The problem with thinking about the good things that have happened to you is that it makes them become more and more familiar. As they become more familiar, they become more 'ordinary' - more like they were kind of inevitable and less surprising. That, in turn, means that they lose a little of their power to bring a smile to your face. So how do we get around this problem? How can we keep thinking about the good things in our life without simultaneously eroding their pleasure-power?
Researchers from the University of Virginia, and from Harvard, came up with an answer to this problem. Rather than getting people to write about the positive events in their life, they got students to write about why a positive event might never have happened and why it was surprising. They also got another group of students to think of a positive event and then write about the ways in which the event became part of their life and was unsurprising. Finally, they also included a control group, where people simply described a positive event.
The students who had been asked to write about why their positive event might never have happened and was surprising went on to report more positive feelings in a follow-up questionnaire than people in the other conditions. What's particularly striking about this is that it goes against what people expect. That is, people expect that focusing on how something might never have happened would lead to less happiness than focusing on the fact that it did. And yet the opposite is the case.
This is because taking a good thing that's happened, and focusing on how surprising it is that it happened to you, keeps it from becoming familiar and ordinary - keeps it fresh!
Applying this to your partner
You can apply this principle to your partner. In a follow-up study one group of participants were asked to spent 15–20 minutes writing about how they met their partner, how they started dating and how they ended up together. Another group were asked to describe how they might never have met their partner, how they might never have started dating and how they might never have ended up together. Just like the previous studies it was this second group who got the biggest boost in relationship satisfaction. Thinking about life without them really focused their appreciation for their partner. And again, this was contrary to what people thought would happen - they assumed that writing about how they met their partner would lead to greater appreciation.
This has been called the 'George Bailey' effect, named after the lead character in a classic film called It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey is about to take his own life, due to financial problems, when an angel is sent down to show him what the world would be like if he had never been in it. He gets to actually see what would have happened without his positive influence on other peoples' lives. This is so powerful that he is transformed and is filled with gratitude for his life and the way in which it is so inextricably linked with the lives of everyone he knows and loves.
To get the most out of the amazing life you already lead, look back and think about what it would be like without the people and events that have been important to you.