There is a counterculture to positive thinking, a kind of hidden in plain sight non-movement slowly gaining momentum. At first I thought the negative thinking advocates were simply a backlash, a kind of sour grapes movement against the sucrose sweet teachings of positive thinking. But not at all, and you are going to love this. They have been around since the sandaled feet of the ancient Greeks beat a dusty path to the Parthenon. I am talking about the school of philosophy called Stoicism which blossomed shortly after the death of Aristotle. According to Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, the Stoic’s ideal state of mind was inner peace, not exuberant happiness. And this is an important point. They were actually applying negativity to counterbalance the overtly optimistic, to settle somewhere in between. The Stoics sought through reason what Newton’s third law of motion discovered through, well, motion. They were looking for equilibrium.
According to Burkeman, “Rather than struggling to avoid all thought of these worst-case scenarios, they counsel actively dwelling on them, staring them in the face.” The technique they employ is negative visualization. Here’s how it works. When we find something that we enjoy or even love we soon acclimate to its presence and it does not offer us that same level of happiness. It doesn’t matter if it’s our brand-new whiz-bang, super-duper smart phone or our loving and always supportive partner, in a short amount of time our interest lessens and then our level of enjoyment drops. The object of happiness then fades into the background. Negative visualization dictates that we contemplate the loss of that entity. Negative visualization would have you picture what life would be like without your smart phone or your partner. When your increased awareness falls on that object of happiness it rejuvenates your interest and increases your level of enjoyment. Reminding yourself that you could lose something automatically increases your appreciation of it.
Negative visualization offers another more substantial advantage over positive thinking, and that is the reduction of anxiety. Positive thinking will have you visualize that you already have what you are seeking. Now, you not only have to energetically maintain that illusion but you have to combat the fear of losing it. This phenomenon is especially evident in people who are “always happy”. They tend to overtly push hyper-happiness ahead of them with exaggerated beaming smiles like radar searching for sustenance. But their eyes forsake them. The muscles around their eyes are strained and pinched. Instead of the spontaneous spark of life, deep within their eyes you will find only bewilderment torched by fear. What is it they fear? They fear the loss of the illusion, something they never owned in the first place. Imagine how unsettling it is to fear losing something you never had in the first place.
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