Using Negative Visualization to Reduce the Desire for More

What would my life be like if Sarah suddenly died? What if one of my children suddenly died?

Those scenarios seem like horror stories to me – and, frankly, they still do. Those four people – my wife and my three kids – are really the cornerstones of my life right now. I invest more of my energy into being a good husband and a good father than I do into almost every other aspect of my life, yet I still feel that I get more value out of those relationships than I put into them.

The thing is, there are still times when I essentially take them for granted. I assume that Sarah will always be there – beautiful, reliable Sarah. I assume my kids will always be there. I don’t think about what they add to my life.

When I begin to feel that way, I usually end up feeling dissatisfied with my life, not satisfied. I find myself reflecting on all of the things that I don’t have, and I get frustrated and upset.

I want more, in other words. When I become complacent with the things I have in my life, my desire for more starts creeping up and I find myself becoming unhappy with what I have.

I can’t even put into words how counterproductive that feeling is, yet it’s an incredibly common feeling. Almost everyone I’ve talked about this feeling with has had it at some point in their life. Their life seems great and they have almost everything they’ve ever wanted… and yet they’re unhappy. It’s not enough.

Sometimes, when I’m not being too rational or thoughtful about things, I will try to quell that feeling by buying more stuff. For example, I’ll lose touch of the good things I have in my life a little bit, feel frustrated that I don’t have more time for my hobbies, and try to quell that feeling by buying something for that hobby.

That purchase feels really good… in the very short term. Before long, however, the sense of not having enough creeps back in. I still want more.

Here’s the truth: If you listen to that voice, you’ll quickly realize that there will never be enough, that you will always desire more. And there is always more to desire.

How do you fix that? In general, the solution is obvious: learn to appreciate what you have rather than lusting for what you don’t have. How do you do that practically, though?

The solution is actually in that seemingly miserable pair of questions I stated at the top of this article.

What would my life be like if Sarah suddenly died? What if one of my children suddenly died?

Every once in a while – maybe twice a week or so – I spend some time seriously thinking about those questions, and a few other similar questions. What would my life be like if I suddenly lost some of the things that I care the most about?

What if I lost Sarah? What if I lost my kids? What if I lost my vision? What if I lost my ability to walk? What if I lost my ability to creatively express myself? What if I lost my opportunity to write for a living?

I think about those things and I try to imagine my life without them.

My life without Sarah would feel pretty empty. I absolutely love the conversations we have literally every day. I love doing things with her and spending time with her. I have undying appreciation for her wisdom and for all of the things she quietly handles in our life. I love that absolutely warm smile she gets when she’s happy and that twinkle in her eye when she has one of her crazy ideas.

My life without my children would feel pretty empty, too. I would miss my oldest son’s considerate and kind heart. I would miss my daughter’s bursts of creativity. I would miss my youngest son’s humor and surprising compassion. I would miss our conversations and our games and the sheer joy of watching them grow up and develop into their own selves.

My life without my vision… my life without my creative expression… my life without my meaningful career… my life without mobility… those things all seem so incredibly challenging. I could do them, of course, but they would represent such a drop and such a redirection from where I’m at right now.

When I think about things like that, I can’t help but be flooded with appreciation for her and what I have. I want to rush over and embrace Sarah and hold her close and whisper in her ear. I want to go on some crazy adventure with my kids. I want to go on a long walk and feel soft grass underneath my feet with sunshine on my shoulders. I want to sit down and write and write and write until I’ve drained every ounce of creativity from my spirit. I want to curl up with a great book for an entire afternoon. I want to write some mythically great article that touches the soul of everyone who reads it.

In other words, when I really give into visualizing my life without the things that I have that I value the most, I suddenly desperately want what I already have. Realizing what I do have, and then diving deep into exactly what I love about it, brings me a ton of joy. I suddenly feel incredibly joyous because of the bounty in my life.

Why do I ever need more than that?

That simple thought experiment is the single most effective tool I’ve ever found for erasing my desire for “more” and building contentment and finding joy with what I have. It’s called “negative visualization,” and it’s one of the key tools taught by the Stoic life philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. One of Stoicism’s foremost practitioners, Epictetus, once wrote the following in his great work, The Enchiridion:

“Hold death and exile and all that seems dreadful before your eyes every day, but most of all death: and you will never think of anything bad or desire anything too much.”

Imagine the loss of what you hold most dear and see how adversely your life is affected by it. If you do that simple thing regularly, you stop taking it for granted and begin appreciating what you have. When that shift occurs, your desire for more quickly fades away.

A final thought: isn’t a desire for “more” a good thing? Without that desire, wouldn’t it be difficult to motivate ourselves to do things?

I’ll turn that back around: why, exactly, does a person work hard every day? Do you work hard so that you can accumulate more and more stuff that you don’t have time to use? Or do you work hard to preserve and protect the things you care about the most and to have truly meaningful experiences in life?

Bringing about a contentment with your life and a drastic reduction in the desire for more doesn’t mean that you stop working for anything. I work hard to preserve and protect and genuinely enhance the things I care about the most, the things that I would be devastated to lose. I cultivate – or at least try to cultivate – the things I value the most in my life. I try to invest in my body and mind so that I can have the best chance at living a long life with a sound mind.

In the end, I realize that a truly blessed and content life is one that is filled with the things I truly care about in their best state – my body, my mind, my relationship with my loved ones, their own sound body and mind, learning, and so on. That, to me, is the best life, and it’s really revealed to me when I consider what my life is like when those elements are taken away from it. If my life would be pained by the loss of something, then it is worth my time and effort to do what I can to preserve and protect and enhance that thing. Acquiring more stuff and being unhappy with what I have rarely helps that goal at all.

Let me put it another way. I don’t work to have piles of stuff – in fact, when I do so, I’ve usually made a mistake. I work so that I have a strong relationship with my wife and a strong relationship with my kids and that they have fulfilling lives. I work so that I have a strong body and a strong mind. I work so that I can have the freedom to enjoy a long hike in the woods on a sunny day without much worry on my shoulders.

It’s when I move away from that, when I start to take all of that for granted and start desiring more and more and more, that I begin to be troubled. Negative visualization takes that endless empty desire and locks it away. It redirects me back to the things that I cherish most in my life and reminds me that those are the things worth working for, to protect them and to enhance them in a healthy way.

Take some time to practice negative visualization, not as a constant tactic, but as an occasional one, to remind yourself of the bounty you have in life and to remind yourself that protecting and preserving and enhancing that bounty is a life’s work, indeed. Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.