Using Negative Visualisation To Support Having A Wonderful Life:

Here in the UK, the covid-19 lockdown continues and I've noticed an increasing number of posts online recently from people expressing how they won't take certain things for granted again in the way they used to, once things return to normal.

There are many things I think we will all appreciate when life does ease back into normality. Most of us have missed the freedom and luxury of just going out to places whenever we wish, of strolling around and sitting in nature and the great outdoors, and spending time with people from outside our own households. Many are looking forward to getting back onto their usual routines and doing the things they enjoy. And, as we watch the figures rise for the number of people affected by covid-19, I think we can all be grateful for our own health and, here in the UK, every week we show our appreciation for the NHS and key workers by 'clapping for carers'.

Indeed, the NHS is perhaps one of those things that as a country we've grown used to over the years and adapted to it being there so that now, in this time of pandemic, we have one again truly appreciated those who work within the health service and the fact that it is there for all of us.

Expressing gratitude is certainly one of those practices that can boost our sense of well-being and happiness and a wealth of science supports that fact.

The Benefits of Gratitude

Research supports the notion that gratitude is strongly beneficial for a number of aspects of mental health and well-being.

If you purposefully notice and appreciate positive aspects in your life and your world then you will likely to be happier, more optimistic, have positive self-esteem and be more positive. You are also likely to experience less depression and anxiety symptoms. In fact, gratitude offers some protection against depression and anxiety because you are able to encourage and be compassionate and reassuring towards yourself when things go wrong in life and when you are faced with challenges.

 "Grateful people possess a worldview that is more focused on the appreciation of the good things that are present in one's life, including personal qualities, skills and resources. As a result, they may be less prone to see themselves as "not enough," more willing to consider themselves as resourceful, and to encourage themselves, which may lead to less anxiety in facing life's circumstances"  (Petrocchi & Couyoumdjian, The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self (2016)).

Grateful people tend to have more fulfilling, meaningful relationships and lower rates of many psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety.

"The grateful disposition represents a protective factor against depression and anxiety...being grateful renders individuals more prone to show kindness, comprehension, support and compassion towards themselves when setbacks and frustrations occur...Thus, grateful people experience less anxiety mostly because they are able to encourage and be compassionate and reassuring towards themselves then things go wrong in life" (Petrocchi & Couyoumdjian).

I've covered more on this subject in this article: The Impact of Gratitude on Anxiety, Depression, Self-Esteem and Well-being

There are three general methods that can be used to promote gratitude and to produce positive mental health outcomes: gratitude lists, behavioural expressions of gratitude and grateful contemplation. I covered the three of them in this article: Gratitude and Well-Being: How To Improve Your Well-Being and Self-Esteem

And so it really does make sense to adopt gratitude practices in your life to boost your happiness, well-being and mental health. You will also likely have positive self-esteem and experience less anxiety and depression symptoms.

All of which suggests that developing and appreciating things now, whilst deprived of things under lockdown, could actually support good mental health for when things return to more normality. However, gratitude requires repetition which means that those grateful sentiments now are going to need to continue well into the future to support the positive benefits.   

That can be an issue because us humans have a tendency to adapt and get used to stuff so that we no longer get such a boost to our mental health and happiness. Being grateful, and recognising and appreciating things you currently have or are temporarily deprived of (e.g health, friends and family, technology, nature etc) is great, yet the mental health benefits become redundant if in six months or so life is back to normal, you've got used to daily life and experiences again, and no longer take the time to truly appreciate the good stuff in your life (once lockdown becomes an ever distancing memory).

Many of the things people are noticing and appreciating more right now are 'good stuff' for happiness and well-being such as social connectedness, health and enjoyable experiences (perhaps in contrast to things we often think will make us happier like more money, a better job, more material possessions, a perfect figure etc).

However, perhaps one of the most annoying features of our minds is that we get used to stuff and things. We adapt and become accustomed to the people, places, things and so forth in our lives and then they no longer bring us the same positive boost. That can lead us wanting more or bigger or better, which in turn makes us dissatisfied with things right now. We may get a boost when lockdown ends but in a few weeks or months we adapt to our normal lives again and may start to yearn for something 'more' to bring us happiness. We could very easily re-adapt and get used to the people we see, the places we go and the things we do so that we no longer value and feel grateful for them in a way we do right now.

Adopting gratitude practices can counter our tendency to get used to things in this way. There is also another strategy that you can adopt that can help support being happier and feeling more positive.

Negative Visualisation

Often we have a tendency to focus on things in unhelpful ways, such as with anxiety and stress, or to focus on our dissatisfaction with an area of our lives or to forget what we do have and think about the next thing we want into the future (whether achieving a goal or a new material possession of some kind).

As mentioned above, we do have a human tendency to feel dissatisfied and pin our happiness on achieving or obtaining the next thing, whether that's more money, a new partner, a new house, better appearance and so on. We work hard to obtain those things and then we get used to the new way of being and want more (e.g. we feel unhappy with our current salary and so seek a new job that pays more. Initially we feel happy but after a while our new salary becomes the new normal and means the amount we think we need to be happy rises even higher).

In his excellent book, 'A Guide To The Good Life', Irvine discusses a psychological technique developed hundreds of years ago by the Stoics for tackling this adaptation process (Stoicism principles are now enshrined in modern day Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).

Irvine writes how 'The Stoics...recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value - that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car and our job more than we otherwise would.'

Irvine calls this psychological technique 'negative visualisation' and suggests it as the way to prevent us from taking for granted, once we have them, the things we worked hard to get. Otherwise we run the risk of getting stuck on the satisfaction treadmill. We desire something in our lives, work hard to get it, feel satisfied for a while and then after a while, find ourselves getting used to it and becoming dissatisfied and so desiring something new e.g. (a new partner, a bigger house, a better car etc).

We can use this negative visualisation to value the things we have in our lives so that we experience more joy and happiness.

By thinking about no longer having the things that are currently in our life, we can re-appreciate them and thereby reconnect with their value to us. For example, at one point in the covid-19 there was a suggestion that going outside to exercise may be banned, which if you enjoy getting out running in nature like me, certainly made me appreciate every run due to the possibility of losing that for a time. When the lockdown is lifted, contemplating not being able to go to work, get out to places we like, browse around the shops and so on, means that we can continue to value these and feel grateful for these things on an ongoing basis (rather than once again start to take them for granted).

I also wrote about this in the context of anxiety and stress here: Could thinking the worst make you happier (and reduce anxiety and stress)?

Negative visualisation may remind you a bit of the story of George Bailey in 'A Wonderful Life' (it isn't Christmas without that film!). In that film, George Bailey imagines what things would have been like had he never been born. 

As Wikipedia puts it, 'the film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched, and how different life would be for his wife Mary and his community of Bedford Falls if he had never been born.'

And as it happens, there is research that looks at this exact effect of negative visualisation and its relationship to your happiness.

It's A Wonderful Life

It's often recommended that you spend time each day thinking about the positive things in your life as a way of boosting your happiness and well-being, although the results of research on this are not totally conclusive. It's certainly something I get my clients to do as one part of the strategy of noticing what is going right in their lives, rather than only focusing on the negative or things that make them feel anxious (and because these are recent things they will still be uplifting).

However, thinking about the same positive events from your life over and over may just make them more familiar each time you think about them, meaning you adapt to their presence in your life and derive less positive impact from them.

Koo et al (It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts (2008)), consider the impact of thinking about the absence of these positive events, that is, as if they had never happened. They hypothesised that happiness and positive feelings would improve more after mentally subtracting positive events from their lives than after thinking about the presence of those events.

In their studies, people who wrote about how positive life events might not have occurred, reported improved levels of happiness, whereas people who wrote about how positive events did occur, simply described positive events, or did not think about positive events and did not report improved happiness.

"In sum, past research on the effects of thinking about positive life events has revealed an inconsistent pattern of results. We suggest that thinking about events to which one has already adapted has little benefit, whereas thinking about how such events were surprising and might not have occurred can improve people’s affective states. Unlike the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, it is not necessary for an angel to show us what the world would look like if we had never been born. Instead, spending a few minutes mentally subtracting a good thing from our lives might make us feel better. To reinvigorate a relationship, for example, it might be better for people to think about how they might never have met their partner than to recount the story of how they did" (Koo et al, 2008).

We already know that when you think about a negative life event, you feel better if you compare it with an even worse outcome. This research shows that when you think about a positive life event, you feel better if you imagine how the event might never have happened (even if intuitively you think that you will feel better to imagine how the positive thing did happen).

"We believe that our studies are the first empirical demonstration of what can be called the “George Bailey effect”: people who wrote about how positive life events might not have occurred reported improved affective states, whereas people who wrote about how positive events did occur, simply described positive events, or did not think about positive events did not report improved affective states" (Koo et al).

These findings suggest that thinking about how positive events may never have happened can lead to increased feelings of happiness, even though we might forecast that it may not do so. For example, thinking about how you may never have met your partner or your best friend, or how you might never have had kids and so forth can refresh your appreciation for them and thereby make you happier.

In many ways it overlaps with the negative visualisation described by Irvine, above. Koo et al talk about considering it the positive people and events hadn't happened whereas the Stoics talked about contemplating losing those things (e.g. your partner leaves you, your kids grow up and move out, your car gets stolen etc). In both approaches you start to re-appreciate and value the people and things that you do have, rather than longing for something new or different. 

It means that even when your partner or kids drive you up the wall (and they do from time to time!), you can think what it would be like to not have them in your life at all, either because you never met your partner and had kids, or because you lose them. It means that rather than taking your home, family and friends for granted, you can devote more appreciation to them and feel better for them being there.

The negative visualisation above has all been about feeling happier and having more well-being now. It's also possible to adapt it to rumination. If you find yourself thinking back upon something negative in the past then start to consider how that event led to the next thing and to the next thing and so on and to where you are right now, with the people, places and things that are now part of your everyday life (e.g. if you hadn't failed that interview then you wouldn't have found that other job where you met your partner and so you wouldn't have moved to the nice town you now live in and your kids wouldn't have been born etc). You can benefit from thinking about things not having happened and you can equally benefit from recognising that they did and how that led to the good stuff in your life now.

Once lockdown ends and normality returns, there will be a boost to happiness and well-being from appreciating things afresh. I'm already looking forward to getting out more in nature, being able to pause and relax in the sun and to having a nice cappucino. However, rather than then getting used to these things again and losing that increased level of gratitude and appreciation, it will certianly be a good practice to think about what if the lockdown hadn't been lifted (or was permanent) or these things were not a part of your life. Doing so can mean that you find yourself feeling happier even about the everyday.

To your happiness,

Dan Regan

Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket 

Seeking help to overcome your anxiety and boost your self-esteem? Book your Complimentary Hypnotherapy Strategy Session with Dan now: Appointments

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Irvine, W. B. (2009). A guide to the good life: The ancient art of stoic joy. Oxford University Press.

Koo, M., Algoe, S.B., Wilson, T.D. and Gilbert, D.T., 2008. It's a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), p.1217.

Petrocchi, Nicola, and Alessandro Couyoumdjian. "The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self." Self and Identity15, no. 2 (2016): 191-205.

Rash, Joshua A., M. Kyle Matsuba, and Kenneth M. Prkachin. "Gratitude and well‐being: Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention?." Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being 3, no. 3 (2011): 350-369.

Wood, Alex M., Jeffrey J. Froh, and Adam WA Geraghty. "Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration." Clinical psychology review 30, no. 7 (2010): 890-905.