In looking into ways of dealing with disappointment we explored the Stoic practice of imagining the things that could go wrong in our lives. This is a great tool for helping us blunt the painful feeling of disappointment that accompanies loss.
However, this is not the only benefit to this practice.
Professor William Irvine wrote a book called A Guide to the Good Life in which he pulls wisdom from the writings of the Stoic philosophers and teaches how to apply it to modern life.
Professor Irvine calls the habit that we previously discussed “negative visualization,” and says that the most important benefit of this practice is fighting off hedonic adaptation and making us more grateful for the things we have.
Happiness is Not Having What You Want, But Wanting What You Have
We’ve already explored how hedonic adaptation is making us poor and unhappy. In that article, we discussed ways to practice gratitude and stop automatically adapting to the positive things in our life. This allows us to hold on to the joy that those things bring us for a longer period of time and live an overall happier life.
There is actual scientific truth to the idea that happiness is found in wanting what you have rather than having what you want.
The Stoics found that by imagining losing the things in our life, we could get more joy out of them while we had them. This not only stalls the hedonic adaptation process, but reverses it. It helps prevent ourselves from taking for granted the new things in our life, but it also helps us to gain new appreciation for the things that we already take for granted.
The Stoics want us to think about what life would be like if we lost our material possessions. Take the time to stop and think through a scenario in which your car was stolen. What would you feel? What would you do? How would it impact your life?
What about if your house was foreclosed on? Your pet was lost? Your photographs were deleted?
Now come back to reality. Do you have a greater appreciation for the fact that those things are still in your life? That you don’t have to deal with that loss right now? That you get more time to enjoy those possessions?
Now do the same thing with your abilities. Your ability to walk. Your ability to hear. Your ability to see.
These are all marvelous and miraculous abilities and we never take the time to appreciate them.
The Stoics recommend thinking about the loss of friends and relatives as well, whether through death or falling out. We should recognize that each time we hang out with a friend or family member, it could be the last. We should take no moment for granted.
Finally, the Stoics applied this thinking to their own lives. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, and so we must be sure not to waste our days. By considering that each day could be their last, the Stoics were able to appreciate the little joys in each and every day.
On Loss and Optimism
This may all seem very morbid and pessimistic. Nobody is really enthusiastic about contemplating their own mortality. However, the Stoics did not find this exercise to be one of pessimism.
As Professor Irvine notes,
“We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty. For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point. After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen. And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and – miracle of miracles! – allow us to see what they contain. This might sound a bit silly, but to someone who has not lost his capacity for joy, the world is a wonderful place. To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass, and it is half empty to boot.”
If we can remind ourselves of the wonders in the world around us, we can be more grateful for the life we lead. In turn, this will lead us to live happier and more fulfilled lives.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! What is something that you are grateful for that would be easy to take for granted? Share your gratitude and your perspective with us in the comments!