What If?? Mental Subtraction of Positive Events

It’s easy to take the important people in our lives for granted, but research suggests that if we experience and express gratitude for them, our relationships will be stronger and our lives will be happier (from the Greater Good in Action (GGIA) web site – my new favorite web site).

Daniel Pink did a short video (a Pinkcast) on a simple exercise that is designed to stoke feelings of gratitude for one of these people—such as a romantic partner or close friend—by asking you to think about what your life might have been like had you never met him or her. 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.

This is known as Mental Subtraction of Positive Events; here is Pink’s video:

Pink used his wife as an example. Since today is the 41st anniversary of the day I met my wife; I’ll do the same thing, try to imagine my life without Mary.

If I had never met Mary:

  • I would have never had our three amazing children
  • I would have never met her wonderful family
  • I might never have gone back to school for my PhD, which means I might not have had this wonderful career as a college professor
  • I would have never met our wonderful neighbors
  • I may not have had the chance to go on trips to California, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Hawaii, Ireland, Hilton Head, Colorado, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Alaska, Canada, and the Jersey shore
  • I might still be in my childhood home, doing math puzzles, and going bowling on weekends
  • I might have never had the courage to start my own business
  • I might have never become a vegan
  • I might have never started blogging (OK, no smart-aleck comments)
  • The image above of having afternoon tea would have never happened

When I look at the list, it makes me realize how Mary has been at the center of all the good things I have in my life, and how grateful I am that she has been a part of my life for the past 41 years.

I’d highly recommend you try this exercise; in fact, the GGIA web site suggests you do this once a week. Here are some guidelines on how to make the most of such an exercise:

1. Take a moment to think about an important relationship in your life, such as a romantic relationship or close friendship.

2. Think back to where and how you met this person.

3. Consider the ways in which you might never have met this person and never formed a friendship or relationship—for example, if you hadn’t decided to go to a certain party, taken a certain class, or moved to a certain city.

4. Write down all of the possible events and decisions—large and small—that could have gone differently and prevented you from meeting this person.

5. Imagine what your life would be like now if events had unfolded differently and you had never met this person. Bring to mind some of the joys and benefits you have enjoyed as a result of this relationship—and consider how you would feel if you were denied all of them.

6. Shift your focus to remind yourself that you did actually meet this person and reflect upon the benefits this relationship 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 and this person is now in your life.

So thank heaven we both made the decision to go to that party back on April 28, 1978. Who knew that such a simple encounter would have such wonderful consequences?

And that 41 years later we’d end up having dinner at a Mexican restaurant listening to a strolling mariachi band:



2 thoughts on “What If?? Mental Subtraction of Positive Events

  1. I’m a Dan Pink (and George Bailey) fan too … I love the Greater Good website, Science of Happiness MOOC & podcast too! 🙂


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