For Happiness, Less Really Is More: 6 Creative Ways to Actually Subtract

October 31, 2022

After being limited and locked down for so long, our instinct—when we’re able to fully reenter our lives—will likely be to do it all. We’ll want to re-engage in activities, reconnect with friends and colleagues and reignite our interests.

But it may not be such a great idea to jump in too quickly. Like eating too much after starving in the desert, we run the risk of overwhelming our systems and actually reducing our happiness and fulfillment. A better approach may be measured enthusiasm and restrained activity. After all, less really is more. Less activities result in greater time for reflection. Fewer belongings mean more space in our homes. A smaller number of friends translates into deeper relationships.

Our Instinct for More
But it’s natural to want to do more. According to research at the University of Virginia, our brains tend to take an additive approach. We seek to solve problems by adding features to the solution. We want to improve a recipe by adding spices. We pursue greater happiness in life by adding activities that seem rewarding. In our defense, we’ve been conditioned. Any good team member knows the value of a brainstorming session. We’ve been taught that for creativity, quantity is better than quality because often the goofy idea leads to the brilliant result.

Science demonstrates our more-is-better culture is counter-productive and it can detract from our happiness and fulfillment. Studies at Baylor University found when people were more materialistic, they tended to be less happy and satisfied. And research at Northwestern University found when people were more focused on wealth and the acquisition of more possessions, they were more depressed and anxious and had less positive relationships.

Popular culture has countered this inclination by responding that less is better, and the minimalism movement has been in full swing for years. Interestingly however, the first mention of the idea that less is more actually arose in an 1855 poem by Robert Browning. It turns out the ideal of reduction isn’t so new at all—but this doesn’t necessarily make it easy.

So how can you find greater happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction through the skill of subtracting rather than adding, especially as you dive back into life? Here are six methods:

Consider Your Identity – Make Circles
Reducing and subtracting is really a matter of making choices and your own identity is a key lens to consider. Make three circles—either on paper or in your mind—placing one inside the other. In the inner circle, consider things which are core to who you are. These are the values or activities without which you wouldn’t be you. These might be the value of family and the time you spend driving your children to school or the value of health and the yoga you do once per week. In the second circle out, place those things which are important but not core. In the third circle, place those things you enjoy but which aren’t critical to you. Use this thinking as a guide for what you might remove from your activity list over time—subtracting things further from your core and from who you are.

Consider Your Priorities – Make a List
In making choices, the tried and true list of priorities is ever-effective. Make a list of what’s most important to you, in terms of your values and the actions which support those values. Include the things on which you spend time daily, weekly or monthly. After you’ve made the list, cross off the bottom portion. Focus on the things which have more meaning so you can put your best energy into those.

The choices you make will focus your energy. After all, when you say yes to everything—every new project at work, every new opportunity, every invitation from friends or every fun activity—you can’t be your best at all of them. By saying “no” (crossing some things off of your list), you’re saying a more emphatic “yes” to the things that remain.

Consider Your Impact – Make a Map
We all want to have an impact. We want to be a great parent or a terrific friend or a high-performing team member. But if your focus is too diffuse—if you’ve added too many things to your plate—you may sub-optimize the way you are able to perform each role. Use the lens of geography and create a (literal) map of your locus of influence, marking your points of impact on it. You make an impact with a neighbor in your cul-du-sac or the Habitat for Humanity project across town. You make a difference with your niece who lives on the opposite coast or your colleague in another country. Be expansive in thinking about all the regions you influence, and then assess which are most important. Which can you reduce? On which could you spend less time? Make choices to have a greater effect in fewer places.

Consider Relationships – Make a Web
Of course, relationships are the lifeblood of our communities and our own mental health. But you can’t be all things to all people. For this assessment, make a web. Write the names of people or groups with whom you have influence. Consider both strong ties—those you see and interact with frequently—and weak ties—those you interact with less often. Again, be expansive about identifying people and groups. And again, give intentional thought to those with whom it’s most important to maintain strong relationships. Give yourself permission to reduce the energy you invest in relationships which may be less consequential.

Consider Time Horizons – Make a Timeline
Also consider your choices and their impact for the short, medium and long term. At the University of Connecticut, researchers found people generally existed on a continuum between being “maximizers” who looked for every available option to satisfy their needs and “satisficers” (satisfy + suffice) who were more likely to make quick impulsive decisions. Those who were most fulfilled were likely to consider the longer term and make decisions and choices that would make them happy over time.

Make a timeline and place the activities which benefit you and others in the now, near and far terms. Make selections about what you’ll maintain by ensuring you have the right representation of activities in each of these areas. For example, you need to go to the farmers’ market to buy healthy food for the week (short term). You need to study for an exam which ensures success in your class this semester (medium term), and you plan to maintain networking activities which contribute to your long-term career success—but you can cut out the time you’re spending dog-walking as a side-hustle.

Consider Your Mindset – Make Plans
Nature abhors a vacuum so it is understandably hard to subtract, even after you’ve assessed what will mean the most to maintain and mince. As the saying goes, “Ride the horse in the direction it wants to go,” and outsmart your inclination to add and fill—especially as it relates to lifestyle changes.

You can also try putting your desired deletions into additive terms. For example, if you want to reduce how many unhealthy carbs you eat, you may instead tell yourself to fill your plate with fruit. Or if you want to stop eating during certain hours (intermittent fasting), you might try telling yourself to focus on starting to drink plenty of water during those hours. If you want to curtail a negative thought pattern, suggest to yourself that you begin to think about something positive instead. Likewise, if you’re solving problems at work and you’re in the brainstorming phase, try thinking of all the possible solutions which break a current pattern. The point is to subtract by adding or filling—tricking your thinking process.

In Sum
Clearly you don’t need to use all these approaches to assess your choices—less is more. Select the ones that resonate with you, and consider how you can reduce and subtract in order to gain. Enjoy getting back out into the world. Embrace new freedoms. Love your release from lockdown. But also choose well so you don’t become overwhelmed. You’ll be more happy and fulfilled as a result.

Originally published on, May16, 2021


- Tracy Brower, PhD, author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work

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