A Guide to the Good Life

I’ve recently been rereading William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. It introduces the teachingings of Stoicism, but updated for a modern audience.

One of the big lessons discussed at length is periodic “negative visualization”, or imaging bad things happening to the people or things that you love. At first glance, it sounds like a morbid concept, but in practice, it makes you stop, think, and feel in the moment. It makes you grateful, because life and everything in it is all temporary.

One example I think about every now and then is with my cat. Blueberry is the sweetest feline to ever walk this earth. Each evening, he curls up on my chest and doses off while my wife and I watch a bit of TV before bed. I absolutely love these snuggles.

Occasionally, I employ this negative visualization technique and imagine when I won’t have him around anymore. I feel terribly sad to think this, but at the same time, I am far more grateful that evening when I get him back. I enjoy his company more after I practice this, and helps me not take this time for granted.

How many times have you beaten yourself with “If onlys”?

  • “If only I had spent more time with …”
  • “If only I had paid more attention to …”
  • “If only I didn’t take … for granted.”

There are so many other good examples. When you have your first child, every wise parent friend tells you to “Enjoy Every Moment. It goes by so fast.” This technique is the most practical way to take that advice.

I’ve used this to astounding effect recently with the stock market crash. I’ve practiced negative visualization on my portfolio about once a quarter, asking myself “How would I feel if tomorrow, this number was 50% of what it was?” and exploring that line of feeling.

In truth, I’m trying to anchor high when I do that, because in the Great Financial Crisis, a 100% stock portfolio in the S&P was down ~55%. I don’t take that much risk, so my account has some room dedicated to bonds and cash. So I ask a more realistic scenario, and run the calculations on if I lost ~30%.

If you’ve been following any market news lately, you’d know that as it turns out, the stock market crashed about 30% in record time. Several of these days were within the top 10 largest single day drops since and including the Great Depression.

Did I panic? No, not one little bit. And I think it’s all because I pictures and pre-felt what that moment was going to feel like. So when it actually did arrive I was prepared.