A Simple Way to Feel Happier

In the book, Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, Steven Callahan recounts his harrowing experience alone on a life raft. He lost 45 pounds during the trip and went through an amazing amount of deprivation and suffering. His description of what it was like to be back on land gives you a new appreciation for what we all take for granted.

Why? Because taking something away for awhile allows you to compare your normal circumstances to something worse. And what you compare your life to will determine how happy you are at the moment.

One of the reasons people fast is that food is so amazingly delicious afterwards. Eating is almost like a religious experience. Why? Because eating is wonderful compared to not eating.

When Callahan was found offshore by three fisherman, they took him to their island in the Caribbean. Once ashore, they drove him in a Volkswagen bus to a hospital in another town. On the way there, Callahan was overwhelmed with color and sound and smell. While he was adrift on the ocean, he was surrounded for more than two months by nothing but blue sky and blue sea. He smelled nothing but the ocean and fish. Read his brief account of the car ride:

We pass long stretches of sugar cane fields. Ox carts are piled high with cut cane. I cannot believe how sensitive I am to the smells of the cut vegetation, of the flowers, of the bus. It is as if my nerve endings are plugged into an amplifier. The green fields, the pink and orange roadside flowers, practically vibrate with color. I am awash in stimuli.

The contrast between his previous situation and normal life on land was dramatic. He appreciated colors and smells we all take for granted every day. Why do we take them for granted? Because they've always been there. We haven't compared their presence with their absence.

During his voyage on his life raft, Callahan was often soaked in salt water for long periods of time during his time. So it was especially pleasurable to be dry. When he got to the hospital, they cleaned him up and put him to bed. His description is ecstatic. Why? Simply because of the comparison between a cold, wet, abrasive, salt-encrusted life raft and a simple, ordinary bed:

I lay back on the sheets, clean sheets, dry sheets. I can't remember ever feeling like this before, though I imagine that I might have felt this way at birth. I am as helpless as a baby, and each sensation is so strong that it's like seeing, smelling, and touching for the very first time.

Comparisons. Your mind makes them all the time. And whether you feel contentment or dissatisfaction largely depends on what you are comparing your life to.

The problem is, we live in a culture where advertisers are constantly giving us perfect images to compare ourselves with: people with perfect homes and cars and spouses and children, and they give us the illusion that this perfection is somehow possible.

The advertisers are taking advantage of the way our minds work naturally. You automatically and naturally compare yourself and your life to others and with your own ideals and aspirations.

Although the process of comparison happens without your active effort, you can assume control of it. Like your own own breathing, it happens on its own, but you can make it do what you want at any time. All you have to do is pay attention to it. Why would you want to bother? Because, as Robin Lloyd puts it after looking at the research:

People who positively evaluate their well-being on average have stronger immune systems, are better citizens at work, earn more income, have better marriages, are more sociable, and cope better with difficulties.

Okay, so it makes a difference to feel some contentment. And luckily, it can be accomplished pretty easily. It won't last for a long time, but neither does sleeping or exercising. The fact that the effect doesn't last is no reason to dismiss it. If you're willing to put a little effort out, you can feel more satisfied with your life.

Here's what to do: When you feel discontented, ask yourself What could be worse? And really try to think of something. You can always think of something, and it is usually pretty easy.

If you feel unhappy because you haven't advanced in your job as fast as you'd hoped, for example, imagine how you'd feel if you lived in a country or a time when advancement wasn't possible. Imagine being an "untouchable" in India, sentenced to generation after generation of poverty with no chance of escape. Imagine real situations other human beings have experienced that are much worse than anything you've ever had to endure.

Try this technique and you'll recognize that in many ways you're lucky to be where you are and who you are. It's a good feeling. It's relaxing and peaceful. It won't last very long, but you can always do it again. The technique works every time.

In a way, it is a good thing the feeling doesn't last because as wonderful as contentment is, motivation is also wonderful. Striving for a goal — physical fitness, self-improvement, financial success, whatever — is practical and worthwhile also. But when you want to feel some contentment, take a little time and think about how your situation could be worse, or think about what others have gone through, or think about how your situation used to be worse.

To help you find some real situations you can compare your own life with, read books like Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, and Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. Their difficulties will help you see your own life with new eyes.

"I'm glad I'm not a..."

In an experiment, people were asked to do a simple task: To complete the sentence, "I'm glad I'm not a..." They completed the sentence five times.

After doing this simple exercise, they were happier with their lives. Their "life satisfaction" was improved after the exercise.

Another group of volunteers were asked to complete a different sentence: "I wish I were a..." After this exercise, they were less satisfied with their lives.

You have a lot of control over what you compare your life to, and if you would like to feel contentment, it behooves you to consciously exercise your control.

Another study, this time at the University of Milwaukee, looked at comparisons in a different way. A group of women were shown pictures of difficult living conditions from a hundred years ago. Another group were told to imagine and then write about what it would be like to experience a horrible tragedy like getting disfigured or terribly burned. Doesn't this sound like a fun exercise? Oddly enough, though, afterwards the women filled out a rating scale to measure their satisfaction with the quality of their own lives.

They were more satisfied with their lives after the exercise. Why? Because it gave them something worse to compare their own lives to.

You can do a comparison experiment at home. Fill one bucket with ice cold water and another bucket with pretty hot water. Fill a third bucket with room temperature water. Now soak one hand in the hot water and one in the cold water for a couple minutes. Then pull them both out and plunge them into the room temperature water. You'll get the strange sensation of that water feeling both hot and cold at the same time.

Compared to the hot water, the room temperature water feels cold. Compared to the ice cold water, it feels hot. Comparison makes the difference. It effects your direct perception of reality.

In Nelson Mandela's autobiography, he describes his time in prison. It was pretty bad. But, he says, sometimes he was put in isolation. When in isolation, the only food they got was rice water three times a day. Rice water is the water rice has been boiled in. That's it. That's all they got to "eat."

And when isolation was over, and he was back in the normal prison, the tiny amount of horrible food they usually ate seemed like a feast.

You and I come upon examples like this all the time. We've seen it in so many ways. But if you're like me, you have missed the vital lesson for the most part. I like to read true-life survival or adventure stories, as you can probably tell. One of the reasons I like to read them is that I feel so fortunate when I'm done reading. I get up and go about my day, freshly aware that I am not starving or freezing or dying of thirst, and it makes me feel rich and lucky and happy.

I like it when an author uses examples to illustrate a point, and I hope you do too, because I have another one for you: After returning to base camp from an arduous, intense brush with death in another true survival story, K2 The Savage Mountain, the authors write about how relaxing and wonderful it was to be back in base camp:

At that moment we craved no delicacies, no entertainment, no luxuries. We felt like swimmers from a capsized boat who had just completed the long swim to shore. Merely being there was unspeakable luxury.

One thing interesting from studies on happiness is that after having enough money to supply yourself with the basic necessities, money doesn't have much of an impact on your happiness level. People who are very wealthy are only slightly happier than people living modestly. But there is an exception to this rule: If someone with a low income comes in frequent contact with people with higher incomes, it can make the lower income person unhappier with his circumstances.

People who are very poor in, say, India, and everyone in their village is very poor, can still be pretty happy. But a poor person in Beverly Hills who actually would be rich compared to the person in the poor Indian village, might be miserable because he is comparing himself to all the people around him who have so much money.

I have another example for you to illustrate what happens when you transfer a person from one circumstance to an entirely different one. A man named Sichan Siv escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge blood bath. His escape was very difficult and took a long time. He eventually made it to the United States and got a job at the Friendly Ice Cream restaurant, washing dishes, mopping floors, and taking out the trash for 16 hours a day — and he was very happy. He felt like the luckiest man in the world. "I'm free!" he thought, "Nobody's trying to kill me!"

Those of us who grew up in the United States would find his situation — working at such a hard job 16 hours a day and making so little money — almost intolerable. But that's because we are comparing it to our own lives. But we are not stuck only making comparisons that come naturally. You can deliberately make any kind of comparison you want, and this is one place where your thoughts really make a difference.

looking into the future

My wife, Klassy, used to teach workshops for couples. She taught communication skills and put them through exercises so they could practice. One of the exercises she put them through used this principle of comparison.

Klassy would have each couple sit facing each other, and then start talking to them while slow, wordless, beautiful, moving music was playing, while they sat looking at each other.

"Imagine," Klassy would say, "that you two have lived a long life together. You're both very old. And your partner is now on their deathbed. Your mate's life will be over soon. Imagine how that will feel to you then. The two of you have been through so much together..."

Of course, this was a very moving experience for almost everybody. Klassy gave them plenty of time to fully imagine this scenario and to feel how sad it would (or will) be.

"What would you miss about your partner?" Klassy said, giving them long pauses of just music playing for them to think about this. "What special memories would you cherish?"

When they really couldn't take any more and the room was about two feet deep in tears, Klassy would say something like this:

"Imagine how much you would want to come back to this moment...to be here with your partner...to have your future ahead of you..."

Long pause. "And realize what you wished for is here. The two of you are here, together, alive, your future ahead of you." You've never seen so many people gaze at each other totally in love before. "Now," said Klassy, "take fifteen minutes and talk about your experience with each other."

People were extremely moved by this experience. Here they were — like most couples — to some degree taking each other for granted, comparing yesterday with today, or whatever. Not really appreciating each other. "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." Really? What if you imagined what it would be like if it was gone? Then realized it isn't gone? Guess what? You can know what you've got while you've got it! You can do it by the way you make comparisons. You can use it deliberately.

This is a way to make positive events more memorable than negative ones. It directly counters the negative bias that makes you naturally compare things in a negative way. When people say, "count your blessings," they are essentially telling you to compare your life to something worse, and feel grateful your life is the way it is. And it works. In one study, people who wrote in a diary for only five minutes a way, and wrote about only what they were grateful for, were measurably happier. To know what you're grateful for, you automatically imagine not having it.

If you want to feel contentment and happiness, compare your present circumstances to something worse. It is simple, it works, and it will never wear out.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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