Subtract negatives


About ten years ago we purchased a custom mattress. This thing seemed extremely unnecessary at the time – but looking back now, it might be one the best purchases I’ve ever made. The hesitation at the time was likely related to cost, or something along the lines of “why does one need to spend so many multiples more than what seems like a very nice bed from a reputable retailer.” Obviously I was wrong.

(Originally posted here, via Substack, on 14 May 2023 – consider subscribing there, as I plan to post there first, and eventually shut this one down)

Before I start, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to all the new subscribers. To everyone who is supporting these posts with a paid subscription – It means a lot! I obviously have a day job, and nobody asked me to write these posts… I do it because I enjoy it, and I enjoy the conversations that arise because of these posts. The fact that anyone would consider subscribing as a gesture of appreciation still baffles me as much as it fills me with pride and joy, and I appreciate you for doing so, more than I can ever articulate here. For what its worth, it does help amplify the feeling of guilt when I haven’t posted in a while – so there’s that. I toyed around with the idea of restricting access to paid subscribers only, but that felt too arrogant (“who the f**k do I think I am” vibes) – so I’ll save that for some future date when I post something revolutionary (haha, as if!). 

Anyway… Back to the mattress story we go! Thinking about it now, this purchase seems to remind me more often than I expected, that it is never a bad idea to spend your money on reducing the negative aspects you encounter in your life. I say this specifically as a contrast to the typical approach.. where people spend money to increase the positive aspects in their lives. 

As a matter of fact, I’d like to go as far as arguing that spending money on reducing negatives has a better ‘happiness return’ than spending money on acquiring positives – this is because when you don’t like something, you already know you do not like it – so removing it is 100% guaranteed to increase happiness! 

Let’s expand on this…

I don’t own a private yacht. I do not recall a single day in my life where I have lamented the fact that I do not own a yacht. Probably the case for so many things… would I like to own a jet? Sure! In fact I have had the pleasure of using a corporate jet for work many times, and I know firsthand how fun it is to set your own schedule and use private airport terminals – the thing is, I didn’t wake up questioning my life choices or feeling disappointed that I do not have a jet at my disposal.

More often than not, purchase-related dopamine will fade over time.

You can also apply this thinking to smaller items like cameras and watches. For the last few years I have spent so many hours watching reviews of the Leica Q2 camera, and trying to convince myself I should get one. The thing is, I knew I shouldn’t get one – and have always fought a battle in my head about buying/not buying one – constantly reiterating the message that the happiness I associate with owning this camera will undoubtedly fade pretty quickly (because I know I do not wish to dedicate much time to photography anyway!). 

The same goes for SO MANY watches. Instagram doesn’t help either – we see #NWA posts every day, and feel a tiny bit of FOMO and start wondering whether we should also try and get one, even though that particular watch may not even have been on our radars at all until that very moment. It is a tiring rat race, if you frame it that way. 

People make this mistake so often… jumping on the hedonic treadmill and never finding their way off! Sure, a handful of things give me great pleasure, and bring additional happiness in to my life – but these are more the exception than the rule. More often than not, purchase-related dopamine will fade over time.

This isn’t particularly insightful, I concede – the fact that you’re reading this blog means you probably already question your discretionary spending, and are wiser with your purchase decisions than many others.

Thing is, there’s actually a whole book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less which talks about the benefits of reducing the negatives in your life to add to the overall quality. In the mattress example, having a restless sleep and waking up tired or with aches is my idea of a living nightmare. I generally sleep for a shorter duration than the average person, and provided the sleep is undisturbed and of a decent quality, it works well. Take that quality away, and I become utterly useless – so the ability to guarantee a good rest in an epic bed, is deleting any possibility of a future negative (bad sleep due to bad mattress) and this increases my net happiness.

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

You could apply this to chores, to waitlisted watches or even private air travel. Some people hate cleaning – and sure, they could do it and save money, but no matter how much money they save, they will never enjoy doing the cleaning (net unhappiness). So clearly, in this case, the purchase of a cleaning service is guaranteed to increase happiness, right?

Of course, the caveat here is one must be careful not to confuse something which genuinely makes you unhappy, with something that is a general inconvenience which you can pay extra to reduce. If you travel in economy class, that experience is annoying, and you could pay extra and fly in business or first class – but that ends – and nobody I know of reasonably goes around thinking their life sucks because they fly in economy class 2-4 times per year. Cleaning the house is a task for most people to complete (as a household) and so, the frequency of the tasks/duties can reasonably be expected to have a direct impact on your net happiness. Perhaps you disagree, but you’ll have your own version of what qualifies, I’m sure!

The most basic of tests is; “is this a convenience improvement, or a recurring daily problem?” It is convenient that I can order an Uber from my phone, but if I use public transport instead, I don’t actually feel less happy about not being able to have a driver taking me to my destination. Buying a superb mattress isn’t ‘convenient’ – it is paying more for something of a higher quality, and this replaces a constant negative experience with a positive one.

I think there are a handful of things which I would put into this category of ideal areas/items to subtract negatives with:

  • A good mattress – you sleep for nearly a third of your life, why would you spend this time on anything less than the best?!
  • Comfortable shoes – similar to the mattress, we typically spend a lot of time wearing our shoes – is it really worth sacrificing comfort for aesthetics? At what cost?
  • 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 – in addition to finding ways to make more money, figure out ways to reduce spending too. 
  • Goals – Look at the root of your goal – what will you achieve by attaining it? You’re the only one who knows why you are pursuing your goals. Try and be brutally honest, then let go of any goals chosen which divide your attention and energy, and possibly prevent you from achieving other more important goals.
  • High quality jackets which last for many years (fewer is better imho!)
  • Daily to-dos and meetings you attend or initiate

Please add your thoughts in the comments too!

I suppose, by definition, you’ll eventually run out of negatives to remove from your life, at which point you have reached the peak of Mount Happiness (as far as money can buy, anyway). After that, chasing additional happiness by spending money will lead you back on to the hedonic treadmill! 

Repeat of the above note: Originally published here on 14 May 2023, via SubStack. Posting here so I have all my posts in one place as the Substack was started much later than this page – eventually, will turn this blog private, to help drive the traffic to Substack instead,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.