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Why We Should Celebrate the Bad Times That Didn't Happen

This gratitude strategy can help increase happiness, but use it carefully.

Key points

  • Practicing gratitude helps people regain appreciation for the comforts they have become used to.
  • Instead of only appreciating what we have, we can also be grateful for the negative events that almost happened to us, but didn't.
  • Making a practice of celebrating "near misses" must be done carefully enough so it does not turn into rumination.

Many of the best life lessons are learned from the "school of hard knocks." Unfortunately, sometimes such knocks are quite literal. I'm grateful that I'm here to tell you that I learned the following life lesson without it killing me, but it was a closer call than I'd like. The lesson I learned is a strategy, or even a "hack," for happiness. However, one should use it cautiously.

An Almost Fatal Walk With My Friend

I was a "free-range kid" growing up in the '70s and '80s. While there are tremendous advantages to being a free-range kid, as a parent, I do worry about some of the dangers out there. I can remember a number of instances as a kid in which I might have gotten seriously injured or even died. I actually did get injured on many occasions, but not too badly (e.g., several broken bones, broke my nose twice, concussed, got stitches many times, and was gently hit by a car while riding my bike).

When I was about 10 years old, I had a best friend who also happened to be named Mike. He was a free-range kid too, so we would often go about our adventures together. We'd trek to the bayou to catch snakes and turtles, ride our bikes on the wooded trails next to our houses, and swim endless hours at our neighborhood pool.

Mike and I also liked to walk to a strip center of stores that was fairly nearby. We'd buy candy and comic books, and play the two arcade games at the Weingarten's grocery store (Phoenix and Star Castle). Our parents trusted us to walk to the store, but we often walked on the shoulder of a busy road, for there was no sidewalk on the shortest route to these stores. I'm not sure our parents knew about that part.

As we walked home from the stores on this fateful, almost fatal, day, I noticed a really long, thin metal pole that was lying in the grass along the roadside. Being an inquisitive kid, I decided to examine the pole by lifting it upright. The pole was quite long—about 20 feet, as I recall. As I lifted the pole up, I paused to look at how high it reached into the sky. I froze in terror as I saw this metal pole was about an inch away from connecting with the power lines. Yikes!

Now, I wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed as a 10-year-old, but I had enough sense to push the pole away from the power lines back into the grass. I exclaimed to my buddy, Mike, that I just about electrocuted myself. He expressed some sympathy, but we both basically went "whew!" and proceeded on our way home.

I don't recall thinking too much about my near electrocution until well into adulthood. Now I'm using this sort of near-death experience in my practice of gratitude. You probably have your own "near misses" that you can recall in this gratitude practice.

When Almost Counts

As a psychologist, I'm acutely interested in the problem of suffering and what can help us improve well-being. One strategy to improve well-being is to develop a practice of gratitude. Because of a negativity bias, our minds tend to focus more on the negatives than the positives in life. Thus, due to what is called the "hedonic treadmill," we get used to positives such as clean running water, hot showers, smartphones, streaming movies, air travel, easy access to yummy foods, and so on. We habituate to such creature comforts such that they don't really make us happy anymore. We just become unhappy when we are deprived of them.

Practicing gratitude on a daily basis helps us to appreciate the positives that are right in front of us by offsetting our incredible ability to adapt to the many benefits of modernity. Here's the twist and happiness "hack." Rather than only focusing our gratitude on appreciating what we have, another strategy that we can use is to be grateful for the negatives that didn't happen to us but almost did. One of the Five Pathways of Growth is changing our thoughts, and thinking about "near misses" falls within this pathway.

Being Grateful for What Didn't Happen

A benefit to being human is that we have these powerful brains that help us imagine possibilities.

We can simulate experiences, problem-solve, create, and invent—all within our minds. Our big brains also help us reflect upon our past experiences to create narratives that either help us grow or hold us back. On the downside, partly because of the evolutionarily-based negativity bias, we can imagine terrible and terrifying futures and endlessly criticize ourselves for perceived shortcomings and blunders from our past. When bad things almost happen but don't, we tend to feel some short-term relief and then go about our business. However, we might be missing a golden opportunity to use our amazing brains to be grateful for what didn't happen.

Source: KittisakJirasittichai/iStock

For example, imagine that you were driving home from work and in your neighborhood. On this occasion, you were paying close attention to the fact that you were able to brake in time rather than run over the pedestrian who jaywalked right in front of you with eyes buried in their phone. Had you been tinkering with your phone while driving, you might have run that person over. The jaywalker would have suffered, and you would have suffered...immeasurably. You would think to yourself, "Oh, no! This is tragic! I'll never get over this! If only I hadn't been looking at my phone...or that person wasn't jaywalking on their phone! Oh, if I had just one wish, I would wish this horrible thing had not happened!"

We have the ability to use our awesome brains to imagine how much suffering there would have been had this particular negative event occurred. We now mentally time travel to our present reality and see that, "Oh my gosh! My dearest wish has come true! That horrible thing did not happen."

Celebrating Bad Events That Didn't Happen

When we really think about it, we should not merely be grateful for "near misses" that we encounter in life. We can celebrate them! We should feel happy when we narrowly avoid suffering, but we don't capitalize on this opportunity for profound gratitude as much as we could or should. However, you can make this a practice that you start today. You can reflect upon "near misses" from your past and be grateful for them right now...even daily.

For me, I remind myself that I was a blink of an eye, an inch, from death. Every day that I'm alive is an incredible gift to be cherished and celebrated. Shifting perspective from regretting the positives that could have been to celebrating the negatives that weren't can powerfully affect our outlook on life.

Try Using This Strategy but Be Careful

I did mention that one must be careful trying to be grateful for the near misses in life. Our minds are incredibly powerful and the pull of the negativity bias is quite strong. As we reflect on near misses, we might start to ruminate upon "near misses" in negative ways that cause anxiety or other negative feelings. Also, within the neural network of our memories, reflecting upon near misses might activate memories of bad things that did happen. Such memories might bring us down as well.

No strategy designed to improve well-being works for everyone and not in every circumstance. If you find a practice of being grateful for near misses to be helpful, wonderful! If not, there are many pathways and strategies for growth. Find what works for you, because that's what matters in the end.