The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Giving Thanks by Mental Subtraction

Count your blessings by imagining their absence.

Count Your Blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all,
And I fall asleep
Counting my blessings.
- Irving Berlin (1954)

As Thanksgiving approaches, the thoughts of many of us turn to our blessings. Although counting one's blessings is a proven way to bolster well-being, a study I just read suggests a useful refinement of this strategy that may make it even more effective (Koo, Algoe, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008). It may matter whether we think about the good things in our lives in terms of their presence (e.g., "I have a great job") or in terms of their absence (e.g., "Suppose I did not have this great job").

This strategy is called mental subtraction, and studies show that instructions to imagine the absence of a good event produce more positive emotions than does the simpler strategy of merely thinking about its presence.

Why does mental subtraction have beneficial effects? The researchers proposed that mental subtraction works against the human tendency to adapt to the good things in our lives and to take them for granted. In support of this explanation were further findings. Research participants who did mental subtraction rated the good event in question as more surprising than those who simply thought about the good event. "This wonderful thing - my job, my spouse, my good health - did not have to happen!"

Mental subtraction keeps the magic alive in ways that counting one's blessings may not. A positive psychology technique is suggested by generalizing this demonstration. Once a day, individuals can be asked to write down three things for which they are grateful. They should be reminded to consider good things that they ordinarily take for granted, like clean water or air conditioning, things that are regarded as comforts as opposed to pleasures - that is, usually notable only when they disappear. Then individuals can be asked to imagine that these good things were absent from their lives. How might this have happened? What would life be like in the absence of these good things?

Like all positive psychology techniques, mental subtraction will only have a sustained effect on well-being if it is practiced regularly and becomes part of one's repertoire. Whether one "adapts" to the benefits of mental subtraction is unknown pending relevant research, but it might be a good idea for individuals to vary the sorts of good events they mentally subtract from their lives.

Why not start this Thanksgiving?

Reference

Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It's a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1217-1224.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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