Imagine your life without the good stuff

Every month, in our Mind Life Lab Experiment, Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good


Imagine your life without the good stuff

In life, we spend a lot of time thinking about what might have been, so much so that we may be in danger of taking for granted what we actually have. But what would our lives be like without these loved ones, prized possessions or significant events? Well, University of Virginia experts suggest imagining their absence – so-called ‘counter-factual thinking’ – could make us feel more content with what we’ve got and how our lives have panned out.

The theory

A number of studies conducted over the past decade have challenged people to try the ‘count your blessings’ hypothesis. The evidence was mixed – some found that thinking about positive events did improve their wellbeing (Burton & King, 2004) while others found that it had no effect on their positive or negative emotions or feelings of wellbeing. However, in 2008, Minkyung Koo and her colleagues suggested that where these studies went wrong was that they only urged respondents to think of the ‘presence’ of something in life, not the ‘absence’ of it.

Why should this matter? Koo et al say that when we reflect on only positive events, they soon become familiar and the impact of their positivity fades. The key is to ‘unadapt’ to positive events by considering their absence. They refer to the 1946 Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life where an angel, Clarence Odbody, takes suicidal George Bailey on a tour of the world as it would have been had George never been born.

‘Rather than asking him to count his blessings, Clarence allows  him to observe a world in which those blessings never came about. This forces George to realise just how rare and precious the good things in his life are, which instantly cures his depression.’ So how does it work? Koo says that although this may be a ‘saccharine’ view, the George Bailey effect can reintroduce an element of ‘surprise’ that the event actually occurred and can lead to real feelings of increased happiness at the outcome.

Try this

Koo asked participants to describe an event for which they felt grateful from one of seven categories: education, health, safety/security, possessions, break/vacation/weekends/holidays, act of kindness/support from others, achievement and performance. Pick one – for example, a holiday you had that you really enjoyed and are grateful for having had the opportunity to go on.

  • Write about the scenario by describing ways in which the event might never have happened or been part of your life.
  • Write about the ways in which it is ‘surprising’ that this event is part of your life. On a scale of 1 to 7 (1 = ‘not at all’ and 7 = ‘extremely’), rate the extent to which you feel the following: distressed, happy, thankful, upset, grateful, joyful, sad, hopeful, appreciative, lonely, depressed, secure and optimistic.
  • Next, write about the same event but this time describe the ways in which it isn’t surprising that it became part of your life. Rate it by the same scale. According to the study, your ratings should show more positive feelings during the first test than the second. Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and blogger at mentalhealth