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Can Intentional Pessimism Make You Happy?

It’s very easy to feel down about the state of the Earth. A man in charge of the largest nation on Earth decided he needed to be in charge of more land; and so invaded Ukraine. The climate is changing. Modern humans appear to spend most of their existence taking close up pictures of their own faces. Economic inequality remains a huge challenge. Right now, you should be working or doing something productive, but instead, you find yourself aimlessly trawling the blogosphere (clearly).

And this, sadly, is just the start. In moments where you aren’t fearful about something in the outside world, you have your own confused mind to grapple with. One designed by evolution to be nervous. All of our not-so-fearful ancestors were eliminated from the human gene pool, on account of being eaten by a lion or some other hungry creature on the African Savannah. It should be no surprise that some estimates suggest that 95% of our thoughts are negative and 80% are repetitive. And that for many of us, “life” could more accurately be described as “a few decades spent worrying about the future”. That is of course, until you expire, and the endless worrying ceases (alongside with everything else).

So what to do about our predicament? Weirdly, I’m going to suggest that one answer to endless worrying is to punctuate your life with moments of further negativity. Yep. But I’m not just talking about the endless daily mental diarrhoea we have to deal with: “Did he grimace when I told that joke?… The traffic is so terrible today, I hate being late!… We need a new manager; this is a disgrace.” No, I’m talking about punctuating your daily life with brief moments where you imagine losing all of the things that you value. So as you chat to your spouse, imagine losing them forever. When you’re stuck in traffic, imagine losing the ability to drive. Or as you spend the six-thousandth hour of your life being frustrated by humans kicking footballs around, visualise never being able to watch football again.

Negative Visualisation

At this stage, you might be wondering whether I’m a masochist. If our minds have been designed by evolution to languish in almost constant worry, regret, and anxiousness, how would picturing the worst case scenario help things? Well, this technique is actually a portal to much more pleasant emotion: gratitude. Unless you intentionally picture losing the things which you value, you’ll never truly appreciate them. If you’re arguing with your spouse, you might in that moment appear not to be awfully fond of them. But if you recently visualised losing them for good, the likelihood is that the anger will subside more quickly. And instead, you’ll just feel blessed that they are in your life. If you’re stuck in traffic or watching your (losing) football team, well, you might just feel lucky to have existed at all. And so be able to experience anything.

Imagining losing the things you love also serves another purpose: it prepares you for the worst. If you periodically imagine the worst-case scenario, you’ll at least notionally have considered that these outcomes are possible. And perhaps be slightly less shocked if they play out in real life. The most notable thing being your death, of course. After all, one day you’ll have to let go of all of the people, things, feelings, places, hobbies, and the (apparent) drudgeries of your life. Meditating on what you’ll lose can make you appreciate what you have now, in this fleeting and frankly stranger-than-fiction experience of being an ape on a floating rock, zooming around a giant nuclear reaction. Or life, as we call it.

Gratitude From Negativity

Personally, I’ve found that negative visualisation has made me profoundly happier to be the person I am, leading the life I do. It’s helped me feel immensely more grateful about the people and things that are in my life. And also for the simple fact of existing. That you exist at all is a wonder beyond all comprehension. For you to be sat on your bum, reading this article, a universe had to appear from nothing. A planet needed to form from the waste products of exploded stars. Hundreds of millions of years had to pass for single-celled organisms to emerge from inert matter. And then each needed to successfully reproduce in a line spanning a further 3.5 billion years to produce you, creating intelligence and consciousness along the way. Meditating on the fact this mind-bending opportunity of existence will end, might just make you enjoy your existence more. And this has to be a good thing.

Don’t just take my word for it. Negative visualisation has been employed for two millennia, by Greek and Roman Stoic Philosophers. Recent neuroscientific evidence shows us that our happiness is to a large degree determined by how grateful we are for the things we already have in our lives. Stop worrying about the little things in life. Stop thinking you need “more” of something to magically produce everlasting peace. Instead, try imagining losing the things you hold so dear. It might help you cut through the constant niggles which terrorise our minds. And make you profoundly grateful for the things you do have in your life. Not least, being alive. For terminally-ill people, life is all they want. It alone is enough. It should be for everyone.

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