Via Negativa, Or How To End Stress By Taking Things Away


I try not to pay too much attention to the news but I am a political person by nature, so I am fascinated by culture, history, politics, history, and religion.  This makes it hard to stay away from  the constant bombardment of news stories and “clickbait”- purposefully controversial articles on the internet. The problem is that most news is stressful, a waste of time, and actually causes anxiety.

When it comes to stress, it is good to stay away from certain things.

One of the best strategies I’ve learned for managing stress is this: Via Negativa

Via Negativa was originally a theological concept in Western Civilization which described what God “was not- via negativa” instead of what God was.  The idea is that eventually, by taking things away, you are left with the true nature of God.

The same concept can be used to eliminate stress.

What stresses you out?  Some stress is good.  Stress makes you stronger.  Exercise is stressful, shopping for healthy food can be stressful at first.  A new business or job can be stressful as can marriage, kids, public speaking, acquiring a new skill, or taking a class.  But these things are usually good stress.  They make your life better.  Challenges are a good type of stress.  

With Via Negativa though, we have a simple formula:

Take away things which aren’t making your life better or are causing you anxiety or have a bad energy.

My favorite writer, Nassim Taleb discusses Via Negativa quite a bit and talks in his case about avoiding:

  • Carbs
  • Pretentious People
  • Consumer Debt
  • Salaries
  • GMOs
  • Boredom
  • Fame
  • Complicated Food
  • Nonsense
  • Treating People Poorly

These are heuristics, or shortcuts, for having a better life and living with ethics and good stress (instead of bad), instead of pretending to like things you don’t, wasting time, and getting anxious about various things you have no control over.   

Here are some things I avoid Via Negativa, some are for stress and some are so I can look myself in the mirror and feel good about what I see:

  • Overly crowded exercise classes
  • Fishing in the rain
  • Weird self – help gurus
  • Consumer debt
  • Hangovers (mostly)
  • Champagne – gives me a headache and I don’t like it
  • Social Justice Warriors
  • Boring Events
  • Heavy food that makes you tired
  • Sugar
  • Smoking (except the occasional cigar)
  • Reality TV
  • The ghetto or dangerous neighborhoods, unless volunteering
  • People who talk too much and can’t listen
  • Snobs or people who treat waitstaff poorly
  • Expensive restaurants with small entrees 
  • News
  • Drama 
  • Over scheduling
  • Social Media more than an hour a day
  • Computer screens more than an hour a day
  • Advocating risk for other people without putting my own neck on the line (example: advocating war in the middle east without signing up to help in some way myself)
  • Disrespecting my parents
  • Lying
  • Bosses
  • Driving late at night
  • Fast food (unless Chik Fil A or emergency)
  • Chain restaurants (I like to support small business)
  • Trips with annoying people
  • Saying *GD 
  • Commuting & Traffic in General
  • Hatred towards anyone specifically (hatred towards ideologies ok)
  • Moving too far away (more than a day’s drive) friends / family
  • Lazy, unethical, or negative people
  • Whining or complaining 

When it comes to stress, what you avoid is just as important as what you do.  What could you avoid, Via Negativa, to make your life better?  Start making a list and I think you’ll be surprised how much more joy and happiness you have. 

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