- Cameron M. Clark
Happiness is often thought of as the gap, or lack thereof, between what we want, and what we have. In this view, happiness is simply getting what we want out of life, again and again and again. And there is no end to our wants: a new car, a bigger house, new clothing, more money, a higher status role in our work, better health, or a perfect partner to share our life's experiences with.
However, there is a problem with this view of happiness - and it's one that you're probably all too familiar with. The things that we once wanted (secure in the thinking that it would make us happy), have a way of fading into the background of our daily existence, becoming dull, and eventually ceasing to provide the happiness we were once sure they would. As proof, look no further than the things you already have, and consider how much less they contribute to your daily happiness now than you thought they might when the desire to attain them struck.
Happiness as a simple byproduct of getting what we want fails to take into account what is known as 'hedonic adaptation' - the idea that we rather quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite minor positive or negative life events. Instead of a staircase to contentment, seeking our desires exclusively can put us on more of a 'hedonic treadmill' with no final destination in sight.
The ancient stoic philosophers recognized this problem, and offered a unique solution. Rather than striving to get what we want, we must learn to want what we already have. Epictetus (50-135AD):
"Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life"
A nice thought maybe, but how can we possibly learn to welcome, value, and even cherish the life we are already leading rather than ceaselessly striving to satisfy that inevitable next desire?
Fortunately, the ancients have done the heavy lifting for us on this too, and thought-engineered a technique to help. They suggested negative visualization, or momentarily considering having lost something that you already have.
Give it a try:
Think about your life, your current circumstances, and your relationships. Who or what are you truly grateful for?
Now take a moment to imagine that this person, place, situation, or idea were to be no longer part of your life. What would that be like? How would it change the way you feel throughout the day? Fill in some of the details here. Visualize it.
The point here is not to have these negative visualizations linger indefinitely, but rather to consider them for a brief moment in order to gain a greater appreciation for what we already have.
Paradoxically, fostering these flickering or fleeting negative thoughts can make us realize how fortunate we are to have all that we already do.