I will bet my left knee cap that as you’re reading this, there is something about your body that you’d like to change. That you don’t feel completely satisfied with how something in your body looks (belly fat), feels (spongy) or moves (tight, or constipated).
We often think of this lack of satisfaction as a good thing. It provides the motivation to switch into our training gear. That little voice that urges us to make healthier decisions during meal times. The soft whisper that tells us to eat more fibre.
So if these collective negative feelings about who we are now are driving us to be better for tomorrow, shouldn’t we embrace them with a shriek?
Then, once we reach our goals, we can finally feel content about ourselves.
But, alas, this is not the case. Let’s have my friend Emma prove it. She looks amazing. It’s clear that she cares for her body. Without looking like she has redirected her mailing address to the gym and diligently counts each gram of fibre in her diet.
Naturally my conversations with Emma often turn to training, fitness and health. And time and time again I come away from these conversations baffled by how unhappy she is about her appearance. Be it too much arm fat, back fat or ankle fat. Never satisfied with her present-self, there is always something she wants and needs to work on next.
That’s because Emma is a human. Which makes her notoriously incompetent at predicting what will make her happy and content.
Most of us are no different to Emma. We base the images of our future goals on how we would feel if we’d achieve those things today. We ignore the fact that who we are now is not the same as who we will be.
In Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert uses the example of a heterosexual teenage boy to illustrate this. Asking him to imagine how he would feel if a bikini wearing Budweiser babe (“if she’d be a president she’d be called Baberaham Lincoln”) would show up at his door in a desperate need for a massage.
Thrilled. That’s how he’d feel. But what if this same guy imagines how he’d feel if a bikini babe (still Baberaham Lincoln) would show up at his door in 50 years’ time?
Again, thrilled. He thinks he would feel as thrilled as he would today. But while blinded by these present thrills, he ignores that in 50 years he’ll be in his mid-, to late-sixties and will have a different level of hormones, life experience and whatnot running through him. All of which would alter his future experience.
The point? We are terrible at predicting what will make us content and happy. Yet we keep setting these lofty goals and expecting to feel euphoria once we reach them.
And even if our predictions of our future happiness are accurate, our insatiability keeps us from feeling content for the long-term.
This phenomenon has a catchy name: hedonic adaptation. We feel unfulfilled with what we achieve because we get easily bored with what we already have. The things we worked hard to get lose their appeal and we will take them for granted. And so we come up with new goals and targets. And on and on we go without ever feeling fully content in the present.
Although we typically associate hedonic adaptation with tangible things like new iPhones and fancy leather pants, it is prevalent in our careers, relationships, and yes, in our self-image.
Unless we “cure” our insatiability, we can never jump off the demonic rat wheel of desiring what we don’t have. There will always be the next thing that becomes the burning focus of our whimsical appetite.
The alternative is to find contentment in how we look, feel, and move as we are today.
Instead of using a negative verbal lashing to push ourselves forward, we can learn to appreciate what we already have. A one way to do this is by practicing an ancient stoic technique called negative visualisation. The thick-bearded Roman stoics were the masters at finding tranquillity in the present.
They regularly contemplated how their life would be if they’d lose the things they valued. Whether it was visualising losing the annual pass to their favourite bathhouse, not having enough food on the table, or worse, being exiled to a remote island.
And it’ll work just as well in our fast-paced modern world. We can visualise losing our physical resiliency, our career, family or our favorite coffee mug.
Negative visualisation works, even if we think there really isn’t a way things could get any worse.
If you’re unhappy with that ankle fat you could think how sad you would feel if you’d break your ankle and couldn’t walk at all. Imaging your life navigating the word as an ankless being.
If you are already dealing with a broken ankle and can’t walk, you can visualise how much it would suck if your leg would be cast up to the groin. Got that going for you already? You can visualise how life would be if you’d break your dominant arm.
This might sound extreme, but the Roman stoics believed that regardless of how bad the situation might seem, it could always be worse. Meaning that there is always something to be grateful for.
How much happier would we be if we’d set aside few minutes each day for negative visualisation?
Maybe it’s when we’re commuting or before pausing for lunch. When we’re going for a walk or getting ready for sleep. For only few minutes a day.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to reach your goals. But it might make us question which goals are worth pursuing.
If this sparked your interest in stoicism, I highly recommend reading William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy Although the writing could use some heavy-handed editing, the content itself is brilliant. It’s a great introduction to stoicism. Besides, the writing could be a lot worse.
There. Negative visualisation coming right at you.