I found the particular method of negative visualization from Stoicism in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. It’s a nice book that describes the key tenets of Stoicism well. I found a lot of ancient wisdom here that is relevant today, much of which is being rediscovered in our current craze of happiness research. I also think that much of Stoicism will resonate with the financial independence, retire early (FIRE) community so I recommend taking a look.
In this article I’ll delve into a specific aspect from Stoicism called negative visualization. It’s designed to trigger gratitude in the person practicing it. And gratitude is often singled out as one of the most importance aspects for happiness so it’s worth learning more about this.
Negative visualization is a concept where you visualize clearly the loss of something dear to you. Your spouse divorces you. Your house burns down. You get fired. You get diagnosed with cancer. Your children are taken away from you. Or any number of other things. It sounds like something to avoid thinking about since these are unpleasant thoughts but it can be much more effective than the typically recommended “think happy thoughts” approach.
If you truly take some time to visualize something bad like this, not just a casual and quick thought, but truly visualize it, you’ll find the exercise quite disturbing. But then as you come out of it, you’ll feel a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude that these terrible losses haven’t happened.
It’s like having a terrible dream and then feeling tremendous relief when you wake and realize it was only a dream. You will appreciate what you have in a strong way and this is very important for your happiness.
People Close to You
Perspective. What you’ll realize through negative visualization is that the most important part of your life are the people close to you. This is really important because most of us naturally take those close to us for granted and sometimes neglect the effort needed to build and maintain the best relationships. At the very least, being more aware and appreciative of those close to us is critical. It’s quite clear that our close relationships are a key determinant of happiness. And appreciating those close to us will significantly boost this happiness.
You might be upset visualizing the loss of your new car that you love, or all the possessions lost in a house fire. But this will be nothing compared to the loss of a child or a spouse. But our day to day actions don’t often reflect this level of importance in our lives. It’s all to easy to get caught up in material things, TV, work or other less important things and take our close relationships for granted because they seem to just be there in the background.
If you have young kids (I’m in this category), you have limited time. Even if nothing terrible ever happens, and luckily the probability is on your side, they won’t stay young forever. Someday you’ll wake up and they will be grown. You want to make sure you are appreciating every moment because someday the future you will be happy you did. Or you will regret that you let this time slip away without paying enough attention. An extremely common regret from parents is that they didn’t appreciate their kids enough when they were young. They spent too much time working or simply not focusing enough on their kids when they were young. Their youth passes very quickly.
If you’re married or have a significant other in your life, you are lucky. Studies show that married people are happier. Interestingly this effect is stronger for men……but I’m not going to speculate on that one 🙂 If you’re single, don’t be too upset. Single people are almost as happy as married people.
But divorced people are significantly less happy. So if you’ve chosen to make a commitment to a relationship, it’s worth the effort to nurture and appreciate it. Both of you will be happier if you do. And you will significantly reduce the chance of a future divorce.
Many divorces can be traced back to a slow but steady decline of appreciation of the other person. Over time, this can cause a serious rift in the relationship. One way to help prevent this is truly reflecting on the relationship and all the good things you gain from it. Negative visualization is a way to reflect on how it would feel to truly have that person gone from your life. It’s better to understand this before your relationship declines to a point that it’s hard to recover.
Other close relationships are similar. Parents. Close friends. An important benefit of the gratitude that you feel through this method is that it helps you be more patient with the inevitable daily aggravations that occur. Your overall relationships will improve if you appreciate them more and build more tolerance for others’ behaviors.
How do you feel about work? It’s easy to focus on the negative parts about your job. After all, most of you reading this are pursuing financial independence so you can leave your jobs and do something more fulfilling with your time. But we often forget that there are many good things in our jobs too.
Through negative visualization, you might find yourself realizing the things you really like about work and become more appreciative of certain things. You may find that you need to think a bit more about how to replace those elements in retirement, such as the social aspect. You will also likely find it was really nice getting a regular paycheck when you have to transition to withdrawals from your savings. Many people struggle with this, regardless of how much they have saved and how low their withdrawal rate it.
Using negative visualization about the loss of your job will only provide you benefits. You’ll appreciate some elements better, making the journey to financial independence more enjoyable. Plus, you’ll more strongly visualize what you’d do without your job, likely building positive excitement about the next phase of your life instead of just worry.
It sounds crazy but you might even find that you actually enjoy your job and want to keep working. If this is the case, you better find that out early. It’s certainly better than realizing you actually liked your job after you left it and may have a hard time returning.
Regardless of whether you are wealthy or not, personal health is cited as the most important “possession”. Negative visualization helps you appreciate your good health and take advantage of it while you have it. It’s all to easy to take your health for granted.
The way I think about this is that you want the perspective and wisdom gained from a heart attack without actually having a heart attack.
Similarly, you want to appreciate your youth. You’ll never be younger than you are today. You are only getting closer to your inevitable death each day. While it’s a morbid thought, it also helps you appreciate each day and live a fuller life.
You don’t want to regret wasting your health or your youth because you didn’t fully appreciate it.
While the main perspective gained from this exercise is that time, people, and health matter much more than money or material things, there are some useful aspects of negative visualization from a financial perspective. Since we often focus on the financial aspects on our journey to financial independence, it’s worth using negative visualization to truly imagine how it would feel to lose much of your wealth.
This is a healthy exercise for investing in order to refine your risk tolerance. Many people feel they are very risk tolerant during a bull market but find they are actually very intolerant of risk when they are losing large sums of money quickly in a bear market.
Truly visualizing what it would be like to see your investments (which all of us mentally anchor at whatever current high value they are at), drop by 10, 20, 30 or even 50% over months or even years can help you more truly explore your true risk tolerance. It’s still not the same as the real thing but it’s the closest you can get. Also think about how you’d feel if you weren’t working and didn’t have a paycheck coming in each month as your investments declined.
I also advise doing this with real $ values not just % values. Many people who were risk tolerant in an earlier bear market find they are less tolerant as they are older and close to actually needing the money to live off. At this point, they face much larger $ value drops when the market declines versus what they experienced in the past. Plus the comfort of ongoing paychecks is either gone or will be gone soon.
On the flip side is visualizing how it would feel if your investments are too conservative and you miss out on a large stock market gain or struggle to keep up with inflation over the years. Don’t discount this “loss” because it’s actually a much bigger actual risk to your financial future than stock market declines are. It’s hard to visualize this well but it’s important to understand that this is your biggest financial risk over time periods longer than 10 years.
The math is in support of a more aggressive portfolio over long periods but you need to understand your own thought processes and emotions in order to define a portfolio your are comfortable with and will actually adhere to in times of stress. Visualization is a good method to really explore this and hopefully will lead you to be a more confident investor.
Negative visualization is a great complimentary method to positive reflection to help you appreciate all the great things you already have in your life. Truly visualizing life without these things should give you a much greater appreciation for what you have, which will help you be happier. And it’s not some future happiness. It’s a way to be happier right now.