Taking Gratitude for Granted

November 16, 2015

November, Thanksgiving in particular, is all about gratitude, giving thanks and feeling grateful. Research suggests that the more we stop to appreciate what we have, the healthier and happier we will be. It’s easy, though, to take the good things for granted and that would be a sad state of affairs. Here is one way to protect yourself from just such a fate: Mental Subtraction of Positive Events, visualizing what your life would be like without the positive events. An interesting thought, right?

In an article by Koo, Algoe et al published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology {Vol 95(5), Nov 2008} I learned that the way people think about positive life events is critical, whether they think about the presence of the events (e.g., “I’m glad that Bob is part of my life”) or the absence of the events (e.g., “imagine if I had never met Bob!”). Think of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life or Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, where “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Having a wonderful spouse, watching one’s team win the World Series, or getting a new job 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. As wonderful as these events may be, they quickly become familiar, and they become more familiar each time one reflects on them. The danger is what Aesop said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Indeed, research shows that thinking about an event increases the extent to which it seems familiar and explainable (Arkes, Boehm, & Xu, 1991; Hasher, Goldstein, & Toppino, 1977). This is great for negative events, but it also appears to reduce positive feelings. The better people understand positive events, the fewer positive feelings those events bring forth (Wilson, Centerbar, Kermer, & Gilbert, 2005; Wilson & Gilbert, in press). You begin to take the positive for granted. So counting your blessings — thinking about the presence of the positive events in your life — may have only a minor impact on your current emotional state. It has become too familiar. And as Aesop said… You certainly don’t want to take positive events for granted. Try Mental Subtraction of Positive Events. It takes about fifteen minutes, once a week, and a small investment for a big payoff.

How to mentally subtract positive events

To begin, take a moment to think about a positive event in your life, such as an educational or career achievement, the birth of a child, or a special trip you took. Got one? Next think back to the time of this event and the circumstances that made it possible. Consider the ways in which this event may never have happened — for example, if you hadn’t happened to learn about a certain job opening at the right moment.

Now write down all of the possible events and decisions — large and small — that could have gone differently and prevented this event from occurring. Imagine what your life would be like now if you hadn’t enjoyed this positive event and all the fruits that flowed from it. Oh my! The “what ifs” are so powerful.

Next, shift your focus to remind yourself that this event actually did happen and think of the benefits it has brought you. Now that you have considered how things might have turned out differently, appreciate that these benefits were not inevitable in your life. Allow yourself to feel grateful that things happened as they did.

Why does this work? Mental subtraction prevents our tendency to take positive events in our lives as givens.

When I consider the circumstances that led to an event, I am surprised by how unlikely that event actually was, and how lucky I was that it happened as it did. If I hadn’t accepted a teaching assignment at a different college, if Tony and I hadn’t both taught a class at the same time, if I hadn’t been sitting in the chair by my office door right then, if Tony hadn’t walked in from the hallway right then, if we hadn’t looked at each other right then — why, 40 years of my life would have been completely different! Right then!

While it can be painful to think about not having experienced an important positive event, this exercise can keep us grounded and grateful. Happy Thanksgiving! Drop me a line at repurposeyourlife@yahoo.com

and tell me about your Mental Subtraction!