Gratitude via Mental Subtraction

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” ~Thornton Wilder

Edible flowers as well as chard, basil, chives, and other tender plants grow on my front and back porches. I water them each day, aware a killing frost will arrive soon. I’ve been succession planting lettuces and globe carrots, but missed replanting one pot. That explains its proud crop of weeds. When I water, I water those weeds too. They might as well enjoy what time they have left.

This is my favorite season. Gorgeous autumn leaves, vivid blue skies, and a certain slant of light in late afternoon illuminating everything with a stained glass glow. Each one a reminder that what flourishes must also die. As I can, freeze, and dry our produce each fall I can’t help but think of my ancestors, yours too, whose preparations for winter were about survival.   

We are living in difficult times. Unprecedented times. Rampant disease, devastating injustice, and a climate teetering toward ever-worsening disaster. Somehow it helps me to remember our ancestors endured famine, floods, war, ill health, and oppression. Our existence is the direct consequence of ancestors who persevered despite the odds. We carry their resilience and courage in our genes.     

Thinking of my ancestors’ stories magnifies my sense of gratitude. Unlike nearly everyone who came before me I have a safe home, enough food, and access to medical care. I can connect with people anywhere in the world. I have rights, including the right to make my own choices, something that would astonish my foremothers. The very desk where I’m sitting is filled with writing and art projects as well as stacks of library books. This is true wealth.

I’m reminded of a concept called mental subtraction. It’s a version of the old school “count your blessings” approach. My mother and grandmother used it often by telling us we were lucky to have what we had, whether food on our plates or clothes on our backs, especially compared to those who had much less. (Typically in response to a child balking at yucky food or dorky outfits.)  It’s not helpful to reply to others’ misery with “it could be worse” but choosing to reflect on our own good fortune can be helpful. When we take the time to savor people and experiences we tend to be happier.

Here’s how mental subtraction works.

  • Pick something positive in your life – say a good relationship or a personal achievement or a friendly neighborhood.
  • Take a few minutes to imagine your life without it. What would be different right now?
  • Write down how you would be impacted, including emotional impact.
  • Refocus on the present moment. How do you feel now?

Research shows many benefits to regularly expressing gratitude for the positives in our lives, but the effect is even stronger when people reflect on the potential absence of these good things. It’s one thing to think, “I’m glad Jada is in my life.” It’s another to consider, “Imagine if I’d never met Jada!” Seems negative doesn’t it? But the brain’s workings habituate us to our blessings. We get used to a supportive friend or a good job. They inevitably become familiar, even when we try our best to be grateful.

But considering our lives without these positives can bring them into better focus. It’s sort of like the classic 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The main character, George Bailey, is in despair and considers suicide. An angel intervenes. He doesn’t ask George to be grateful. Instead he shows him what the world would be like if he’d never been born and those blessings never occurred. It’s a sugar-sweet movie version of mental subtraction.

In studies, people who practiced mental subtraction were happier and expressed greater appreciation than those who did not try the practice. It also boosted satisfaction with relationships and offered more positive self-reflection. Sort of like thinking back on our ancestors’ trials, a few moments of mental subtraction every now and then can reawaken us to the good in our lives.  

Image by Olcay Ertem

3 thoughts on “Gratitude via Mental Subtraction

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