There’s a blackout while I’m in the basement of my house. At least it didn’t happen when I was cleaning the cats’ litter box, I tell myself. Next morning, I spill coffee all over the kitchen counter. At least it didn’t go in the silverware drawer. Then it’s on to bonking my hip on a table (at least I didn’t cut myself), burning the breakfast sausages (at least the kitchen didn’t catch fire), and buying $150 worth of groceries (at least it was cheaper than buying those same groceries in Tokyo). And so on, every day.
Friends of mine—accustomed to my “at least” habit—crack me up by saying, “You’re so positive!” I think they see me as a 21st-century Pollyanna, that sunny and fictitious orphan. In fact, as my husband knows, I’m a private expert at imagining the worst. Does my kid have a sniffle? I’ll see that sniffle and raise it to pneumonia. Is she late getting home from school? Bam: I picture a hideous bus crash. For me, the gratitude-for-what-hasn’t-happened mindset is a way of using my hyperactive imagination for good.
And, just in time for Thanksgiving, I’m pleased to report that a number of scientists are in my corner. No, they haven’t specifically endorsed—yet—my pattern of being grateful 30 times a day that small problems weren’t more drastic. But their research does suggest that picturing sadder versions of your past might make you happier in the present.
At the University of Virginia, the University of Western Ontario and other places, psychologists asked people to imagine that something in their lives (either bad or good) had turned out worse. In one study, for instance, students remembered a test they had done poorly on and imagined having done even more poorly. In another, people in romantic relationships imagined never having met their beloved. This way of seeing things—known in the psych biz as “downward counterfactual thinking”—had swift results: Those who imagined getting lower grades were in better moods immediately afterward than those who imagined getting higher grades; those who pictured a world where they hadn’t met Mr. or Ms. Right promptly reported more satisfaction with that person than they had two weeks before.
What explains such shifts? Maybe, scientists suggest, it’s that when you imagine a worse version of events, you rekindle the novelty of reality: But I did meet Bill! I didn’t get an F! I scooped the cat poop before the lights went out! And novelty seems key to enjoying your blessings. (Which is why even the best memories—from reaching a professional goal to watching your World Cup team score a winning one—feel less thrilling as time passes.)
Could “downward counterfactual thinking” goose long-term happiness? Could it prepare us to cope with major challenges? Science has yet to offer a verdict. But—true to my Pollyanna reputation—I’m optimistic. As a 2008 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology points out, small daily boosts of positive emotion “improved life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms over time.”
And I can definitely vouch that my “at least” habit brings daily boosts of positive emotion—even, on occasion, rueful laughter. Now if I could just quit spilling coffee and walking into things, I’d be in business.