For a number of reasons (the primary one being that I’m kind of weird) I have recently taken an interest in Stoic philosophy. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine is serving as my introduction to the beliefs and practices of this philosophy.
So far it has been an interesting read and has corrected some misconceptions I had about the Stoics. I had always assumed that they were not generally very emotional, but apparently they only sought to avoid negative emotions rather than emotions in general.
While the author gives a decent overview and history of Stoic school of philosophy, his primary focus seems to be on explaining the Stoic practices and how to apply them to your own life. He believes that the practice of Stoicism can provide the same benefits to you and me that it did to the ancient Romans. So he spends quite a bit of time explaining the psychological techniques employed in Stoicism. One such technique is negative visualization.
Negative visualization is used to offset the effects of a phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation”. But what is hedonic adaptation? It is basically the process by which we become accustomed to things and situations to the point that we take them for granted. This can happen with trivial things like Moleskine notebooks as well as much more significant things such as marriages.
I’m sure most of us can remember being a kid and wanting some toy more than anything in the world. Once you obtained it, you were naturally very happy. But your level of satisfaction with the toy probably wasn’t able to sustain itself, and in a matter of weeks or months, the toy just didn’t excite you anymore. As with many childish things, we don’t put this tendency away once we grow up.
To combat this, the Stoics suggest practicing negative visualization. This just means that from time to time we should contemplate what it would be like to lose something we cherish. By realizing that nothing is guaranteed to be with us forever, we can avoid taking so many things for granted.
Now it might sound rather morbid to sit around thinking about how we would feel if we lost our house or even our family, it doesn’t have to be. The idea is to constantly dwell on the possibility, but to just remind yourself of the fragile nature of things from time to time.
I find this to be very sound advice. If the rest of Stoicism is this reasonable, I might just have to become a full blown Stoic. But I still have quite a bit of the book to finish, so we’ll have to see.