By Leo Gura - July 8, 2014 | 34 Comments
An old-school ancient Stoic technique for creating lasting happiness.
Hey, this is Leo for Actualized.org and in this video I’m going to talk about negative visualization.
The Fundamental Principles Of Happiness
‘Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune’. This is a quote from Seneca. Seneca was a Roman Senator as I recall and he was a stoic. What is stoicism and more importantly what does this have to do with our topic, our theme for this video, which is negative visualization.
Negative visualization is a pretty cool idea and it’s a technique that was developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to help you develop gratitude and more happiness in your life. What I want to do in this video is show you how to use this technique and start to get you to really notice how you’re leaking happiness in your life. This is what’s happening with a lot of people, is that we’re going out there and we’re creating success for ourselves, but then we’re still feeling empty inside.
That’s because we fail to understand some of these fundamental principles about happiness that the ancient Greeks and Romans understood several thousand years ago. Yet today with all the information that we have we still fail to actually practice this. It’s always good to go into the past, look at the sages and the wise people who really knew and really studied this stuff and really understood how happiness works because human psychology hasn’t changed in the last two thousand years. It’s basically the same as it was so this is a good reference point.
So what is negative visualization as a technique? This is a psychological technique that you can use on yourself and it basically works like this. You visualize yourself deprived of whatever it is that you really value in your life so whatever in your life is important to you, something that you maybe strived for in the past and now you have, whether that’s your family, or your material possessions, or your job, or your health, or anything like that you would really appreciate.
What you do is you imagine that you lost this thing. Imagine that you lost your family. Imagine that you lost your house. Imagine that you lost your job. Imagine that you lost your health.
When you imagine this, you do it in a cool and rational sort of way, not in a neurotic, anxious sort of way. As you do this what it does is it helps to build a sense of appreciation within you that you have these things. That’s basically what the technique is. It’s pretty simple. What’s powerful about it though is that it goes to some really fundamental truths about human psychology that, like I said, the Greeks and Romans understood two thousand years ago.
Hedonic Adaptation And Acclimatization
Here is the fundamental truth. The fundamental truth is something called hedonic adaptation. That’s a modern word, but the ancients knew about this. Hedonic adaptation is the human tendency to get acclimated to whatever circumstances we’re in in life.
It’s kind of like going into the pool. You go into the cool pool and at first it feels really cold and uncomfortable, but then you get acclimated to it and the water becomes refreshing and it just feels like you’re floating and you’re not in cold water. If you go into a hot or a warm pool, again your body will also acclimate to that and you’re not going to feel that much as well.
This happens with us physically with sense of touch, with sense of sight, with sense of hearing, but it also happens to the stuff that we have in our lives. Whatever you have in your life, whether you have really bad circumstances in life, what we would call objectively bad, let’s say you’re in severe poverty or if you have really good circumstances in life, let’s say that you’re really wealthy. Actually, those circumstances don’t have as much effect on your happiness as we would assume they do.
The naive assumption that we would have, it’s just our intuition, would say the rich person’s going to be happier than the person whose stuck in poverty. Actually what you find is there’s not much of a difference. There is an initial difference.
What your body is really good at and what your brain is really good at registering is changes in differences. That means that if you were rich and you become poor, you’re going to feel that. That’s going to probably hurt a lot for you, but then if you acclimate to that situation, let’s say from being very wealthy to going bankrupt and becoming very poor, if you live in poverty for a while, you’re not going to start to notice it as much. It’s not going to really influence your happiness level because your mind and your body is very adaptable, it just takes on whatever conditions it’s given.
Likewise, if you are poor your whole life and then suddenly you become rich, that change in your conditions is going to make you feel really good, it’s going to make you really excited. It’s going to seem like you’re very happy because now you’re much richer, but actually what’s going to happen is you’re going to get that initial spike in happiness, but then it’s going to drop back down because your body and your mind are going to acclimate. A few months after your wealth, a few months of living in that kind of lifestyle, in those kinds of circumstances, eventually what’s going to happen is you’re just going to get back to basically the same level that you were at when you were poor.
This is a tricky thing, hedonic adaptation. This is really why it’s hard for us to ever be happy in our lives because we’re always going out there, we’re chasing stuff, we’re trying to establish really good life circumstances. Whether it’s that family that you want, that girlfriend or boyfriend that you’re looking for, maybe you’re looking to improve your health, maybe you’re looking to get fit or you just want to get rid of some ailments that you’ve got, or you want more money, you want to start a business, you want a career, you want a job, you want more friends, whatever it is that you want.
What Stoicism Is All About
Of course we think that those are going to make us happy. You should pursue those things, but you should also develop appreciation for it. This is really where the stoics had some brilliant understanding of human psychology.
Who were the stoics? The stoics were people like Zeno, Seneca, who I quoted at the beginning here, Epictetus and also Marcus Aurelius. All of these people were famous Greeks and Romans and they practiced stoicism as a life philosophy.
Stoicism was a school of philosophy that was really concerned about how do you create a good, high quality life? It wasn’t just interested about arguing theoretical concepts and doing kind of traditional philosophy as we think of it. It was more what I would call now positive psychology. It was more like self-help. It was like, how do you live your life in accordance to certain principles that will guarantee maximum happiness?
The stoics were really keen and real sticklers on practicing what they preached and so they developed some of these techniques. These techniques can be really powerful, and they used them themselves. You can read books from Seneca or from Marcus Aurelius, you can read their writings and you can see the way that they thought about life is very different than the way that we think about it today.
Appreciation. How does this negative visualization create appreciation for us? It might seem on the surface that if I’m thinking about being deprived of some of the stuff that I’m happy about in my life like my family or my home or my job, then that would make me depressed or miserable.
Let’s look at an example of how this actually works. So what the stoics are telling you to do here, this is literally how it works. You wake up in the morning, and let’s say you go and you do your morning routine. You’re going to go to the bathroom and you’re going to shave and do all your stuff there and brush your teeth. Now as you’re brushing your teeth, what you’re going to do to practice this negative visualization is for about five minutes as you’re doing that you’re going to start thinking.
What Do I Take For Granted?
You’re going to think to yourself, “What do I really value in my life that I take for granted now just because I’ve adapted to it through hedonic adaptation? What about my hands? It could easily be the case that I don’t have any hands. What if I was born without a hand? There are people like that. It’s a genetic defect.
“What if I lost my left hand in a car accident or while I was deployed overseas or in some sort of accident elsewhere? What if I didn’t have my left hand right now? What would my life be like?” So you start imagining what your life would be like. In fact as you’re brushing your teeth and you’ve picked up the toothbrush with your right hand and you’re reaching for the toothpaste with your left hand, you’re going to notice, “Oh I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have this amazing left hand”.
In fact, this is a really amazing instrument. We take it for granted, but the amount of movements possible with this hand, the precision that we have is really amazing. There’s not even any modern mechanical robotic hands that are really quite as sensitive and quite as capable as a human hand. It’s a really a marvel of engineering that this thing evolved and now we have two of them. But how often do you really think about that? Maybe never in your life have you considered how amazing your hands are and how much you really appreciate and value that until right now when I’m telling you this.
As you’re doing this negative visualization and you’re reaching for that toothpaste, you can’t do that if you don’t have a left hand so now you start to appreciate, “Oh, this left hand allows me to squeeze the toothpaste on my toothbrush while I’m holding it. How would I do it otherwise? I’d have to lay my toothbrush down on the counter, maybe it would tip over because then I would have to use my right hand.
“How would I unscrew the cap from the toothpaste with only one hand? That would be a challenge too. I would have to lay down the toothpaste and then I’d have to somehow finagle it”. This is going to start going through your mind and as you’re thinking about this you’re really getting a sense of gratitude about how nice it is to have a left hand. Whereas if you didn’t do that, that negative visualization then you would never even consider how much value your left hand has to you.
In fact, you might have noticed this, if you ever get a cut on your hand or maybe you get a blister or something and then you go about your normal everyday life, you start to recognize not only how much you use your hand, but even a specific part of your hand. Has that ever happened to you?
It’s funny, sometimes I’ll cut myself and then I’ll be driving the car and I’ll notice that actually that part that I cut myself, and maybe it’s a little cut, maybe it’s even just a paper cut, just little thing, and it’s somewhere on my hand here. I would assume that this part of the hand is not very meaningful, it’s maybe two percent of this entire surface area, but actually what you realize is when you’re driving your car that little paper cut, you could notice that. “Now I see that. I was actually using that part of my hand on the steering wheel”.
Maybe not only on the steering wheel, but you’re also using it when you’re doing something else like flicking on the blinker lights. Maybe you’re using it when you’re writing a document at home. Maybe you’re using it when you’re picking up your kids. Maybe you’re using that part of the hand when you’re working out at the gym.
It’s really funny that when you get a little cut like that it makes you appreciate. Sometimes when I get a little cut like that in a place that gets used a lot on my hand I’ll start to think, “Oh damn, I just wish I got that cut somewhere else” and then what happens is that sometime later maybe a year later I get a cut on some other part of my hand and then I wish “Oh man, I wish I didn’t get a cut there either”. You never appreciate just how much you’re using this stuff.
Make A List
This is what the stoics really want to turn you on to with this negative visualization is just how much you’re taking for granted everything in your life. It’s good to make a list. I want you to actually use this technique for the next week.
What that means is you’re going to spend five minutes every single day consciously doing some sort of negative visualization. To help you do that, what I want you to do right now is after this video is over I want you to sit down, pull out a piece of paper and write down ten things that you really have in your life that are just absolutely amazing but that you take completely for granted. Maybe this can include your parents, your family, you’re kids, your house, the country that you live in, the fact that you have good health, the fact that you have decent income, the city that you live in, the girlfriend or boyfriend that you have, maybe how fortunate you’ve been up to now in your childhood and also as an adult, the circumstances that you’ve had.
Take note of the stuff that you’re really taking for granted in your life. Maybe it’s your hands. Maybe it’s your body. Maybe it’s your eyesight or your sense of hearing. There’s quite a lot here.
Really sit down and think about this. Create a list of your top ten. Now, when you’ve got this list, briefly consider right then as you’re looking over it what your life would be like if you lost that thing because you’re not entitled to anything. This is where people really go wrong about happiness and success in life. I see this happening a lot in modern society.
Entitlement In The Modern Society
This wasn’t the case, I think, two thousand years ago because back then it was a lot harder to acquire some of the amazing stuff that we have today. Simple luxuries that they didn’t have two thousand years ago today we just take them for granted. A lot of people are so entitled about stuff in life. Really what the stoics taught was that you’re not entitled to anything, anything at all.
We like to think that for example we’re entitled to have a decent house. We’re entitled to clean water. We’re entitled to free medical care. We’re entitled to being treated well by our spouse.
We’re entitled to seeing our children grow up and grow old. We’re entitled to see ourselves be healthy. We’re entitled to have a good job. We’re entitled to have friends that are nice to us. We’re entitled to not have to pay too many taxes.
All these things we think like they are our rights when in fact if you really think about it, you really look around you for a second, it’s just a miracle that you’re sitting right now wherever you’re sitting or standing and that you’re just living and breathing. That right there is already an amazing thing. It’s a wonder because you’ve literally got several trillion cells in this body that are comprising you and each cell is like a little organism and it’s got its own life this cell.
You are made up of trillions of those and all those cells are somehow cooperating and working together functioning amazingly well so that you can have energy, so you can wake up in the morning, so you can go pick up the kids, so you can go work at your job, so you can do all the stuff you do in your day, taking it for granted. Then of course if you have a health problem you quickly realize just how much you take that stuff for granted that your body does for you. Just a simple cold will make you very aware of this fact, but an even more serious condition will really sober you up to that fact.
The fact is that you’re not entitled to anything in life. You’re not entitled to a job. You’re not entitled to have a car. You’re not entitled to love or sex. You’re not entitled to income. You’re not entitled to even be alive. You’re not entitled that your family is alive. You’re not entitled that your children are alive.
None of that stuff is entitled. That stuff is just something that exists right now in the moment and it will go away. One thing that the stoics really taught and based their whole philosophy around is this idea that life is very impermanent. That everything that you have now, everything that you’ve ever had will be gone and it’s not going to be that long until that happens. You have to start to appreciate really how much you have in your life right now and how fleeting all that stuff is because that stuff is all in a state of flux, a state of transition.
Everything around you that you value is transitioning including your own body, your health, yourself, your children, your house, your job… All of that stuff will decay, all that stuff will die. Not only will all the people around you die, all the circumstances around you will decay. All the buildings around you will eventually collapse, all the corporations that exist will eventually dissolve or go bankrupt, or be no more, the entire human species will eventually be gone. This entire planet that we’re living on is eventually going to be evaporated by the sun when the sun expires and it burns through and it basically explodes and consumes the earth and every other planet in our solar system.
All of that is going to go and it’s so boring to realize because we don’t usually think about it. Some people might say, “That’s pretty negative Leo, pretty pessimistic of you to think about this stuff. Shouldn’t we be positive?”
The stoics were, I wouldn’t say they were a pessimistic sort, but they were very pragmatic about life. It wasn’t about positive or negative it was just about what is. They were doing this in a controlled, cool and rational sort of way. They weren’t doing this as neurotics or as anxious, pessimistic thinkers. That wasn’t their modus operandi.
I want you to make this list, make a list of these things and really consider what it would be like if you lost some of those things. How would you feel? How would your life be different?
It’s interesting because people will sometimes leave me comments in the YouTube sections of my videos and it’s very interesting to read some of those because sometimes you really see a lot of negative thinking or a lot of victim energy in those comments. One of the things that people will do is they’ll start to compare themselves to other people and they’ll feel entitled to certain things.
For example someone will come in and say, “I’m stuck with women. Leo, I can’t attract that I want. I can’t get that girlfriend that I want”. Or somebody else will come in there and say, “I can’t start the family that I want to start”. Or, “I can’t do this kind of job that I want to do”. Or, “I don’t have enough money to do this or this or this or this”.
They compare themselves to other people and they feel like their entitled to the same of results or success that other people have. This is very much not the case. You have to start considering that your circumstances are very unique and that you’re not entitled to absolutely anything in life.
Sometimes people will come in and they’ll say something like this, “Oh man I just lost that amazing promotion that I wanted at work. I was really gunning for that promotion and I didn’t get it and now I’m so depressed and so miserable”. What the stoics would say to that person is, “Do you still have a job? Do you still love your work?”
That person would then think about it and say, “Oh, that’s right I do have a job. I was taking my amazing job for granted. I was already doing good at my job, I want to do even better. I was so focused on doing better that I completely forgot that I was already doing pretty good. Oh okay, wow. I should be grateful, I should be happy just about where I am right now, not thinking about where I need to go”.
Some of you will say, “Leo, I don’t even have a good job so aren’t I entitled to be miserable and depressed and complain about that? This person, sure, he’s got a decent job so that promotion that’s like icing on top of the cake, but what if you don’t have a good job? Aren’t you really miserable then?”
The stoics would come back and say, “What about your family? Do you have a family that loves you? Why don’t you be grateful for that even though you don’t have a good job?”
“Oh that’s right I do have a family. I should be grateful. I’m taking my family for granted a lot aren’t I? That’s right, maybe I could be a little bit more conscious about that and be happy in the moment. Okay.”
Some of you will still keep going and you’ll say, “Leo, not only do I not have a good job, but I don’t have a good family either. In fact my family is miserable. Maybe they hate me and we have a lot of conflict, very dysfunctional family. So I don’t even have a family. Aren’t I entitled to be miserable now?”
The answer is no, you’re not. The stoics would come back and say, “Okay so you don’t have your family, do you have a pet? Do you have a cat or a dog that you love? Oh you do? You should be grateful for the fact that you have a cat or a dog or some other pet that you really love even though you don’t have a family or a job because there’s a lot of people in the world that don’t have a pet to love but you do. Why don’t you be more grateful for that? Appreciate that a little bit more”.
Now some of you will keep going. You’ll say, “Leo, I don’t even have a pet. I don’t have a pet, I don’t have a family, I don’t have a job so my life is miserable surely right?”
The answer is no. You don’t have a right to complain either. Maybe you don’t have all those things, but do you have clothing? Do you have clothing that you can wear? Do you have a shelter that you can live in? Why don’t you be grateful for that because there’s a lot of people that don’t have clothing or shelter.
Now someone might say, “Leo, I even struggle to buy clothing and shelter. In fact maybe I just got kicked of my house or my apartment. Now I don’t even have that. Surely I can complain that I’m miserable now can’t I? I’m justified in being miserable”.
The stoics would say, “No, because you’ve still got so much. What about your health? You’ve got great health. Maybe you don’t have good clothing, maybe you don’t even have a house or a place to live right now, you don’t have family or a pet or a good job, but you still have your health and that’s a very amazing thing”.
Now someone might say, “Leo, surely there are people in the world that don’t even have their health. They don’t have health, they don’t have shelter, they don’t have clothing, they don’t have a dog, they don’t have a cat, they don’t have a good family, they don’t have a good job. They don’t have anything. Can they be miserable? Are they allowed to complain?”
The answer is no. They still have a lot to be grateful for because they still have their eyesight. When was the last time you really showed appreciation for your eyesight and how amazing that is? How much do you take that for granted? If you don’t have your eyesight, then you have something else.
You have your arms and your legs. If you don’t have your arms and your legs then maybe you’ve got hearing. If you don’t have hearing, if you don’t have anything that was already mentioned, then at the very least what you’ve got is you’ve got your breath and you’ve got your aliveness.
You are alive and just the very fact that you are alive is not something that you should take for granted. It’s not something that you should feel entitled to. That is not a right being alive. Being alive is a very precious and a very precarious thing in this universe because it’s here one moment and it’s gone the next moment. You really need to appreciate that a lot more.
There’s Always Something To Be Grateful For
No matter where you are in your life there’s always something for you to be grateful for. There’s always something that you could lose and feel worse than you’re currently feeling. If you’ve got nothing at all and all you’ve got is your life then at the very least you’ve got that. If you lost that, you would be worse off than you are right now.
That is how the stoics want you to think. I think it’s a good way to think. I don’t always go around thinking this way but sometimes, for five minutes in the day, doing five minutes of this kind of thinking can really bring you back down to earth, ground you because we live in a culture in a society that’s really inundated with media. The media is always showing us how to do more. We want more, we want to do more, we want to create more, and nothing is ever enough with this philosophy.
Basically what it does is it creates a never ending treadmill and because of hedonic adaptation you never get ahead. You’re just spinning your wheels all the time. If you want to stop spinning your wheels and develop some real gratitude, some deep sense of happiness in life, then you need to start appreciating more the stuff that you already have that today you completely take for granted.
Think about all the stuff just five years ago that you wanted to create in your life. A lot of stuff you probably have already and how you completely have forgotten about that stuff. It’s powerful to think about that.
That’s why it’s good to keep a list of goals. If you’re a goal setter, you’re doing personal development and you keep a list of goals, keep those goals. Keep a history and a record of those. Archive those. Put them in a file somewhere so you can go back ten yours from now and take a look at the kind of goals that you have today. When you take a look at where you are ten years from now and you see how much you’ve accomplished, but what’s really scary is when you look back and you see how much you’ve accomplished over the years, you also see how you take all of it for granted and how it hasn’t really created any happiness for you because even though you accomplish all that stuff, because you’ve now adapted to it, it’s not making you any better on the inside.
The last point that I want to mention here before I let you go is this distinction between worry and negative visualization. These are two very different things. What I’m telling you here, what the stoics were doing with this technique is they were not telling you to be a worrier. They’re not trying to make you a pessimist about life. They’re not trying to make you neurotic. They’re not trying to make you anxious.
What they’re simply trying to do is to say you have this ability to imagine and to appreciate. This is a conscious act. Worry and anxiousness, these aren’t conscious acts. These are reactions. These are emotionally triggered reactions.
That’s not what negative visualization is about at all. Negative visualization is a very cool, even-minded, almost meditative technique. So there’s a very big difference between those two even though on the surface they might seem similar.
I don’t want you to use this as license to now be a worrier about stuff. That’s not what we’re doing here. Worrying is still bad. Don’t do worrying, but negative visualization is good and what I’m leaving you with here now is I want you to do a week where you do seven days straight of negative visualization for five minutes every day, in the morning, in the evening, whenever you want to do it and just see how you feel a week after that. See how much stuff you’ve been missing in your own life that’s right there it’s right under your nose and you’ve been missing it this whole time until now.
All right, this is Leo for Actualized.org. I’m signing off. Go ahead, post me a comment down below I’d like to hear what you think about this. Share your experiences with this exercise and then of course please like this, click the like button right now for me, share it if you would, share it with a friend. The more people who watch this the more free content I can release to you guys.
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