It’s easy to take the good things in life for granted, but research suggests that the more we stop to appreciate what we have, the happier and healthier we are. This exercise is designed to help you increase feelings of gratitude for positive events in your life by visualizing what your life would be like without them. By getting a taste of their absence, you should be able to appreciate their presence in your life more deeply—without actually having to lose them for real.
15 minutes. Try to make time to do this practice once per week, focusing on a different positive event each week. It might help to do this practice at the same time each week—before bed each Sunday evening, perhaps, or at lunch every Friday.
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(5), 1217-1224.
Participants were asked to think about what their lives would have been like had a positive event never happened; other participants either simply thought about the event or thought about how it was not surprising that the event had happened. The participants who practiced “mental subtraction”—they considered their lives without the positive event—reported feeling more positive states and more gratitude than the other participants did.
Mental subtraction counteracts our tendency to take positive events in our lives as givens. When we consider the circumstances that led to an event, we may be surprised by how unlikely that event actually was, and how lucky we were that it happened as it did. While it can be painful to think about not having experienced an important positive event, this scenario provides a negative contrast against which our current situation can be favorably compared.
For a variation on this practice in which you consider life without an important person in your life, consider this version of the “mental subtraction” practice, which is intended not only to increase feelings of gratitude but to strengthen a close relationship as well.