Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It could have been me: Why a near miss feels so good

On February 12th, 2009 a plane bound for Buffalo, New York crashed into a house killing all 49 people aboard the plane, as well as one person on the ground. In the days 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 and when news of the crash aired, he broke down, unable to believe how lucky he was. His wife of seventeen years told reporters that she couldn’t imagine life without him; but, for a few minutes, she had been forced to imagine the unimaginable. He and his family, while sad for the loss of others, 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 in order to appreciate all the wonders in his life. Although most of us haven’t missed a flight that ended up crashing, or had an angel help us see our wonderful lives, we have passed a car crash on the road and realized how easily it could have been us or heard about someone who was diagnosed with cancer and had a moment of thanks that we were healthy. Even something as trivial as thinking we’ve forgotten our keys, only to find them in a different pocket of our bag, can elicit a sense of relief and appreciation. 

Sure, near misses make us feel relief and appreciation, but are they any better than 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 it becomes familiar to us, and the better we understand a positive event, the less happy it makes us to think about it (Wilson et al., 2005). Near misses are such potent experiences because they make the simple fact that we are alive, healthy, 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. I don’t think they’re alone – even now looking at those choices I think I’d prefer the first one, because, 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, and expect that it would make us happier, that is not what actually gives us the biggest boost. In fact, the participants who were 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 who were assigned to think about how they’d met their partner.

The bottom line? “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 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.

Have you or someone close to you had a near miss that made you feel appreciative? Do you have other strategies you use to remind you about the good things in your life?

The article:
Koo, M., Algoe, S., Wilson, T., & Gilbert, D. (2008). It's a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1217-1224 DOI: 10.1037/a0013316


  1. What a sad incident , maybe this has cause you a lot of depression.Hope you can get over it soon.

  2. I'm sorry to hear that. It's not an easy situation to handle with. I know God has it's purpose why He let you experience that one. Always remember that everything happens have it's purpose. I know you can get over it. I'll pray for that too.