The Stoic Power of Negative Thinking!


This week is Stoic Week.

Since Stoicism is relevant to Escapology we’re posting something with a Stoical theme each day this week. Today is the third entry.

The Stoics believed that the good life was to live in step with nature and, like Epicurus, taught that simple living was the path to the greatest happiness. Where the Epicureans focussed on the pursuit of pleasure, the Stoics tended to advocate the development of self control and fortitude as a way to overcome misery.

Among other things, the Stoics practiced negative visualisation: a deliberate attempt to value a thing through contemplating (briefly, not obsessively) its loss.

Imagine how it would feel to lose something you currently enjoy. How would you cope if you lost your computer, your looks, your teeth, your winter coat, your favourite coffee cup, a loved one, your mobility, your ability to read? All nightmares of varying degrees of severity.

Contemplating these potential losses makes you deeply grateful for what you have while you have it (and history tells us that gratitude is healthy).

Negative Visualisation is also a way to psychologically prepare yourself for occasions of real loss. In other words, if you do lose something, you’ll on a very important level be prepared for it. It can equip you through rehearsal for when stress is unavoidable.

I read Chris Hadfield’s memoir a couple of years ago. He dedicates a whole chapter to “the power of negative thinking” and attributes it in part to his success in becoming an astronaut:

It’s puzzling to me that so many self-help gurus urge people to visualize victory, and stop there … Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive … You don’t have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster, convinced the sky is about to fall. But it sure is a good idea to have some kind of plan for dealing with unpleasant possibilities. For me, that’s become a reflexive form of mental discipline not just at work but throughout my life.”

Negative visualisation is useful in Escapology. Do you best to escape, but always keep in mind that you might get re-ensnared. What would that be like? Could you face it? Of course you could! At the worst, you’ll be like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape being comically marched back to “the cooler” again and again. That’s not so bad as worst case scenarios go. Better a perpetual escapee than a battery hen.

This all reminds me of Tim Ferriss and his “fear setting” wherein you imagine a worst case scenario and muse around what you’d do should it occur. The contingency plan is probably not as bad as you might have initially imagined, and probably doesn’t even look like total failure.

You come away from that exercise realizing, ‘Wow, I was getting extremely anxious and all worked up over something that is completely preventable, reversible, or just not a very big deal.’

Negative visualisation can fortify against insatiability, making you less likely to want more than you currently have and less likely to fall into the trap of endless consumerism. I think this technique might be the true engine behind my tendency toward minimalism and could be a good (and wholly accessible) way of finding contentment beyond materialism.

Stoicism. It’s what’s for dinner.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

3 Responses to “The Stoic Power of Negative Thinking!”

  1. Spoonman says:

    Before leaving work I took a few photos of my cubicle to remind me what my old Bastille looked like. It just takes a second of looking at those photos to make me feel greatful for what I currently have.

    I have plenty of mental images of my previous place of employment, but the photos are incredibly effective.

  2. Excellent! We should do a “show us your prison” feature here.

  3. Lentus Ambulandus says:

    Often (most often), our anxiety is blown massively out of proportion. I find it helps to take a step back and look at my situation relative to the circumstances of other people who are infinitely more screwed than I am.

    “Think you have it bad?” I say to myself. “Try walking a few miles in that guy’s shoes. Exactly, now quit whining and get on with it.”

    Not quite negative visualization as described above, but it works.

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