Bad Thoughts for a Better Life

May 17, 2012

Three techniques for harnessing bad thoughts into the service of better emotional hygiene

I’m a fairly calm, patient person, but even I find it’s not always easy to look on the bright side. Still, when I’m stuck saddled with a sour mood, I’ve learned there are more and less healthy ways of being so. Emotions like envy, helplessness, and malice are most strange and dangerous to me, whereas existential angst is a familiar, gracious adversary. So when I’m short of sunlight, I like to enlist some favorite, heavy-hitting dark thoughts to do battle with my more poisonous emotions.

Empathy through Schadenfreude

When someone is snippy with me, cuts me off on the highway, or is otherwise rude, I find it helpful to explain their incivility by imagining they’ve recently gotten some terrible news. Perhaps the man has begun to notice an alarming sadism in his young son, or the woman’s four-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with leukemia. I imagine that they have hopes and dreams just like me, and one of them has been crushed. I give them names and motivations. (As with all stories, the more detail I include, the more poignant the effect.) The man in the truck who shouted “Watch it, asshole!” as I crossed the street? Maybe he’s a recovering alcoholic named Tim trying to get his life back together but his mother was just hospitalized for her diabetes; and he just had to drop out of night school to pay her medical bills. If that doesn’t inspire empathy, maybe you really are an asshole.

Banishing Boredom

Despite—or probably because of—the fact that we live in the most inordinately entertaining time in history, boredom is a constant threat. If I sense it creeping up while I’m waiting in traffic or at the supermarket, I think of my inevitable corpse. I picture the skin decaying on my bones, my vacant eyes impenetrable to light, my nose no longer able to smell even my own fetor. I hold my breath and picture my dormant lungs drawing no air. I try to see my heart lying still as the cold soil piled on top of me. Now, back in the real world, I’ll fix my eyes on something and not move them. I’ll select exactly one sound and follow it. I’ll take a deep breath. Yes, I’m still alive. I feel it in my bones that one day, my soul will weep for want of this experience. But right now, right here, it’s mine to grasp. And instead of being weary of the situation, now I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for it.

The All-Purpose On-Demand Existential Crisis

This last one comes in handy in all sorts of situations. Maybe I’m unhappy with something about my personality, I’m feeling envious of a friend’s good fortune, or I’ve had a stressful day at work. I just think of this:

The famous photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft on its way out of the solar system, in which Earth appears as a tiny, pale blue dot

See that little dot suspended in a sunbeam off to the right? That’s earth. Every empire, every stroke of genius, every triumph, every love affair, and every massacre—they’ve all been over a tiny fragment of this pale blue speck of dust. The entire history of our species—from the discovery of fire to the Holocaust—is but a drop of water in this great ocean of cosmic insignificance. By comparison, my longings, my irritations, even my grief does not disturb its glassy, indifferent surface.

Once this thought has calmed me, I put it away, lest it drive me mad.