Comparison Reframes

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 something we take for granted.

Why? Why did his deprivation make him appreciate something we all normally take for granted? Because taking something away for awhile allows you to compare your normal circumstances to something worse. And here’s the point: What you compare your life to determines how happy you are at the moment. This is a reframing principle you should make sure you never forget.

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 the life raft, Callahan was often soaked in salt water for long periods of time. So it was especially pleasurable to simply 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 small, 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.

And it’s not just an advertising problem. 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. In other words, you regularly compare your life with something better.

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.

Why would you want to bother? Why change what you compare to what? Because it makes you feel better. And feeling better is good for you. As Robin Lloyd put 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.
It makes a difference to feel better. And luckily, it can be accomplished without too much trouble. 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 a lot happier.

Here’s one very simple and direct way to do it: 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.

This is a reframe. Instead of looking at your life from the point of view of comparing it to what you would rather have, you’re looking through a different frame. You’re choosing a point of view just as legitimate: “What is this better than?” Or, “What would be worse?”

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 for you or your children or your grandchildren. Imagine real situations other human beings have experienced (or are now experiencing) that are much worse than anything you’ve ever had to endure.

Or you could remember when things were worse for you, and this will change your frame. Instead of comparing your circumstances to your high expectations of yourself you haven’t fulfilled, you can compare your circumstances to your memory of how things were when things were worse for you.

Try this technique and you’ll recognize that in many ways you’re lucky to be where you are and who you are. And this is not an illusion. It is a fact, and recognizing and acknowledging this fact gives you a good feeling. It’s relaxing and peaceful. It won’t last very long, but it doesn’t take much time or effort, and you can always do it again. The technique works every time, and you are rewarded 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. 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, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. Their difficulties will help you see your own life with new eyes.


In one of the most simple and elegant experiments I’ve ever read about, people were asked 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 measurably 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 own lives on a test of life satisfaction.

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 experiment 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.

Afterwards the women filled out a rating scale to measure their satisfaction with the quality of their own lives.

Both groups were more satisfied with their own lives after the exercise. Why? Because it gave them something worse to think about and they naturally and automatically compared their own lives to it, and felt fortunate.

You can do a comparison experiment at home. Fill one bucket with ice cold water and another bucket with very warm 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 the same bucket of 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 influences your direct perception of reality.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Mandela describes his time in prison, and it was bad. Sometimes he was put in isolation where the only food he got was rice water three times a day. Rice water is the water rice has been boiled in. That’s it. That’s all he was given to “eat.”

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

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 authors use 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 wrote 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.
I really like that last sentence. Merely being there was unspeakable luxury. What is luxury? It is something wonderful you’re not used to. What a rich person in New York is used to would seem an “unspeakable luxury” to a poor person in a prison in Mexico.

In studies on happiness, this issue of luxury is thrown into sharp relief. The researchers find 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 into 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, a remote village in Africa, can be pretty happy when everyone else in their village is also very poor. But a poor person in Beverly Hills (who actually would be rich compared to the person in the poor African village) might be miserable because he is comparing himself to all the people around him who have so much money.

When Sichan Siv escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge bloodbath, 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 job 16 hours a day and making so little money — almost intolerable 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 the comparisons you choose really make a difference. 


An interesting study at Wake Forest University, where they seem to specialize in interesting studies, casts a new light on the whole subject of “positive thinking.” They gave volunteers “motion sickness” tablets. At least, that’s what they told the volunteers. Actually, the pill did nothing.

Then the volunteers had to ride a rotating drum, something that tends to produce nausea in at least some people. Before the ride, the researchers told a third of the volunteers the pill will prevent them from getting nauseated. They told another third the truth: the pill was fake and wouldn’t do anything. And they told another third the pill would actually make them feel extra nauseated.

They got on the ride. What do you think happened? Who do you think was the least nauseated? You may be surprised to learn it was the third group. They were expecting it to be bad, but it wasn’t as bad as they thought. After the ride they were far less nauseated than the other two groups.

This is a comparison reframe again, and it reminds me of something I read about setting up a joke or telling a funny story. Experts on comedy say if you tell someone the joke is really funny before you tell it, that joke better be extraordinarily funny. But if you want people to laugh, you’re better off saying, “here’s a dumb joke.” You set the expectations lower so the joke seems funnier than it is by comparison.

Same thing holds true when you recommend a good movie. If you tell your friend it’s the best movie you’ve ever seen, your friend’s expectations are set really high. Your friend is more likely to enjoy the movie if you keep the expectations low.

The principle is very basic but it has broad applications. The thing to remember is: You can influence the frame — the way something is perceived — by comparing it to something better or worse. And rather than making comparisons haphazardly and without awareness, you would be wise to choose your comparisons carefully so you frame things in a way that helps you rather than impedes you. 


My wife, Klassy, used to lead workshops for couples. She put couples through communication exercises. One of the most powerful exercises she put them through used this principle of comparison.

Klassy would have each couple sit facing each other, gazing into each others' eyes, and she talked to them while wordless, beautiful, moving music was playing.

“Imagine,” Klassy would say, “that at midnight tonight, your partner will die. Your mate’s life will be over soon. Imagine how that would feel to you. 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 be.

“What would you miss the most about your partner?” Klassy asked, giving them long pauses so they could think about this while the music played in the background. Each pair silently continued looking at each other, pondering these questions, feeling the emotions, feeling what this person means to them.

“What special memories would you cherish?”

“What would you want to say to your partner before midnight?”

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

“Now imagine it is after midnight and your partner is gone. And realize how much you would wish your partner had not died and how badly you would want to be right here with your have your future still 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 some time and talk about your experience with each other.”

The couples 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 comparisons deliberately.

This is a way to make positive events more memorable than negative ones. It directly counters the negative bias which makes you compare things in a negative way.

When people say, “count your blessings,” they really mean 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 about what they were grateful for only five minutes a day were measurably happier.

Five minutes! If you want to feel measurably happier, compare your present circumstances to something worse, or simply think about things you are grateful for. It is a simple reframe, it works, you can do it over and over, and it’ll never wear out.

No reframes will make you permanently happy. But you can reframe in many different ways, and you can do it as often as you like and it will almost always make you feel noticeably better. Of all the mental tools I know about, reframes are the most fun to use. Use them often.

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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