The Power of Positive Subtraction, by Dr. Joel Wade

I met my wife Sue 24 years ago at a Thanksgiving party with some friends of ours. Normally I would have been with my extended family – Thanksgiving was always a favorite of my parents – but this year they hosted our family dinner on Friday, so other family members could be with their respective in-laws.

Had my parents not changed the routine that year, Sue and I might never have met; we never would have been married, we would never have had our kids, and the life we know would be different in so many ways it’s hard to fathom.

Many other circumstances lined up just right to lead to that night that might not have worked out – my wife might not have come to the dinner (she almost didn’t), one or both of us might have lived in another town, we might not have known these particular friends…

It’s pretty remarkable if you think about it, that two people ever meet. But people do, and we did.  If you’re married, it might be worth considering there’s a chance the two of you might never have met.

Doing this deliberately can also make you happier.

In the classic Frank Capra movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is so despondent from events that he’s on the verge of committing suicide. Clarence, a new angel hoping to earn his wings, shows him what life would be like had George not existed, and George comes to appreciate the many ways he has deeply affected people, and how much he had taken his good effect toward all those people he held dear for granted.

Seeing clearly what his absence would have meant – and would mean – for so many people he cares for puts suicide out of the question, and brings him to a state of profound gratitude.

That’s more than a sweet story and a classic movie; there is something very true and strong in it that has consequences for a life well lived.

In a study by Koo, Algoe, Wilson, and Gilbert, It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts, they showed that when people consider the absence of a positive event – as George’s angel helped him to do – they feel more positive than when they think of the positive event itself.

More specifically, those who wrote about how they might never have met their partner were more satisfied in their relationship than those who wrote about how they did meet.

This falls into the category of very worthwhile things to try. If you’re married, think about what life would be like had you and your mate never met. If you’re not married, think about the people in your life whom you love and care about. What if you’d never met? What if something didn’t work out so that a particular person who’s dear to you had never been in your life?

And we can think of the ways that a very positive event might not have ever come to pass. We get used to the people and events in our lives; our many blessings can easily come to be taken for granted. By actively imagining what life would be like had one or more people or events not crossed our path, we introduce an element of surprise into something that we’ve likely grown accustomed to – which is a way to appreciate anew the wonderful events of our life.

We are in many ways creatures of habit. We get used to our circumstances, whatever they are – and in some ways that can be a tremendous strength. It allows us to adapt to and endure hardship; to cope with and adjust to changing circumstances… But it can also make it so we lose touch with the depth of love, opportunity, and wonder all around us.

Purposefully bringing ourselves to consider what it would be like had we not met our mate, or our friend, or our mentor, brings us to a state of gratitude; and gratitude is one of the great resources for psychological and emotional resilience.

Just as George Bailey came to appreciate his wonderful life, we can get a fresh glimpse of our own good fortune, even if things aren’t as wonderful as we’d like them to be. We can always long for better times, better relationships, or more of something or other – and it can be well worth striving for improving what we have.

But sometimes, when we reflect on who we do have in our life, and just how easily we might not have ever even met them… we can find that those very things we’re striving for are right there already, and may have been with us for quite some time.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website,

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