To Increase Your Happiness, Focus on Your ‘Near Misses’
Research suggests there’s power in reflecting on the what ifs
The words that changed my outlook came from, of all places, a presentation on workplace safety at my new job. “Always report the near misses,” the facilitator said, as a slide showed a couple of boxes falling off a forklift and narrowly missing the man standing underneath it.
When I saw the image, I flinched. But then I thought, “Wow, lucky guy.”
This past year has been a string of near misses for me. My sister, a doctor, tested positive for Covid-19 but had an asymptomatic case. Soon after switching jobs, I learned that my former company would be shuttering due to the pandemic. Just recently, I narrowly escaped what could have been a bad champagne-cork-to-the-eye accident.
These near misses stirred up all sorts of emotions: fear, guilt, relief. But when I thought back over them, one truth rose above everything else: I’m so damn blessed.
When we want to remind ourselves how good our lives are, we often only look to the positives. But this might not be the best strategy for increasing our happiness. While remembering a positive event can make us feel good, research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that we might feel more strongly about that event if we “mentally subtract” it from our lives (“Imagine if I didn’t find this job”) rather than simply recalling it (“I’m glad I got this new job”). This is because the power of an experience lessens over time as we become more familiar with it. As our minds adapt, the element of surprise decreases, which lessens the emotional impact.
Compare this with near misses. By nature, these are “nonexperiences” because they never actually happened, which means we don’t typically think about them — and when we do, they always surprise us. That’s what makes them so impactful. As the research points out, “One of the hallmarks of surprising events is that they elicit affect.”
Still, why would anybody want to dwell on how things could’ve been worse? Or spend time imagining some scary alternative? It comes down to this: What you missed shows you what you get to keep.
What if my sister wasn’t healthy? What if I didn’t find this job that I love? What if I didn’t have my eye?
The what ifs allow you to see just how good you have it. They remind you of the fragility and serendipity of life. These days, when it’s hard to find something to be thankful for, look beyond the good things and moments. Pay more attention to your near misses. Use them to embrace the life that you have.
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