On February 12, 2009, a plane bound for Buffalo, NY, crashed into a house, killing all 49 people aboard the plane and one person on the ground.
Following the crash, pictures of the wreckage and stories of the people who had died filled the airwaves. Among these stories of tragedy was a story of reflection and appreciation: Bad weather and a missed connection prevented David Becony from boarding that Buffalo-bound plane. When news of the crash aired, he broke down, unable to believe how lucky he was. His wife of 17 years told reporters that she couldn’t imagine life without him; but, for a few minutes, she had been forced to imagine the unimaginable. While sad for the loss of others, he and his family felt happiness, relief, and a greater appreciation for each other.
Why did this near miss make Becony and his loved ones feel so good?
Reflecting on a loss or a near miss helps us appreciate what we have in our lives. In the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey had to see a world without him in it to appreciate all the wonders of his life. Although most of us haven’t missed a flight that wound up crashing, or had an angel help us see our wonderful lives, we have passed a collision on the road and realized it could have been us, or heard about someone diagnosed with cancer and had a moment of thanks for our health. Even something as trivial as thinking we forgot our keys, only to find them in a different pocket, can elicit a real sense of relief and appreciation.
Near-misses foster feelings of relief and appreciation, but are they any better than just taking a moment to think about everything that is good in our lives?
Research suggests that they are. A clean bill of health from a doctor, a good job evaluation, a great friendship, and a fun vacation are all positive experiences that bring us a lot of happiness—at first. Over time, as we think about and savor the good things in our lives, these positive experiences do less and less to make us feel good. The more we think about something, the more familiar it becomes; the better we understand a positive event, the less happy it makes us to think about it (Wilson et al., 2005). Near misses, however, are such potent experiences because they make being alive, healthy, and happy seem less familiar and explainable—and thus more fortunate and surprising.
What do you think would make you happier?
- Thinking about how you met your partner, started dating, and ended up together; or
- Thinking about how you might never have met your partner, might never have started dating, and might never have ended up together?
In a recent study by Minkyung Koo and colleagues, participants predicted that thinking about meeting their partner would make them more satisfied with their relationships than imagining if they’d never met their partner. In the words of one participant, “I love telling people how we ended up together because it is such a great story. It always makes me feel good about our relationship after I’ve told it” (p. 1222).
Although most of us would prefer thinking about meeting our partner, expecting it to make us happier, that is not what actually gives us the biggest boost. The participants assigned to think about how it would be if they’d never met their partner were more satisfied with their relationships after the task than participants assigned to think about how they’d met their partner.
“Mentally subtracting” positive events from our lives can help us realize how fortunate we are. It doesn’t have to take missing a flight that ends up crashing to make us feel such relief and appreciation. The next time you count your blessings, instead of thinking, “I’m so glad I have family nearby,” try imagining how you would feel if you lived in a place where you had no family around.