Negative Visualization and Gratitude

Published 2013-03-18

On her excellent Maternal Journey blog, my friend Kirstin wrestles with gratitude:

Have you ever tried to do a gratitude practice? Keep a gratitude journal? Have you tried to simply be grateful?

How did that work out for you?

I have trouble with gratitude, heck I am basically a relentlessly negative person who imagines that right now is probably the worst possible moment of my life, and that [n] years ago it was All So Much Better. Funny enough I have thought this for at least [n+1] years.

Which basically turns “gratitude practice” into a math problem. I project myself [n+1] years into the future, and imagine: what about this moment now will I miss?

For example:

When I’m riding my bike to work, and I’m cold/wet/tired/achey/etc.,

I reflect that some day I’ll be fragile old dodderer physically incapable of riding a bike over a hill in the sleet.

When my preschool-age-kids are whiny or fussy or punchy,

I reflect that someday they’ll be surly teenagers who won’t want to cuddle the tantrum away.

When I’m irritated about the ceaseless responsibility of my home life,

I reflect that one day we’ll be empty-nesters and we’ll miss the chaos and life of a house full of Too Much.

When something at work stresses me out,

I reflect that someday I may be unemployed, or more-trapped in an even-worse work situation. (I also remember what my headshrinker and my friend James both said as I was gliding out of my divorce: “if your biggest complaints are about your job, then you’re mentally healthy.”)

I have other tools for gratitude. And I’m hardly able to be grateful all the time for everything. I’m batting like .500 on gratitude, maybe.

But this is a hugely clarifying exercise for me:

How will I miss this moment, someday?


I edited this post. Originally it was about the formal practice of Negative Visualization as described by the Stoics. I learned about this from William Irvine’s fine book: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Recap here on Boing Boing). But I realized after publishing this blog post that I had been doing negative visualization long before I read Irvine’s book, I just didn’t have a name for it.

Addendum 2:

Stoics took this to extremes. Epictetus told his students to meditate that their families would die tomorrow. Which does reframe tantrums about toothbrushes.