Here’s one of the great challenges of life. Being happy with what you have while in pursuit of what you want.
Let me guess. . .
You’ve probably heard about positive thinking or positive visualization. It clearly was a huge movement, promoted heavily during the last few decades.
And even though this technique was known for hundreds of years, it gained most of its popularity when Norman Vincent Peale published his best-selling book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”
This book sold over 20 million copies around the world.
Sure enough, the book emphasized some important truths. But what it managed to accomplish in particular is that it helped people understand how they can get what they want.
In fact, these are the words Norman Vincent Peale used to describe his book: “This book is written with the sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life.”
(No wonder the book has sold so many copies. )
Before we go any further, rest assured that we’re not going to talk about the science of “positive thinking” in this article.
Now don’t get me wrong. The principles in that book may help you get what you want, but hear me out: Even though our needs are few and fundamental, our wants are many and insatiable.
Let me repeat that. Our NEEDS are few and fundamental, but our WANTS are many and insatiable.
. . .
The Insatiability of Human Wants
We, as humans, are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable.
What's worse, we think that once we’ll satisfy all of our wants and desires, we’ll finally attain lasting happiness and fulfillment. But psychologists prove that we are pretty bad at predicting what’s going to make us happy – a tendency called “affective forecasting.”
In fact, two psychologists – Shane Frederick and George Lowenstein – point to studies on lottery winners. After winning the lottery, you’d think that the winner will finally live the life of his dreams. But in most cases, it just ain’t so.
After an initial burst of euphoria, lottery winners end up just about as happy as they were before winning.
Studying this phenomenon, psychologists gave it a name: hedonic adaptation (also known as hedonic treadmill or happiness set point).
Whatever happens in your life, you’re likely to adapt to it, but you don’t realize up front that you will.
This phenomenon doesn’t refer only to lottery winners, though. It takes place in most of our life endeavors. It happens when we make. . .
A) Consumer Purchases
Initially, we delight in that new car, that marvelous piece of clothing, or that wide-screen TV we bought.
After a while, though, we lose interest in the objects we desired so much, and we long for a better car, a more luxurious piece of clothing, or an even wider-screen TV.
It also happens in our. . .
As a child, you might have dreamed of getting a particular job. So you listened to your parents and you went to school to get good grades in order to secure your future.
You worked hard in college to get on the career path that leads to the job of your dreams.
When you finally get that job, you’re delighted. You pat yourself on the back for your achievements and everyone around you is cheering you up.
Sure enough, a few weeks or months into the job, and you start complaining about your salary, your co-workers, and the lady at the reception who isn’t smiling back at you when you greet her.
Even though you’re happy about the promotion you got lately, you soon find yourself growing dissatisfied again.
Before long, you’ll want another increase in salary in order to pay the mortgage for your new house or to afford that brand new car you saw on a TV advertisement.
We also experience hedonic adaptation in our. . .
After months and years of never-ending search for our “perfect partner,” we finally meet the man or woman of our dreams.
We’re in that “honeymoon” phase of the relationship where every day feels like Heaven on Earth. We go to bed at night thinking about the time spent with our beloved one, and we can’t wait for the next day to see him/her again.
Sure enough, the ‘honeymoon’ phase soon fades out and we start noticing flaws in our partner. We start criticizing, condemning and complaining about his bad habits. We’ll eventually wonder what made us “love” this person in the first place?
Not long after that, feeling disappointed, we consider starting a relationship with another person.
The list could go and on, but I hope you get the idea. The point is this:
Often times, we find ourselves working so hard to fulfill these desires in the belief that on fulfilling them, we’ll gain deep satisfaction. What we fail to realize is that because of our false expectations, we end up being no better off than we were before.
Whatever happens, we’re likely to adapt to it, but we don’t realize up front that we will.
“One key to happiness, then”, says William B. Irvine in his book, “A Guide to the Good Life,” is “to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job.
This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it. In other words, we need a technique for creating in ourselves a desire for the things we already have.” [emphasis mine]
How exactly can we do that?
Let me introduce you to a very powerful psychological technique that would sound counter-intuitive to many of you. This technique is called (drum roll please. . .)
. . .
Negative Visualization – The Art of Being Happy With What You Have While in Pursuit of What You Want
Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.
This is one of the most valuable techniques recommended by the ancient Stoic philosophers. (To the reader who is interested in learning more about the subject of Stoicism, check out the links at the end of this article for more useful resources.)
The Stoics believed that negative visualization will help us develop more gratitude and cultivate a deeper appreciation for our life.
For the purposes of this article, let me share two practical ways in which this technique can be applied in our life.
. . .
1. Imagine how it would feel like losing the things you value or have taken for granted
With this technique, the Stoics would invite us to spend time imagining that we’ve lost the things we value so much – that we’ve lost our possessions, we’ve lost our job, our car was stolen, or our wife has left us etc.
The Stoics thought that doing so will make us value our possessions, our job, our car and our wife more than we would otherwise.
Let’s face it. So many times we crave for more, more, and more, and we often we forget to appreciate what we already have, isn’t it true?
We think we are entitled to have all these things. But we’re not. We’re not entitled to anything. We should study the history of mankind and realize how lucky we are to live in this unprecedented day and age.
Just take a moment to pause and reflect.
When was the last time you sat down and thought about how blessed you are to have everything you have?
How many times did you take your legs, your hands, and your eyes for granted? How about the fact that you can see, walk, breathe, smell, taste, and touch?
How many times did you take your health for granted? Have you thought about how blessed you are to have a roof over your head? How about the fact that you have clean water? Do you take your family for granted? Or your kids?
Epictetus, for example, advises us that in the moment of kissing our child, to remember that he is mortal, so that in the very act of kissing him, we should silently reflect on the possibility that he will die tomorrow.
This advice may sound overly pessimistic to some of you, but don’t jump to conclusions too fast. Think about it for a second.
Think about how much more attentive and loving you will be. Think about how much more appreciative you’ll be of the fact that he is still part of your life.
During the day, you’ll probably take full advantage of opportunities to interact with him. Think about the kind of relationship you’ll be able to develop with your child. Think about how nurturing and how much more resourceful will be the days spent together.
The Stoics believe that the same goes for our friends.
Epictetus, again, suggests that when we say goodbye to a friend, we should silently remind ourselves that this might be our last meeting ever. Doing so will help us derive far more pleasure from friendships than we otherwise would.
Above all else, we should regularly remind ourselves of our own mortality.
We have to acknowledge the impermanence of life. Life is pretty short, but we like to think that it will last an eternity. As Seneca said, “It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. [...] The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” And at another time he suggested that, “Life is long, if you know how to use it.”
That’s why Seneca encouraged his friend Lucilius “to live each day as if it were his last.”
Look. I’m aware that Silicon Valley is doing its best to “cure death” and make humans immortal. But until we get there, let’s hope for a better future with our feet firmly planted in reality.
The truth of the matter is that all of us will die sooner or later (at least for now). But we can’t predict when this will happen. In fact, our life might turn out to be much shorter than we think. So instead of hoping that this day never comes, let’s live our lives with meaning till the day we give our last breath.
“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” – Horace Mann
As the late Steve Jobs famously said:
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
In fact, for the last 33 years of his life, he would look in the mirror every morning and ask himself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” If the answer is ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Isn’t that powerful?
Realizing consciously and emotionally that you’re going to die can be one of the most awakening moments. You don’t have to wait for a tragedy to wake you up. You can acknowledge the importance of living with purpose RIGHT NOW.
Maybe it’s time to reconsider your priorities. In particular, ask yourself, “What exactly am I striving for?” and “Why?”
In your pursuit of getting what you want, are you driven by a purpose bigger than yourself? Is what you’re doing meaningful to you, or you’re just caught up in the river of life, doing the same things day in and day out?
. . .
2. Premeditatio Malorum (premeditation of evils)
Apparently, the Stoics couldn’t come up with a better name for it.
Nevertheless. . . It would be foolish of us to think that every single plan or endeavor we choose to embark on will go smoothly, the way we planned it in advance.
Having a plan is great, but so is thinking about the things that could go wrong.
In business, they call it risk assessment or risk management, during which you ask yourself three questions:
- What’s the best thing that could happen?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen? and
- What’s the most likely thing to happen?
If the most likely thing to happen is bearable, then you can go for it.
Of course, that’s an oversimplification because it doesn’t take into consideration the specific situation and the circumstances of that decision. However, that’s a good starting point.
As the saying goes, you should always prepare for the rainy day. Have a safety net in place. Don’t walk around puffed up about your own greatness, thinking that you’re going to defy the laws of physics.
Be humble. Remind yourself often that there are things in life you have control over, and things you have no control over.
Focus on what you can control and let the world do its job. It’s your responsibility to have a back-up plan in place. By thinking in advance about the things that could go wrong, you can prevent those things from happening.
I think you’ll agree that it is always better to have a pleasant surprise than an unpleasant one.
. . .
Happiness is not contained in the things you get, but in the attitude towards them. In other words, it is a mindset game.
Live with passion. Pursue your wildest dreams. Set ambitious goals for yourself. But as you do so, remember to appreciate this day. Be grateful for what you have while in pursuit of what you want. I hope I’ve given you the tools required to do so.
Positive thinking helps you get what you want. Negative visualization helps you want what you get.
Recommended Resources on Stoicism
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