In a recent column, I wrote about ten things which have been scientifically proven to make you happy. One of the suggestions was to “mentally subtract something good from your life”. This idea intrigued me, so I decided to look into it in a little more detail.
Most of us spend time thinking about good things that have not happened to us and the bad things that have happened. What if we were to mentally subtract something good from your life? This idea, studied by the University of California at Berkley, is to think about something good that has occurred in your life and think about what your life would be like if it had not happened. This is called “counter-factual” thinking.
In one study, students were asked to remember the events which had led them to choosing the college they were attending. They were then asked to think about what would have been different in their lives had they chosen a different university. The results showed that the students gave a higher rating to their choice and were happier with their decision when they considered the alternative. So, by mentally removing a good thing which had happened in their lives, the students realized how much they appreciated the choice they had made.
When you look back over your life, there are people who are special whether it is your spouse, your co-workers or friends. How different would your life have been had you not met those people and if your paths had never crossed? By imagining your life without those special persons, you gain a new appreciation for them. Rather than thinking “what if” and desiring something that you do not have, by changing your thinking in this manner, you can now appreciate what you do have. Rather than wishing for an abstract, you imagine what might have been if you had not had the opportunity of meeting that special person. This way of thinking leads to a greater satisfaction with the direction of your life.
We all come to forks in our paths and we are challenged to pick one. Counter-factual thinking makes you realize that you are happy with the fork you chose and less questioning about the fork you did not take. What if you had chosen to stay home rather than go out with friends the night you met the person who would go on to be your life partner? What if you had chosen a different job when you were offered the one you now love and get personal satisfaction from? What if you had never met your best friend?
The University of California at Berkley conducted an experiment with student volunteers. The students were divided into two groups and asked to write an essay on how they met their closest friend. One group was told to answer using only factual details (the factual group). The other group was asked to answer by reflecting on how their lives would be different if they had never met their friend (the counterfactual group). Those students in the counterfactual group viewed their friendship as more meaningful and significant. The students in the factual group did not experience that feeling of appreciation and gratitude.
Sometimes you have to imagine how different you life would be if you had made different choices in order to truly appreciate what you have.