One way to feel more thankful for things is to imagine life without them. Our guest tries a practice for seeing the bright side, even when you feel down.

One way to feel more thankful for things is to imagine life without them. Our guest tries a practice for seeing the bright side, even when you feel down.

Episode summary:

We know that gratitude is good for us. But what can we do when we’re struggling to actually feel thankful? Our guest this week is author and podcast producer Stephanie Foo. Foo built a network of close friends around her in California, where she grew up. As a survivor of child abuse and Complex PTSD, her friends in California became her chosen family. And since she’s moved to New York City, she finds herself often pining for the Golden State and the people she loves there. This week, Foo tries a practice in mental subtraction, which gratitude researcher Ernst Bohlmeijer describes as an antidote to taking things for granted. Imagining her life if she didn’t live in New York helps Foo tap into gratitude even in the depths of winter – when she misses California the most. She even discovers her particular skill in getting the benefits of this practice by leaning into one of her PTSD symptoms. Later in the show, Ernst Bohlmeijer breaks down how keeping a gratitude practice can alter the emotions you’re likely to experience in a given day, and maybe even change you as a person.

Find the full Mental Subtraction of Positive Events practice at our Greater Good in Action website:

  1. Take a moment to think about a positive event in your life. It could be a career or educational achievement or a special trip you took.
  2. Imagine yourself back in the time of this event. Think about the circumstances that made it possible. Ponder on the ways in which this event may never have happened and write them down. For example, if you hadn’t learned about a certain job opening at the right moment.
  3. Imagine what your life would be like now if you had not experienced this positive event and all the fruits that came from it.
  4. Remind yourself that this positive event did happen and reflect upon the benefits it has brought you. Allow yourself to feel grateful that things happened as they did.

Today’s guests:

Stephanie Foo is a radio producer and author of the book What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma.

Learn more about Stephanie and her book:

Follow Stephanie on Twitter:

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Ernst Bohlmeijer is a psychology professor who studies gratitude at the University of Twente in The Netherlands.

Learn more about Ernst and his work:

Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:

More Resources for Mental Subtraction of Positive Events:
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Stephanie Foo I think February’s the worst month in New York because you’ve been cold for like five months. I get really, um, bad seasonal affective disorder too. It’s just being inside and there’s no leaves on the trees and everything is gray. It’s just gray. Everything’s gray.

I’ve lived here since 2014, and before that, I lived in California my whole life. In my head I have, like, the bright red of the redwoods, and the bright green, and leaves, and sun, and flowers, and my friends, and all of us going out to eat.

I think that’s why one of the reasons why I miss California so much is ‘cause my closest friends all live in California. These are friends that I’ve had most of my life or friends that I’ve at least had for like, you know, 15 years. It’s hard to miss that ease of when you’re just around someone and you don’t have to put on airs, and you don’t have to pretend, and it’s just simple. When you don’t have family, which I don’t, it’s your friends become family, and you build these really sort of lifelong, deep, profound relationships with friends. It feels like this deep longing ache where, as I put on, like, another layer of socks, I’m like, “Oh my god. How do I survive this?”

Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, Welcome to The Science of Happiness.Today we’re talking about feeling more grateful for the things in your life by imagining your life without them. Our guest today, Stephanie Foo, lives in New York City, but she often finds herself pining for her home state of California. She joins us today after trying a practice of mental subtraction, where she tried to cultivate more gratitude for her life on the east coast. Later in the show, we’ll hear about how gratitude can boost your overall well-being, even when you’re feeling down.

Ernst Bohlmeijer You reset yourself morally and in a sense, you get a fresh perspective on life.

Dacher Keltner More, after this break.


Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltnter. We’re talking about how to find gratitude for people and things in your life by imagining life without them. Our guest today, Stephanie Foo, is a journalist and author of What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma.

Stephanie built a rich network of friends and chosen family around her in California, where she grew up. Nine years ago, she moved to New York. And she still yearns for home.

But what would life be like if she didn’t live in New York? That’s what Stephanie asked herself for our show. She tried a practice in mental subtraction – where you imagine your life without something that you really treasure, in order to cultivate more gratitude for it. Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us on The Science of Happiness.

Stephanie Foo Yeah, Thanks for having me.

Dacher Keltner I want to congratulate you on your incredible book, “What My Bones Know,” And we learn from this science that if we put those complex experiences into narratives. If we share them with people in the right context, in a safe space, we gain insight and it’s beneficial. And I’m curious about your thinking about the role of things like writing and gratitude as we face the different traumas of life.

Stephanie Foo Yeah, so I was diagnosed with complex PTSD in 2017. So with, um, classic PTSD, you can get that from a single traumatic event, like a brutal car crash or something. Complex PTSD is when you experience the trauma over and over and over for many, many years. Um, so. Common causes for complex PTSD might be child abuse. I survived pretty extreme child abuse and neglect or living through a war zone or an abusive relationship. And so I told myself that if I was able to heal from complex PTSD, I would write about that journey of healing and how I was able to do it.

I wrote about keeping a gratitude journal, in order to sort of be more cognizant and aware of good things and happening in my life, but also particularly complex PTSD can often sort of damage the ability to trust people and make you feel like you’re constantly unloved or that the people around you don’t wanna be around you. There was a lot of other stuff happening. I was definitely going to therapy and trying EMDR and doing hallucinogenics. Like I don’t think anyone is gonna heal from complex ptsd, from gratitude journaling.

But it, I think it was a tool in the toolbox that was helpful in terms of complex PTSD is a relational wound because if you have experienced trauma so many times over the course of years, probably it’s either because you’re tremendously unlucky or people who were supposed to love and care for you, like, people let you down. And that gratitude journal really focused me or allowed me to focus on even small things like text messages that friends would send every day to check up on me and really let the love that I was receiving sink in.

Dacher Keltner So for our show you chose a practice where you imagined what your life would be like without something. What’d you do?

Stephanie Foo I was in California. I was there visiting friends. And I was, like, jet-lagged still. And everyone was still asleep. And I was, like, on a lawn in the dew in the morning. So I was like, “Yeah, what if this was just my life?”

And I decided to do this mental subtraction of events, which is, like, envisioning what it would be like if I didn’t have New York. I just envisioned, what if I moved back and I didn’t have any of the things that I have in New York.

But then, you know, I thought about my husband and how much he loves me and how much he cares for me and how lucky I am to have somebody who prioritizes my happiness so muchEven though my friends are wonderful and I’m grateful for them forever, you know, we have our separate lives and they’re not, like, making me breakfast every morning. And his family here, we’re all so close. We have these almost, like, weekly family meetups where it’s, like, everyone eating cake and talking and joking with each other and, just like, his siblings all have keys to our house and they’re constantly just coming in and out.

I belong to this very tight-knit family unit. I feel like, you know, if I ever needed anything, I could ask for it. If I needed help moving or if I needed a ride from the airport, I wouldn’t need to feel bad at all just asking for it. There’s something so safe to that.

Dacher Keltner What did you subtract?

Stephanie Foo I was, like, subtracting. I was like, “What if I didn’t have Joey, my husband?” You know, “What if I didn’t have his family? What if I didn’t have, like, the lovely apartment that I love? What if my life was just this lawn in these palm trees and this perpetual warmth and sun?”

And I was like, “Well, yeah. I mean, the honeysuckle is sweeter. The jasmine is more fragrant. The succulents are better. The redwoods are great. The Vietnamese food is incredible, but I think my life would be better for walks, but it would be worse in so many ways. In just terms of, like, the day-to-day small acts of love that I get here in New York. And so I was like, “Yeah, alright. Right. All right. All right. Alright. Alright…

Dacher Keltner “I give up!”

Stephanie Foo …New York is pretty good, I guess. It’s alright.”

Dacher Keltner Indeed. Did anything surprise you about the experience?

Stephanie Foo I think it surprised me how much my ideas changed from being very, very grumpy about fall coming in New York, to being, like, “Okay, well there’s all this like community warmth that I can be excited for.” And that it did change my mood quite a bit.

Dacher Keltner One of the things I love about these practices is not only the immediate effects but they kind of stick with you. And I’m wondering if the practice that you did for us, and thank you, is there anything you’ll take with it in your continuing life in New York City?

Stephanie Foo I feel like this is a lesson actually that I have learned a few times. Like, your life is kind of really good in New York. And then I forget it, and then I have to remember it again. So iit has stuck with me in, you know, the several weeks since I’ve done it. I don’t know. If I’ve learned anything in this life it’s, I don’t think you can count on a lesson sticking forever, but it’s good to know that this is, a, another tool in the toolbox, as I said.

Dacher Keltner Yeah we’ve got lots of tools. I’m curious, Stephanie, about your sort of take on the gratitude approach more generally. Just coming out of the deep experiences of your life and, writing “What My Bones Know,” you know, there’s a study in Japan that compared just simple gratitude, like, appreciate that lawn in California versus the mental subtraction exercise you described, and it actually is stronger to do this mental subtraction exercise to imagine losing things. What, What’s your take on gratitude?

Stephanie Foo I think you see the stakes. You see the stakes of what you could lose

Dacher Keltner Hmm.

Stephanie Foo I think it’s really easy to take for granted things when every day you’re just like, “Yeah, I love my husband. Yeah,I love my friends. Yeah, I love my cat.” Whatever. Like, yeah, every day you’re like, “Yep, you’re a good cat.” But when you imagine life without the cat, it’s quite horrific. And I think it goes back maybe to that science that you were talking about of survival of looking out for threats everywhere you go. That is the body’s natural reaction I think, and particularly with people who have PTSD, it’s very much our reaction constantly scanning for threats. And so it’s weird. Like, I actually was able to lean into that scanning for threats, right? And be like, what is the worst case scenario if I was able, if I lost this right? And immediately then your body goes like, “Wait, no, that’s good stuff. You don’t wanna lose that.” And weirdly, yeah, it’s kind of like a strange hack to use that trauma brain to actually feel grateful.

Dacher Keltner Well, Stephanie Foo thank you so much for being on our show and thank you for your new book, “What My Bones Know.” And thank you for your work. It’s a privilege to talk with you today.

Stephanie Foo Thank you for having me

Dacher Keltner The practice Stephanie Foo tried for our show has been shown in the lab to help us feel more gratitude. Later in the show, we’ll hear about how gratitude can boost your overall well being, even when you’re feeling down.

Ernst Bohlmeijer Emotions are very ‘fluctuous.’ So they come and they go, and you have little control. But if you’re in a positive mood, in a grateful mood, you tend to notice positive events more so, you will experience more positive emotions during the day.

Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been talking about how imagining your life without something or someone you love can make you feel more grateful for them. Gratitude can benefit our relationships and our kindness towards others and the state of our bodies and overall well-being

Our producer Haley Gray reports that gratitude can also lift our spirits when we’re feeling down.

Haley Gray There’s a lot of research on why gratitude is good for us: it helps us focus more on the good in life – and really savor those things instead of ruminating on the bad. You feel more content, more joyful. And it’s good for your body. Studies suggest gratitude helps to boost your immune system and lower your risk of heart disease.

Ernst Bohlmeijer There are some findings that show that it also improves quality of sleep. And gratitude is of course related to positivity, having a positive mood.

Haley GrayThat’s Ernst Bolmeijer, a psychology professor who studies gratitude at the University of Twente in The Netherlands. He wanted to know if you’d get even more out of gratitude if you tried practicing it in different ways for several weeks. So he and his team did an experiment.

Ernst BohlmeijerWe ask people, “Well, do you need a boost for your happiness? Well, you can try out these positive psychology interventions for free.”

Haley Gray He recruited 217 Dutch adults who reported they were just doing okay – but not exactly thriving. First, he had everyone fill out questionnaires that measured things like their mood, how distressed they felt, and how grateful they’d been feeling recently.

Ernst Bohlmeijer “How grateful are you about your life? How grateful are you to other persons, for what they have done to you?”

Haley Gray: He assigned some of them to do a short gratitude practice five days a week, for six weeks. And each week they’d get new instructions.

Ernst Bohlmeijer And the first exercise would be the more classic gratitude exercise, that is journaling.

Haley Gray They had to write three good things that happened that day.

Ernst Bohlmeijer Yeah, to take another perspective. And that’s called mental subtracting.

Haley Gray That’s the practice Stephanie Foo tried, our guest from New York City who was missing California.

Ernst Bohlmeijer And that’s a very powerful exercise to really, promote, a sense of appreciation. It’s an antidote for taking things for granted.

Haley Gray One week, everyone had to express gratitude to another person.

Ernst Bohlmeijer Writes him or her a letter.

Haley Gray Another week they had to think back over their whole lives, and write about the things they’re most grateful for.

Ernst Bohlmeijer And the last one is to really try to create a grateful mood during the day, and that’s one of the most exciting exercises. You can do that in the morning when you wake up, take five minutes and think, “Okay, how do I want to live my day to day? Do I want to live in a hurry and or can I really try to live with a sense of appreciation?” And you create, during the day, a lingering grateful mood.

Haley Gray Bolmeijer measured their moods again after the six weeks, and one more time after the six months.

Ernst Bohlmeijer We asked people, “How grateful did you feel in the past 24 hours?” And we find very strong effects, especially on this gratitude as mood.

Haley Gray They were also better at noticing the simple pleasures in life, and overall, had a greater sense of abundance – like they had everything they needed.

Ernst Bohlmeijer If you’re, in a positive mood, in a grateful mood, you tend to notice positive events. You will experience more positive emotions during the day. So it seemed to change people in a sustained way. So you could say they have become a little bit different kind of person, a new person

Dacher Keltner Thanks, Haley. I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. If you’d like to try using mental subtraction practice, you can find instructions in our show notes. Share your thoughts by emailing us at happiness pod-AT-Berkeley dot E-D-U, or use the hashtag #happinesspod.


Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. And our associate producer Zhe Wu. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.