Mental Subtraction

In Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, an angel named Clarence appears to George Bailey, who is about to jump off a bridge to end his life. Clarence takes George through a spiritual tour of the world as it would have been had George never been born.

Rather than convincing George not to jump by counting his own blessings, Clarence allows George to see all the ripples and repercussions that would have occurred if he’d never been born. By imagining the absence of everything good in his life, and the negative impact of him never being born, George realizes just how rare and precious the good things in his life actually are.

Borrowing this idea, psychologists have conducted tests to see if thinking of the absence of the good things in your life could make you appreciate them more – a concept called mental subtraction.

Research shows that imagining the absence of a positive event in your life has a more powerful effect on you than simply looking back on that positive event. Likewise, imagining the absence of an important person in your life can be more powerful than simply appreciating the fact that they are in your life. Those who imagined never meeting their spouse or significant other report higher levels of relationship satisfaction after doing the mental subtraction exercise.

I meet with wealthy people, that’s the nature of estate planning. It’s striking to me how people adapt to having material wealth, and yet still feel as if they need more to feel financially secure. A client who has a $4 million net worth wants to have $10 million. Once attained the number moves to $20 million. Should the stock market drop as it has in recent months lowering that $20 million to $16 million, anxiety sets in. “Will I have enough?” the client asks.

I stop myself from pointing out that their net worth has quadrupled since we first met, and that they’re in the upper two percent of the population.

I’m guilty of this as well. If you walked up to me when I was a university student and showed me photographs of what my life is like today, I would do back flips! (I would also likely be shocked at my middle-aged appearance!) As I’m writing this column Patti and I are in the final preparations for our daughter Gabi’s wedding over this July 4th weekend. How fortunate am I to have a wife who’s put up with me for 33 years, and three talented, beautiful, smart and ambitious daughters – and now for the first time a son?

If you ever feel like you haven’t reached that horizon you’re always going after – realize this – like the real horizon, that imaginary horizon always moves away from you. You will never reach it. The true measure of how well you’re doing isn’t by looking forward at some ideal, rather it’s by looking backward. Where did you begin? How far have you come?

It’s like hiking guides in Colorado say when their clients get tired on the ascent up a mountain, “Every now and then turn around because that’s where the view is.” What mental subtraction teaches us is to not only turn around but imagine that you’re not even on the hike at all.

Imagine if you don’t have your health, or your soul mate – how would that feel? This doesn’t mean that you don’t recognize real problems. Or that you stop trying to make things better. It simply means you see the possibility that you could lose the thing you are complaining or frustrated about, and then you understand the emotion that creates.

My friend, fraternity brother and college roommate, Leland Reiner, loved to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year when it came on television during the Christmas season. Ironically and tragically, he passed away from a brain aneurism at age 23, just after his college graduation and as he was just getting started in life.

I only wish that I imagined him missing from my life in a mental subtraction exercise.

©2022 Craig R. Hersch – Sheppard Law Firm. Learn more at

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