practitioners. If that describes you, subscribe to The Drop - VRB's weekly list of things to read, watch, listen to, and try that have helped us live better and be better which often contains recommendations from core Stoic texts to podcast interviews with today’s Stoic thought leaders.

 First up, Negative Visualization.


For most of us, our goal in life is to live a good and happy life. How do we go about achieving that objective? Getting the right job. Finding the right partner. Achieving financial safety. Traveling.

Here’s the crux of the problem – those things will not sustain happiness. Although may find your life punctuated with moments of brief satisfaction, these efforts tend to leave us feeling constantly empty as if happiness is always just out of reach. Once I get that job and that paycheck I’ll be good. If only I can find my partner things will be better. This might sound familiar.

Hedonic Adaptation

The concept of Hedonic Adaptation describes the human tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness following positive or negative events. In other words, even when good things happen to us we tend to return to a relatively stable, baseline level of affect. Big house and nice car not do the trick? Here’s your culprit.

So that begs the question: how do we get beyond Hedonic Adaptation and get on with living a good, happy, and satisfying life?

We start by wanting what we already have.


Want what I already have. Sounds…confusing.

What does it mean to want what you have? It means accepting, savoring, and appreciating the life that you already have if even for brief moments throughout the day. This doesn’t mean sitting back and letting life happen to you. This isn’t complacency. This is a process of recognizing that, of all of the possible outcomes in life, your life is full of things to be grateful for.

With that said, human nature is to want more. So how do we go about overriding our natural inclination to want? Negative Visualization is the process of meditating on things that could go wrong in life in order to provide a new perspective on the lives we actually do have. This process is simple to learn, easy to execute, and incredibly effective. 

Paradoxically, taking time to think about negative thoughts will contribute to happiness rather than sadness. It changes your perspective and allows you room to consider what you do have rather than what you don’t.


How do we do it? Simple.

  1. Choose your topic
  2. Visualize
    1. What are the consequences of this new reality?
    2. Form a mental image. Fill in the details
    3. Let it sink in for the minutes or seconds you have available
  3. Come back to the reality of your problem.

Using physical health as an example, imagine that you’ve lost your right arm in a terrible mishap. Imagine that you’re confined to a hospital bed in a cold and dark room, unable to move or to communicate. What will you have lost in this new reality? What pain might you need to manage? What life goals will have changed? Sit with this new reality for a few minutes and do your best to feel what you might expect to feel.

Now come back to the reality of your situation. You’ve broken your wrist. You can’t write for the next 8 weeks and need to take time away from the gym. Turns out that what you have is an amazing life and a body that can still do most of what you want it to. What you have is a small speed bump that could present a great opportunity to run more, to try that dictation app you’ve heard about, to learn to throw a football lefty.

Perspective is everything. Things can always be worse.

Try this technique out and let us know how it goes!