How Subtracting The Positive Can Make You Happier Today

How Subtracting The Positive Can Make You Happier Today

A lot of research suggest that thinking about positive events in your life can make you happier.  And that the effect of these kinds of gratitude exercises diminishes if done too often as people adapt to the positive events (I discuss a creative solution to this dilemma below).

The authors of a recent study write:

Having a wonderful spouse, watching one’s team win the World Series, or getting an article accepted in a top journal are all positive events, and reflecting on them may well bring a smile; but that smile is likely to be slighter and more fleeting with each passing day, because as wonderful as these events may be, they quickly become familiar—and they become more familiar each time one reflects on them.

They cite research that shows that the more people think about a positive event, the more it seems explainable.  And the better they understand positive events the less positive emotion they feel about those events.

They go on to further state:

In short, counting one’s blessings—thinking about the presence of the positive events in one’s life—may have only a minor impact on people’s current affective states, to the extent that they have adapted to these events.

So if you’ve already gotten used to how wonderful your wife or husband is for example, thinking more about now it won’t increase your happiness much in the long term.

One solution to this is to think about new things you are grateful for often.  But these researchers tested a much more powerful and innovative solution.

They wondered if there is a way to “unadapt” to positive events?  Is there a way we can make ourselves feel a fresher feeling of happiness for the things we’ve gotten used to?

So they tried the following experiment:

They got 120 college students and put them into two groups.  Group one was asked to describe the ways in which the event happened easily and how it was not surprising the event happened as it did.

Group two was asked to describe why the event may never have happened and why it’s surprising that it did happen.

Participants then answered a questionnaire to see how positive they felt about the events they described.  It turned out that group two had many more positive feelings about these events than group one and experienced an increase in positive feelings overall – something group one did not experience.

Researchers concluded:

…people who wrote about how positive life events might not have occurred reported improved affective states, whereas people who wrote about how positive events did occur, simply described positive events, or did not think about positive events did not report improved affective states

So thinking of how a good event might not have happened makes you happier, something I was surprised to discover.

What do you think of this finding?  Does is surprise you?  When will you use this information to get you to increase your appreciation for some of the good things that have happened to you?

Reference to study above:

It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts
Minkyung Koo, Sara B. Algoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert

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