Why Subtraction is the Skill to Add More Happiness to Your Life
Monday June 13, 2022

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Loss does not always equate to reduced quality. In fact, the opposite has actually been proven to be true.

Engineer Leidy Klutz’s new book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less extols the benefits of subtracting from your life in order to add to the overall quality. And, this will not surprise you in the least if you are familiar with the mission of living simply luxuriously: I agree.

The boy in high school or college who you thought would go the distance and be your lifelong partner, but one thing or another concluded the relationship and you went your separate ways and began living your own lives apart from each other. The woman you crossed paths with and had a wonderful conversation, even exchanging phone numbers, but she never returned your calls or texts. The former colleagues or friends from previous chapters in your life that you had hoped you would stay in touch with, but over time, your lives went different directions and contact evaporated. The loss of responsibilities due to children leaving the nest or the changing of career paths or retirement. Even the loss of a loved one or a life path you thought would be yours for many years to come, or even simply the loss of a plant you invested much money and effort to nourish, but it just would not thrive where you planted it.

Every single one of the examples above of loss and so many more, whether we choose to subtract tasks from our to-do lists or the universe decides for us, when such subtraction occurs, there is in fact a gift to be found and appreciated. However, due to psychology and societal conditioning, the idea of ‘more’ and adding and gaining being viewed as a positive indirectly suggests that the opposite – less, loss, decline – is negative, but such an assumption would be faulty and prevent awesome discoveries from being experienced.

“People systematically overlook opportunities to change the world through subtraction,” Gabrielle Adams, professor at University of Virginia’s Darden and Batten Schools who conducted research on the power of subtraction

In fact, the perception of “addition = good :: subtraction = bad” closes our mind from being open to unknown and unimagined possibilities and holds us in expectations and assumption thus limiting the possibilities for growth and discovery.

In a recent episode of Gardeners’ World, Monty Don was speaking about a particular plant he had planted in his pond/wildlife sanctuary at Longmeadow, and he explained that during his first few attempts at planting this certain plant, he thought it would complement the other variety of chosen plants. When in fact it didn’t grow as he had imagined, he attempted something new – planted it somewhere else. Upon sharing this, he said, and I paraphrase, it’s not a problem where he had originally imagined it would thrive; it’s just part of the process of figuring out what works.

Such is the case with our individual life journey.

Over the past weekend, I undertook a task I had been wanting to tend to for weeks, and if I’m being honest, a task I wanted to have tended to seven years ago, but my life journey had other plans. Waiting until I found a house I owned, then waiting for storage shelves to be built and then waiting for my contractors’ supplies and project supplies for the remodel to be cleared out, it was until this spring that i could fully tend to this particular project. It may seem a quotidian task, but the act of thoroughly cleaning my garage which included examining all of the boxes packed away and ascertaining what I really needed to keep – from holiday decorations to past young adult and childhood memorabilia – this act of conscientious subtraction was life lifting.

Knowing what I needed to keep with me for the next chapter as I moved ahead, knowing what I had and what my journey had been, gave me both clarity and a refreshing deep breath of peace. And upon reflection, I would not have been able to make the decision clearly of what to let go without the passage of time and the experiences that occurred during that time.

However, that is not why I shared my garage-clearing-out task. With the unnecessary now having been edited out, donated or cleaned away (i.e. put into the trash or recycling bin), I made my way through each box. and as i did, I saw the different attempts at trying certain directions for my life journey and remembering how and why they didn’t work out, and as well, how I had responded to them. As you probably have guessed, when they didn’t work out, I tried something new, and/or tried something different. Sometimes in a similar direction, just a different route, and sometimes in an entirely new direction, but I took the knowledge of the experience given, and carried it forward with me as knowledge about myself – what brought me calm and in what scenarios I remained calm without hesitation, what riled me up and what excited me, what spoke to my temperament, what rattled me but didn’t others, etc.. All of these experiences were part of the process, and, keeping Monty Don’s words in my mind, not problems. Such information gained helped me find success elsewhere, doing something different than originally imagined which only happened due the route I had attempted not being the path for me.

Sometimes we want a particular relationship, job interview, long-awaited trip, special event, etc. to unfold a certain way. In such cases, we’ve already consciously or unconsciously placed expectations as to how it must unfold in order for us to feel happy with the result; however, by having such expectations, we get in our own way of how often happiness occurs and is experienced. What if that man you had hoped a relationship would have worked out with gave you the best gift of your adult life by not calling back because if he had, the relationship would have held you back, limited your growth, caused you unnecessary pain? Now, we can never know for sure, but oh my goodness, if that was to be the case, all of the negative outcomes happening and unknowingly avoided is definitely something to celebrate. We don’t know what we would have gained when we lose something we thought we wanted. We may have gained a huge headache. So in such cases, the loss was a tremendous positive gain due to the subtraction.

“When people automatically default to adding, they may be selecting suboptimal solutions without considering superior ones.”

Subtracting from our lives gives us space, more white space (as discussed in episode #316 – How to Create a Life Full of Vitality), and such space gives us time to be more mindful about the choices we make, to think with clarity, to respond rather than react and during this transition from a life full of fewer to-dos, we begin to take stock of what is actually nourishing us and what merely has superficial value to appease someone or something (institution, society, etc.) else.

The thought I ask you to ponder today upon reading is the truth in this irony: that there is immense value to be gained when you apply subtraction to your life.

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Areas of your life to consider subtracting from in order to add value:

  • Daily to-dos
  • Wardrobe and Home Décor, i.e. closets and storage Marie Kondo is referenced in both sources included in today’s post as evidence that subtraction adds value
  • Meetings called — if you are in a position who organizes meetings
  • Steps taken to complete a task — simplify to the point that retains what is vital and necessary, but no less
  • Habits and routines — instead of adding or learning a new habit, why not first see which habits to relinquish
  • Diet — instead of complicating your daily menu with new items, why not eliminate what is not positively contributing first and see how your health benefits?
  • Budget and net income — instead of trying to figure out ways to make more money, why not figure out ways to reduce spending so you don’t have to work more hours or more jobs?
  • Words spoken or written — Speak, email or text when it is necessary, thoughtfully choose your words; refrain from speaking out of habit.
  • Content shared — similar to the above, if you are a writer, composer or anyone who creates, subtracting words, ideas, stories, sentences (the power of a good edit!), can create a polish that enables the entire piece of work to shine.
  • Goals — Look at the root of your goal – what do you think you will achieve by attaining it – deeper connections, more love, acceptance, peace, time, [fill in the blank]. Only you know why you are pursuing your goals. But be honest and let go of goals chosen that divide your attention and prevent you from being successful at the most important ones that will enhance the quality of your life

Subtraction lightens our days and our minds and gives us the opportunity to explore, connect and discover what truly speaks to us. Let yourself be free of distraction that muddles your ability to clearly know how to live a life of contentment, and discover that indeed a quality life involves consciously letting go of what no longer or never did support the life you most value.

For me, as I shared in The Road to Le Papillon: Daily Meditations on True Contentment, a few of the many gifts I gained by letting go of one of the two jobs I had for twelve years were more moments to savor with my pups without distraction or exhaustion, more moments to catch my breath, and the space to know how important doing so was. May you too discover even more moments to savor in your everydays when you apply the tool of subtracting to illuminate the awesome that does indeed exist.

~Psst! There’s a new addition to TSLL: Now you can explore two new categories to help you find exactly the posts you are looking for here on TSLL blog. Now in TSLL’s Archives, explore Contentment and Mindfulness. I will be writing a detailed post about this news soon (I am still adding past posts to each of the categories, but once all are updated, the post sharing the change will go live), but as today’s post is categorized in both, I wanted to share with you the news. ☺️


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20 thoughts on “Why Subtraction is the Skill to Add More Happiness to Your Life

  1. This is a well-timed post. My dad died recently, and I have found myself often feeling overwhelmed with my schedule and tasks as I seek the time needed to grieve. I want to honor my father and my emotions when those sudden remembrances occur. As a side note, the two weeks generally given in the U.S. to grieve is not nearly enough time.

    I have been actively looking at my whole life and seeing what I can simplify for the Summer. Your list is immensely helpful as I continue to make subtractions.

    As a side note, when I taught addition and subtraction (in mathematical terms) we talked about the positive and negative aspects of each through stories. We talked about how having enough is very satisfying, but too much can feel overwhelming. We also talked about the importance of giving away, but not giving away so much that we don’t have enough. In our common culture, there is absolutely the concept of addition being good and subtraction being bad. It’s important, I think, to see the duality of each.

    1. Cara, Thank you very much for sharing how you taught these skills in a mathematical context and the realizations and connections students made. And most importantly, my condolences on the passing of your father. Wishing you the time and comfort you need, and for each of us it will be different. Honoring what you discover is a gift you give yourself. As you stated, grieve doesn’t have a prescribed timeline, and even more than nine months out from my own loss, elements of grief are present and I let myself feel them which is what it is asking us to do. Sending my love. xo Thank you for stopping by (and for your patience with me and the blog this morning :)).

    2. Sincere condolences Cara on your father’s passing. You need time( take as much time as you need) to grieve . Take care. Kameela.

    3. Cara, please take time to honor your grief and do not dismiss those unexpected moments where your remembrances/grief seem to overwhelm your everyday. In my instance, I came to realize those overwhelming moments were occuring because I had not let myself do a proper goodbye, according to my nature. Go off somewhere, for however long, so you may howl, quietly or loudly, according to what is proper for you. Or set aside a time and space, where just for you, this remembrance will be done, daily if need be. (One of the most wretched realizations that I had to grapple with was that I was now no longer a daughter.) And when you honor your process, you honor, not just what is important to you, but the process that keeps this world spinning. We love, we ache, we do incredible soaring things, all because the world is beautiful, and has given us each these such radiant hard gifts, if we choose to open them. Much love to my friend. xo

      1. Rona, I love your comment about going off to howl quietly or loudly. I considered this very seriously! However, I think a little time daily is a requirement for this season of life. Your words ring so true. Thank you.

    4. Cara, My condolences on the loss of your dad. There is no timeline for grief. My dad died very unexpectedly when I was 22 and I kept wondering when I would get over that feeling of loss. I came to realize over many years that I would never “get over it” but instead would adjust to it. All these years later I still miss him and know that he will always be a part of me and with me in a sense though not physically on this earth. I hope at some point your memories will provide comfort to you. Give yourself time and take care, Judy

      1. Thank you, Judy. I agree with you that it will not be something to be “gotten over,” but instead something that requires adjustment.

  2. Cara,
    I am so very sorry for the loss of your father. Grief is definitely a process, and you are so right about the culture of moving on.
    Take care (and all the time you need)!

  3. Great list Shannon.Addition is easy but subtracting can be a challenge . In order to subtract one needs to scrutinise what is going on in one’s life and there are things that go on the back burner for one reason or another ( e.g your garage clearance ) because one does not want to face taking action. I have done a lot of subtractions over the years in various aspects of my life. It is so liberating I do find it gets easier as I get older. Kameela ?

  4. Shannon, brilliant post. Reframing the idea of “taking away” as negative is exactly what our US culture needs. More is not more better. And I love love love the emphasis on “what are your goals”, for anything– your garden, your closet, your state of being…
    And many thanks for the two new categories to help sort your myriad and fab posts–Contentment and Mindfulness, LOVE!!!
    XXOO to you and Norman❤️Rona

  5. Really enjoyed this post and the idea of subtracting rather than adding (even) more to an already busy life.. I want to slow down and the idea of carefully editing and deleting thrills me! Ideas you mentioned that resonate for me are: the to do list, wardrobe – I’ve been editing and only adding what’s needed for a while, diet – cutting down snacking unless truly hungry!, and words said.. I want to step back, feel more comfortable with silence and not feel pressured to speak for the sake of it..

    Thank you for some great ideas

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