Missing the subway; waiting for the next train

Have you ever found yourself contemplating the “what ifs” of life, wondering how different choices, actions, or circumstances might have led you down a different path? It seems that we tend to do this for things that didn’t work out the way we wanted. For example, “If only I had gotten into that top university,” “If only I had gotten that job,” “If only we had tried harder in our relationship.”

What if we play the “what if” game with a completely different approach? Instead of thinking about how our life could be better, let’s think about something truly wonderful in our life and use that as a starting point! 

Embracing Mental Subtraction

Welcome to mental subtraction, a transformative gratitude practice that invites us to dive deep into the blessings and joys of our life. Think of it as stepping back and looking for those “sliding door moments,” those crucial junctures where the trajectory of our lives completely changed for the better.

I first learned about Mental Subtraction (aka Counterfactual Thinking) from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. You can do this practice reflecting on a relationship or a positive event. I encourage you to get out a piece of paper, open a word processing doc, or record a voice memo as you process through the steps below.

Start Here

  1. Pick an important person who is currently in your life. Write, type, or record their name.
  2. Rewind and reminisce about how you first met. 
  3. Think about the events and decisions that could have prevented your meeting. Consider the twists of fate, the chance encounters, and the serendipitous events that brought you together. 
  4. Capture all the ways your life would have gone differently without this person. Really consider the impact their absence would have on your journey.
  5. What are some of the joys and benefits of this relationship? Think about the laughter, support, and growth you’ve shared. Recognize the unique richness they bring to your life.
  6. How would you feel if these things were missing from your life? Let their influence sink in, and realize the profound role they play in shaping your experiences.
  7. Shift your focus: Remind yourself that this person is actually in your life. Allow yourself to feel grateful that things happened the way they did.
  8. Take a moment to thank them. Let them know how much their presence means to you and how they’ve shaped your life.

Free Hugs Available

I’ve guided countless people through this practice and it doesn’t matter if I’m keynoting to a group of thousands or working with a small team, I always have people come up afterward to share how profound the experience is. For some, it can even be overwhelming and I’ve learned to give an open invitation to catch me later to chat or share a hug. 

This practice of mental subtraction is a powerful tool that has the ability to shift our mindset from longing for what could have been to cherishing what already is. By taking a moment to truly appreciate the positive influences in our lives, we can cultivate a deeper sense of gratitude and fulfillment.

So, the next time you find yourself caught in a whirlwind of ‘what ifs,’ consider taking a moment to engage in the practice of mental subtraction. Embrace the profound gratitude that comes with recognizing the meaningful relationships and experiences that shape your life’s journey. And remember, it’s never too late to express your heartfelt appreciation and make someone’s day a little brighter.

With gratitude, 

Gratitude in Action:
Dan Pink Demonstrates Mental Subtraction

The Research Behind This Practice:
Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1217.

Photo Credit: Denys Argyriou on Unsplash