September 5, 2018

Our pets, our significant others, jobs, homes, friendships, even our morning coffee—the positive experiences and moments in our days are often the subjects of our meditations. The classic gratitude practice: Writing down three things you’re grateful for before bed, starting with "I'm grateful for..."

It's a tried-and-true practice—but have you ever considered that it might be just as powerful to imagine not having those things you're grateful for? To meditate on all the events that led you to that place or situation, and how those events could have led you elsewhere? For example: That job you have today—maybe it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t decided to grab coffee with that person you met at the networking event (that you almost didn’t go to).

There’s a name for this type of meditation practice—it’s called mental subtraction, and it's powerful stuff.

But First… Gratitude

Before we get into the hows/whys of this practice, let’s talk about gratitude for a bit.

Research-backed studies have found that practicing gratitude can have a great impact on our mental health, allowing us to experience more optimism and positive emotions, happiness, healthier/longer lasting relationships, and tons of other physical health benefits. These all sound like amazing upsides to practicing gratitude, so why isn’t everyone taking the time to slow down?

Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone says that part of it has to do with the actual act of slowing down—our lives tend to speed up the more we take on, and slowing down to notice what we’re grateful for can also mean slowing down to feel sadness, which isn’t always something we’re ready to do. It’s this cycle that can lead us to take things in our lives for granted.

Slowing down to notice what we're grateful for can also mean slowing down to feel sadness, which isn't always something we're ready to do.
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On the flip side, sometimes acknowledging what we’re grateful for can also take us back to less great moments in our lives. Firestone says that more often than not, she engages with clients who talk about being so happy due to a new love, but simultaneously feel dread and fear because of the new situation.

Isn’t that wild? Can’t you just let us have nice things, brain?

How Mental Subtraction Can Help

So you’re onboard the gratitude train, but feeling overwhelmed by the notion of slowing down. A mental subtraction practice is a great way to think about what you’re grateful for in a way that’s more structured than just listing out everything you’re supposed to feel happy about.

There are proven benefits to a mental subtraction practice, too. By imagining a situation or thing not happening, we allow our minds to comprehend how unlikely the experience truly is and how lucky we are that it unfolded as it did.

By imagining a situation or thing not happening, we allow our minds to comprehend how unlikely the experience truly is and how lucky we are that it unfolded as it did.
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It might be difficult for us to imagine our lives without a certain relationship or experience, but acknowledging our lives without it gives us the ability to grasp (and be grateful for) our favorable current reality.

Here’s how to do it:

●︎ Think about something you value in your life, whether it’s a relationship or a circumstance, an environment, or even a pet.

●︎ Take note of how and where this relationship came into your life. If you’re thinking of a job, hobby, or something along those lines, consider all of the factors that led you to where you are with that relationship today.

●︎ What are some of the ways this relationship may have never happened in your life? For example: If you hadn’t accepted your friends offer to meet the cat she found in her backyard, you might not have ever ended up with a cat. Go as far back as you’d like with this, as long as it feels comfortable (and relevant).

●︎ What are some of the ways this could have gone differently and prevented you from having this relationship/experience in your life?

●︎ Imagine what your life would be like if things had gone differently and you didn’t have this experience or relationship in your life.

●︎ Now, shift your attention and focus to how this experience is very real, and reflect on the benefits. Allow yourself to appreciate how these benefits were not inevitable, especially since you’ve already noted how things might have turned out differently. Let yourself feel gratitude for how life played out for you in this particular context.

Give mental subtraction a try and see if it's a new way for you to get grateful. If not, no worries: the standard "I'm grateful for..." list is a classic for a reason.


Want to start your day a little more grounded? Try our Calm Morning meditation in the Shine iOS app.

Read next: Gratitude Is Self-Care Gold—Here's How to Actually Make It a Habit