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How Being Pessimistic Can Help You Succeed

Source | FastCompany : By Eric M. Ruiz

I’m an eternal optimist. I seek out the upside in any situation, sometimes to the chagrin of my coworkers. Once in Brazil, the hotel we were staying at had a bed bug outbreak. While my American colleagues panicked, I reminded everyone that while we had bed bugs, at least we were together, and on the beach in Brazil! I’ve never seen a group’s collective anger turn so quickly.

What makes me optimistic and positive, however, isn’t naïveté or ignoring problems and living in a bubble. In fact, I’m an incredibly positive individual because I practice negative visualization. Seems counterintuitive, but as recent case studies and the ancient Stoics show, thinking negatively can make you more appreciative in your personal life and successful in your professional pursuits.

In his 2009 book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, author William Irvine describes negative visualization as the activity of imagining your life without the comforts you currently possess. “The easiest way for us to gain happiness,” he says, “is to learn how to want the things we already have.”

Irvine’s argument is that we should not take things for granted. Once we become used to our environment, we lose the appreciation and love for the miracles that happen in everyday life. So, we must fight against this “hedonic adaptation” and aim to see every instance, every moment as if we were seeing it for the first time.

Try it. Imagine your life without your job. Imagine your life without your siblings. How much more would you appreciate these things if just for a moment you contemplated their absence from your life? This may sound depressing. But as Irvine elaborates, while we should contemplate such misfortune happening to us, we shouldn’t worry about it.

“Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and it is possible for us to conduct such exercises without it affecting our emotions.”

It’s like being a doctor. He/she knows and is aware of all the ailments that can strike the human body. But they don’t live in hypochondriac fear of being stricken by sickness. They’re simply aware and know that they could happen. Try something today, or tomorrow. As you go about your routine of eating breakfast, going to the gym, and getting into the office, imagine what your life would be without the things we do daily and take for granted.

  • “What if I didn’t have this nourishing food to eat?”
  • “What if I didn’t have the health to go to the gym every day?”
  • “What if I didn’t have a job or couldn’t work?”

Of course contemplating every action you do isn’t scalable. But pick a few moments in the day, try it, and see how each moment becomes more special and new again.

By coming face to face with our worst fears, we’ll see we can survive the ordeal. Think of the first time you fell in love and the first time you had your heart broken. Part of the fear of a breakup is we think we will never get over it. But as anyone who’s ever gone through heartbreak will tell you, you’ll survive and become more resilient. And that’s the aim of Seneca’s exercise: to teach resilience by bringing you head on with your biggest worries.

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