Negative Thinking Can Make You Happier

We always hear that it's a good thing to reflect on the positive in your life. But according to a new paper, it can bring even more satisfaction to think about what makes you happy, and then pretend that it never happened at all.

When you’re feeling down, traditional wisdom tells you to count your blessings.

Lost your job? At least you’ve got your health. In a fight with your spouse? You’ve still got friends to rely on. You know how it goes.

But according to a new series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (PDF), positive thinking may not be the way to go after all: Instead, you’ll be better off imagining what your life would be like if one of the positive elements of your life didn’t exist at all.

In one of the studies, some subjects were asked to write for 20 minutes about what might have happened if they’d never met their significant others: Say you’d signed up for a different major in college, you hadn’t gone to that party, or you never bothered to attend the matchmaking dinner at a friend’s house that led you to your spouse. Other subjects were simply asked to reflect upon those blissful beginnings, sharing the stories of how they found their partners.

You might expect that a walk down memory lane to the start of a new love would brighten anyone’s mood—and it did, to some extent. But the researchers found that the subjects who were asked to “subtract” their partner from their lives and consider an alternate reality came out of the experience feeling far happier than those who had shared their true stories.

This seems contradictory to conventional wisdom, in which we are taught that showing gratitude for all we have can increase our happiness. But in a Scientific American article, Sonja Luubomirsky, a psychology professor at UC Davis and the author of The How of Happiness: A New Guide to Getting the Life You Want, suggests that the “subtraction” model used in the new research is still a form of showing appreciation for our lives.

“How else do we strive to appreciate the good things in our lives… if not by implicitly imagining what life would be like without them? “ she asks. “To be grateful for our eyesight, we imagine what it would feel like to be blind; to appreciate our next-door colleague, we contemplate what our work days would be like if he resigned.”

So next time you’re feeling a little bit under the weather, try thinking negative: subtract your partner, your children, your dog, or whatever you’re crazy about in your life, and imagine where you’d be without it all. It may leave you with a far more positive perspective than you’d expect.