What Matters Most?

Using your strengths to impact well-being

New Happiness Strategy

Mentally subtract the positive from your life.

Think about the best things in your life. What would your life be like without your supportive husband, your good health, your house, or your college degree?

When it comes to creating more happiness in life, experts usually tell us to add more things—get a dog, build a friendship, add a gratitude list, etc. But, what about taking things away? Subtraction. Could that make us happier?

Researchers have studied the effect of "mental subtraction"—mentally taking away a positive event. One study found people who contemplated what their life would be like without their health, safe neighborhood, support from others, or achievement had higher life satisfaction than those who did not subtract the event. To show the power of subtraction, these people were also happier than others who focused on existing positive events and how these occurred in their life.

This seems to be a back-door intervention for boosting gratitude. People who do this exercise tend to feel an enhanced sense of appreciation. One argument could be that you become more mindful of the good that is already present. To be mindful of the good means to put your attention on that aspect of your life and be open and curious about it.

These researchers also looked at the impact of mental subtraction on relationships. People who imagined their life as if they’d never met their romantic partner reported an increase in their relationship satisfaction.

None of us are free from the vulnerability of going through the motions of our life, pushing through the daily grind on autopilot. Not paying much attention to the taste of our food at lunch, the beautiful trees and sky as we walk, or the smile on our co-worker's face. Likewise it is far too easy to take the good in our life for granted...it’s as if we temporarily forget about the myriad of good people in our life, the many little (and big) accomplishments we have had, and the many freedoms that exist in our country.

Mental subtraction, or undoing, can counterbalance this ”taking-things-for-granted effect” that we are prone to.

Want a happiness boost? Take out a pen and paper (or fire up your laptop) and follow these steps:

1.) Select something good in your life that falls under one of the following categories: education, health, safety/security, possessions, weekends/holidays, support from others, or personal achievement.

2.) Imagine your life without that one good thing. Picture the impact clearly. How do you feel?

3.) Write down how your life would be different. Describe your feelings.

4.) Refocus on the present moment. Re-evaluate how you feel about that good thing.

5.) Have you activated any of your character strengths?


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.

Resources:

Take the free online VIA Survey of character strengths here.

Peruse free resources on character strengths here.

Learn about the connection between mindfulness and strengths here.

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.

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