Add to Your Happiness by Mental Subtraction

On the weekend after daylight savings robbed us of an hour of our lives, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about all the other things we might have to lose in our lives. Let’s keep this morbid bitching and moaning party going!

No, this won’t be a pity party. Psychologists say this kind of Debbie Downer exercise — called mental subtraction — actually boosts our subjective life satisfaction. Imagining the loss of positive things in our lives (literally subtracting them from our minds as though they never existed) elicits what researchers refer to as gratitude induction, but we’re just going to call it waking the f*ck up to what we’ve been taking for granted.

Let’s enter the Mental Subtraction Twilight Zone — with the promise that it will counterbalance our autopilot tendencies — shall we?

Mental subtraction exercises:

  • Imagine you’d never met your significant other. No, really. Imagine your first date and then delete it — like you’d never gotten all gussied up with butterflies in your belly, because you were never even introduced to this potential-love-of-your-life. Imagine all the years you’ve been committed to this person… that you were single instead (or intermittently dating losers along the way), because this person was never a part of your life. Does this make you miss this flame-in-your-furnace special someone? Feeling that pang of affection, maybe? Good. Hold onto that feeling, and hold on even tighter to your partner. Research shows that relationship satisfaction increases when we mentally subtract them from time to time.
  • Imagine you lost your freedom. For some reason you’re in prison, and *wink wink* we know you’re innocent, but nevertheless you’re there for life. The good news is that you can buy Reece’s PB Cups from the commissary, but you can’t go home or go outside for 23.5 hours a day. You can’t go do CrossFit or visit your grandmother or meet friends for a beer — even with a mask! No, you’re confined to your cell and your unfortunately dominant cellmate. What would you miss most about losing your freedom? What parts of your life would you lament not valuing That Much More while you were a free bird, taking it all for granted?
  • Imagine you lost your ability to taste your favorite dessert. (If you aren’t that into sugar — WHAT KIND OF ANIMAL ARE YOU? — then imagine you can’t taste your favorite salty snack.) Chocolate cupcakes taste like plain crackers (and not even Ritz… more like Communion wafers). Does life seem a little less alive without being able to enjoy the flavors that bring you so much joy? Have you been mindlessly consuming the foods you love, because you know another Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup is on the horizon if you want one, and you’ll be able to taste its peanut-buttery-chocolately-goodness? Remember that feeling of taste-subtraction and savor your next bites.
  • Imagine you lost your health. Pick your poison… there are countless ways we take our vitality and mobility for granted. Imagine yourself so arthritic that you have to pass on that trip to Rome, because you know you won’t be able to walk comfortably through the airport, let alone up the Spanish Steps. Or maybe imagine you’ve lost your ability to breathe with ease — at least without an oxygen mask on your face — and so you stop walking to the park (what with the tank and all), and you can’t play with your kids/ grandkids as heartily because it’s scary to feel so winded. Is there an aspect of your health that would be a particular shame to lose? Zero in on that, and imagine living in that compromised way. Does this make you want to swim or run or use your body in some way that proves it’s still alive and able-bodied?
  • Imagine your greatest strength or talent didn’t exist in you. If you’re a creative maven and feel truly alive when you’re creating things, imagine your creativity was simply not a part of you anymore. If you are a gifted shot putter (and if you are can you please reach out to me because I feel like I need to meet a shot putter just once in my life), imagine your athletic prowess was stripped of your body and soul. If you’re a strategic person and you feel energized after pontificating possibilities with six different contingency plans, imagine no longer having a strategic bone in your body. What would it be like to have the magic of “you” no longer… magical? No longer there at all? Would you feel incomplete and empty? What would it take to get back in touch with what makes you uniquely amazing, and to cherish that more than ever? To use your gifts to the fullest extent possible?
  • Imagine you lost your pet. I’m not an (entirely) evil person, so I won’t have you imagine your fluffy friend passing away… we’re just going to imagine that Sprinkles was never a part of your life to begin with. Imagine you never locked eyes with this animal way back when at the shelter, never had the chance to fall in love with its idiosyncrasies, never took a single picture of it curled up sleeping (because I know you have 1,750 shots of Sprinkles in basically the same position), never had the chance to feel the special pet-human-connection brand of love. What would you miss the most about your pet being subtracted from your life? How would your life be different, other than with a lot less fur around the house?
  • Imagine you lost your memory. The photos in your phone puzzle you because that person in many of them is you, but you haven’t the foggiest idea of what was going on in those moments. That was you on the beach in Cabo? Who’s that guy you were making out with? YOU HAVE A HUSBAND? Your family regales you with tales from decades past that mean nothing to you, because you’re really not sure who they are (and if you even like them, to be frank). Your LinkedIn profile refers to professional accomplishments you can’t recall, and you aren’t sure why there is a metal ball in your garage (YOU ARE A SHOT PUTTER?). What would it be like if you had no past to draw from? Think of the memories you hold most dear… what would it be like if you couldn’t access them again? Would your life feel meaningless, maybe a little hollow? What steps can you take to walk down memory lane more often to revel in the good times (like maybe a Blast to the Past date with your friends or kids, where you look at photos or videos and recall specific moments)?
  • Imagine you are not, in fact, going to live forever. Gotcha! You didn’t think I’d miss the perfect chance to add a splash of memento mori to this moment, did you? Remembering you are going to die is the sharpest way I’ve found — through research and working with hundreds of clients who want more out of life — to bring everything that matters into focus. Imagine you weren’t here at all. No loved ones (two or four-legged), no talented ways to express yourself, no more freedom, no delightful and poignant memories, no plans for your future, no reaching your potential, no Mike and Ike’s. Now look around you. What do you have to be thankful for? What do you still want to do in life that you’ve been putting off, thinking you have all the time in the world? What kind of person do you want to be, with this heightened realization that you can shape who you are within this finite period of time?

These exercises haven’t been designed to bring you down… for long. (Now’s a good time to clean up your tear-stained face; you’re a real wreck over there.) Opening your eyes up to the goodness in your life — and what it would feel like without those things — triggers an appreciation of what really matters. Research confirms that mental subtraction opens us up to what we’ve taken for granted, keeps us curious, and helps switch us out of the all-too-natural autopilot state we find ourselves in.

Now pick one thing to actually DO in light of all this subtraction. What question above felt like a wallop, or even a twingle of discomfort? Dive in right there. Deliberately make time for that one thing. Show your appreciation. Proclaim your love. Play the flute. Pull up your high school yearbook (not for the faint of heart). Stretch your temple of a body. Book a trip into the vaccinated future. Eat every last crumb of carrot cake. Live like you mean it… as though you’ve been warned you won’t live forever.

Jodi Wellman

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