The Wisdom of the Worst-Case Scenario
When I tell people I try to begin each day by imaging how disastrously things could go, they tend to give me funny looks.
I can’t say I blame them: a few years ago the notion would have struck me as absurd, too. Optimism about the future is a largely unquestioned dogma of popular psychology. Yet the idea that it might be calming and empowering to look ahead to what might go wrong dates back as far as ancient Rome. The emperor Marcus Aurelius had this advice:
"Begin each day by telling yourself: today I will be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness…"
This approach has become known as "the premeditation of evils" – but another name for it might be "negative visualisation". When you gently encourage yourself to think about the worst-case scenario – about not meeting your goals, about losing certain relationships, friendships, or career opportunities – the future loses much of its anxiety-inducing power.
According to the psychologist Julie Norem, about a third of people instinctively use this kind of “defensive pessimism” as a healthy coping mechanism. Faced with the prospect of a stressful job interview, the defensive pessimist won’t try to persuade herself that the experience is sure to turn out fine. Instead, she’ll ask herself what would happen if things went badly.
At which point, she'll usually be surprised to discover that her feelings of anxiety were out of all proportion to the reality. Sure, she’d be frustrated or upset if the interview went badly, but she’d handle it. All too often, our worry levels lack any sense of degree: they go from 0 right up to 100%; by calmly thinking about the worst-case scenario, we can bring them back down to an appropriate level.
By contrast, telling yourself – or a friend, or a child – that “everything will be all right” can backfire. It subtly reinforces the idea that if things didn’t turn out all right, that would be absolutely, unimaginably terrible. In fact, in most contexts, that wouldn't be the case at all. It would just be moderately bad.
In the end, “negative visualisation” isn’t a matter of being a grumpy naysayer, always convinced that things will get worse. It’s a question of facing the future with more calm and focus, precisely because you know that if everything went wrong, you'd find a way to manage.
The happy irony is that when you approach the future with this state of mind, things are more likely to go right. As the psychotherapist Albert Ellis liked to say, in many cases, "the worst thing about any future event is your exaggerated belief in its horror."
Oliver is the author of the books The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking and Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.