I just read a terrific book called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine.
Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, writes that Stoicism was one of many competing philosophies (such as the Cynics and the Epicureans) that ran schools to teach a “philosophy of life” to students in ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoics were interested in leading a life of “tranquility,” meaning a life free of “anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy.” To achieve such a life the Stoics developed, in the words of historian Paul Veyne, a “paradoxical recipe for happiness,” that included the practice of “negative visualization.” By frequently and vividly imagining worst-case scenarios — the death of a child, financial catastrophe, ruined health — the Stoics believed you would learn to appreciate what you have, and curb your insatiable appetite for more material goods, social status, and other objects of desire.Reading the book, I had no trouble understanding how negative visualization could be an effective antidote against “hedonic adaptation.” By imagining ourselves to be homeless, for instance, we can reset our desire for a more luxurious home and once again appreciate the roof over our head that we started taking for granted shortly after moving in.
I had a harder time buying into the idea that imagining the death of one of my children was good for my mental well being. The Stoic teacher Epictetus advised his students that, “In the very act of kissing a child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow.” Why would anyone want to do that? Irvine answers the question by offering the example of two fathers, one who practices negative visualization and one who pushes such thoughts out of his head. The second father assumes his daughter will outlive him and will “always be around for him to enjoy.” The first father assumes that every moment he spends with his daughter might be the last. Which father, asks Irvine is more attentive to and appreciative of his daughter, and which father is more likely to put off spending quality time with his daughter, believing that he’ll have plenty of opportunities in the future? By thinking of our kids as precious gifts that could be taken from us at any moment we will come to treasure the time we spend with them. I’ve been trying this kind of negative visualization for the past week or so, and it really works. (But it packs a quite an emotional wallop.)
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