We often think the key to gratitude is to count our blessings. When we’re feeling down, we’re told to focus on the good things in our life—our family and friends, the roof over our heads, the food in our bellies. We encourage our kids to do the same. We tell them to make lists of things they are thankful for in the hopes that getting them to think about their blessings will make them more grateful.
But research suggests that it’s not just thinking about the good things in our lives that matters; how we think about our blessings can make a significant difference. We need to do more than just count our blessings; we also need to be surprised by them.
Why is this?
We have an amazing ability to adapt to our situation. When things become overly familiar to us, they lose their hold over us and we return relatively quickly to our normal level of happiness. The problem is that while adaptation can make us feel better about negative events over time, it can also make us feel less happy about positive events over time.
Fortunately, researchers have found a way to combat our tendency to adapt to positive events: By thinking about ways in which an event might not have happened, the event will seem more surprising to us and we will feel more fortunate that it occurred. Click To Tweet
We can see this at work in a study by University of Illinois psychologist Minkyung Koo and colleagues. They found that when participants were instructed to merely describe a positive event in their life or to think about why it occurred, they felt worse than participants who were instructed to think about why a positive life event might never have happened.
Importantly, these results were not what participants expected. When the researchers asked participants to predict how they would feel under different conditions, people predicted that thinking about the presence of a positive life event would make them feel good and thinking about the possibility that the positive life event had never occurred would make them feel bad.
Koo and colleagues argue that it makes sense that we would hold this belief: “On the face of it, thinking about the absence of a positive event seems unpleasant; why should we rain on our own parades by mentally subtracting from our lives things we value? It seems better to think about the presence of a good thing than the absence of that thing.”
According to Koo and colleagues, this belief might help explain why other researchers have found that although people do engage in this kind of “what if” thinking in response to negative events, we don’t typically do it after positive events. As Koo and colleague’s results suggest, people might not be aware of the benefits of “what if” thinking for positive life events.
Want to try it yourself? Here are the prompts Koo and colleagues used in their study that improved participants’ affect:
Think of something specific you feel grateful for. Now think of “ways that this thing or event might never have happened or might never have been part of your life” and “ways in which it is SURPRISING that this thing or event is part of your life.”
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Also published on Medium.