If you want to be happy -- and who doesn't? -- there are a huge number of ways people have advised how to accomplish this throughout the thousands of years of recorded history.
Whatever works for you, go for it. That's my attitude. I simply want to suggest an approach that resonates with me, the Stoic practice of negative visualization.
Or as William B. Irvine says in the transcript of a talk that I've shared below, want the things you already have, love the life you happen to be living.
Yeah, I realize this sounds kind of obvious.
But as Irvine points out in his talk, that isn't how most of us look upon happiness, since much of the time we expect that if something new and better comes into our life, then we'll be happier.
This morning I saw the Negative Visualization talk featured on my iPhone's Waking Up app, where I listen to guided meditations and interesting talks about spirituality, neuroscience, and such. I'd already heard the talk when I listened to Irvine's 23-session long series on "The Stoic Path."
This time, though, his remarks about how we go wrong in seeking happiness appealed more strongly to me. So much so, I spent about an hour this afternoon making a transcript of the 11 1/2 minute talk.
Irvine is a clear thinker and good writer/speaker. Enjoy.
A transcript of a talk by William B. Irvine
From “The Stoic Path” on the Waking Up app
What is it that you want in life? One common answer is that people want to be happy. But this raises a follow-up question. What’s your strategy for becoming happy?
A common answer is that you become happy by getting the things in life that you want. And this might include a new car, a bigger house, a perfect partner.
Although this recipe for attaining happiness is quite popular, it is defective, and that’s because it ignores the psychological phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation.
So here’s the situation. You want something. You work to get it. You finally do get it. For a while, you’re happy. But then, the problem is, you get used to the thing you have and you’re no longer happy.
You don’t live happier ever after the way you thought you would.
You end up with pretty much the same position you were at before you went to all that trouble. And you find yourself wanting new new things, from the belief that if you only had them, you really would be happy forever after.
At this point a comment is in order. If you’re currently unhappy, this is proof that never in your life have you succeeded in doing something that would let you live happily forever after.
And yet the dream persists. It’s high time that you considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe, your strategy for pursuing happiness is flawed.
It turns out that the get happy by getting what you want strategy provides you with a recipe not for having a good life, but for having a life filled with dissatisfaction.
By adopting this strategy, you unwittingly place yourself on a hedonic treadmill on which happiness is like a mirage in the desert. A thirsty person might walk for a mile to get the water that he sees with his own eyes off in the distance in the desert, only to have it vanish as he arrives at his destination.
He ends up as thirsty as he was before. Actually he might be even more thirsty as a result of taking a long and pointless walk under the desert sun. What foolishness.
The get happy by getting what you want strategy is based on what I call the gap theory of happiness. You’re unhappy because you’re aware of a gap between what you have and what you want.
Under these circumstances, the strategy for attaining happiness is obvious. You just get what you want. And that closes the gap, eliminating the source of your unhappiness. Easy as can be.
Because this strategy is so obvious, it’s been employed throughout history and around the globe. There’s a good chance you’re among those who use it. I know I have used it in my life. Since becoming a Stoic I use it much less than I formerly did, but it still lures me.
The problem is that we humans are dynamos of desire. If you’re normal, you have a profound capacity for wanting things, but getting what you want doesn’t stop the dynamo. At best it slows it down for a few days.
But then powers up again to come up with new things for you to want. It would be bad enough if the get happy by getting what you want strategy were simply ineffective, but it can better be described as being counterproductive.
The more you use it, the less satisfied likely you will be. Dissatisfaction, I should add, is incompatible with happiness.
The ancient Stoics came up with a way to get off the hedonic treadmill. The trick, they said, is to want the things you already have, to love the life you happen to be living.
To better understand this trick, let’s turn our attention back to the gap theory of happiness. The Stoics agreed that the presence of a gap between what you have and what you want will make you unhappy. Their insight was to realize there’s a second way to close the gap.
You can also close it by wanting what you already have. Let me restate that. Instead of working to get the thing you don’t have, spend your efforts learning to want the things you already do have.
The Stoics would argue that the person who embraces the life that he happens to be living, even though the life is quite basic, is vastly better off than the millionaire who, despite living in a mansion, is convinced that he would be lastingly happy if only he replaced his Ferrari with a newer model.
Or perhaps replaced his wife of several decades with some young model. This millionaire, by the way, will likely be envied by many people. They will imagine that if only they were living his life, they would at last be happy. All their problems would disappear, and no new problems would arise to replace them.
These people are as deluded as the millionaire is. The primary difference between them and the millionaire is that the millionaire is on a more expensive and extravagant version of the hedonic treadmill than they are.
OK, you say, point taken. But how can you learn to want what you already have? The trick, the Stoics said, is to develop your ability to accept, appreciate, and even savor the life you already find yourself living.
One way to accomplish this is by employing the psychological technique known as negative visualization. The technique in question is simple to learn, easy to use, and surprisingly effective. Let’s give it a try.
I want you to think about your life, about your relationships, and about your circumstances. Pick one thing that plays an important role in your life. It might be your spouse or partner. It might be your job. It might be your children.
Now take a few seconds to imagine that thing disappearing from your life.
You can imagine that your spouse has just filed for divorce. You can imagine getting an email telling you that you’ve been laid off from your job. Or, and this one’s kind of sad, you can imagine getting a phone call from the police informing you that your child has been involved in an accident.
Now that you’ve chosen your topic for the negative visualization, go ahead and visualize. Think about the consequences that the disappearance would have for you and the life you’re living.
Form a mental image of what it would be like. And mentally fill in some of the details of the story. Let that image sink in for a few seconds. OK, visualization is over. Return to life as usual.
These are, I realize gloomy thoughts. But realize that in proposing that you negatively visualize, I’m not asking you to dwell on thoughts like these. That would be a recipe for a miserable existence.
What I’m instead doing is asking you to entertain these thoughts for a few seconds. Paradoxically, having flickering negative thoughts, rather than making you sad, will contribute to your happiness. It accomplishes this by shaking your perspective on your circumstances.
Instead of taking those circumstances, including your spouse, your job, or your child for granted, you will realize how lucky you are to have them.
Suppose that in your negative visualization you imagined that your child had been in an accident. When you subsequently encounter your child, you might notice that you’re behaving differently towards her than otherwise would have been the case.
Instead of merely acknowledging her existence, you might find yourself savoring her presence. In your life, you might find yourself wanting to do things with her that would be impossible if she ceased being part of your life.
You might find yourself wanting to read to her, or to play a game with her, instead of watching football. As a result of engaging in negative visualization, those activities, those simple activities, might be the high point of your day.
Negative visualization is effective even if your situation in life is quite difficult. This is because almost always, it’s the case that your situation could be worse than it is, even much worse than it is.
Keeping this in mind can help you not only cope with your circumstances, but keep an upbeat attitude as you do.
Suppose you find yourself living in a crude cabin. Don’t spend your time there worrying about what it would be like to live in a mansion. That’s going to make you miserable. Think instead about what it would be like to live in a tent. Or to live without any shelter at all.
Doing this will help you appreciate the cabin.
The sense of appreciation brought on by negative visualization wears off, though. Meaning that negative visualization is like a prescription for ointment that says “apply as needed.”
Fortunately it’s easy to negatively visualize. It can be done almost anywhere.
In your kitchen, in your workplace, even in a battlefield trench. It can also be done while you’re being wheeled off to surgery. One of the things you can imagine is that your doctor, instead of saying he needed to operate on you, told you that your condition was inoperable.
Also, negative visualization takes very little energy, just a few seconds of your time. As a practicing Stoic, I might negatively visualize half a dozen times a day.
In the late afternoon it’s not unusual for my wife to hear my voice call out to her from my office that’s in a distant part of the house. And what I’ll say is, “Thanks for existing.”
On hearing this, she knows from experience that I’ve just completed a negative visualization. She also knows that she herself was the subject of that visualization.