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
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 heres 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.
Sometimes people fast. That is, they dont
eat for a period of time. Ive done it myself for three
days. 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.
If you eat all the time, you really have
nothing to compare it to, but after fasting, you can compare
eating with not eating, and it makes eating one of the best things
youve ever experienced!
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 theyve always been there. We havent
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,
I lay back on the sheets, clean sheets,
dry sheets. I cant 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
its like seeing, smelling, and touching for the very first
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 its 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 habitually compare your life with something
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
wont last for a long time, but neither does sleeping or
exercising. The fact that the effect doesnt last is no
reason to dismiss it. If youre willing to put a little
effort out, you can feel a lot happier.
Heres 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, youre looking through a different frame.
Youre choosing a point of view just as legitimate: What
is this better than? Or, What would be worse?
If you feel unhappy because you havent
advanced in your job as fast as youd hoped, for example,
imagine how youd feel if you lived in a country or a time
when advancement wasnt 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 youve
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
havent fulfilled, you can compare your circumstances to
your memory of how things were when things were worse for you.
Try this technique and youll recognize
that in many ways youre 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. Its
relaxing and peaceful. It wont last very long, but it doesnt
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
doesnt 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
Ive ever read about, people were asked to complete the
sentence, Im glad Im 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 own
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
Afterwards the women filled out a rating
scale to measure their satisfaction with the quality of their
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. Youll 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
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. Thats it. Thats 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 Im 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 youre 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 doesnt have much of an impact on your happiness level.
People who are very wealthy are only slightly happier than people
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, a remote
village in India, 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
Indian 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.
Im free! he thought, Nobodys 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
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.
COMPARISONS FOR NEGATIVITY'S SAKE
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.
Heres what they did: They gave volunteers motion
sickness tablets. At least, thats what they told
the vounteers. 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 wouldnt
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 wasnt 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, youre
better off saying, heres a dumb joke. You set
the expectations lower so the joke seems funnier than it is by
Same thing holds true when you recommend
a good movie. If you tell your friend its the best movie
youve ever seen, your friends 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 comparsions carefully so you frame things in a way that
helps you rather than impedes you.
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
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 mates
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 couldnt 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 partner...to have your future still ahead
Long pause. And realize what you
wished for is here. The two of you are here, together, alive,
your future ahead of you.
Youve 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
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 dont know what youve
got till its gone. Really? What if you imagined what
it would be like if it was gone? Then realized it isnt
gone? Guess what? You can know what youve got while youve
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 itll
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.
The principle: Reframe setbacks and
Go back to the beginning of the series:
A Way of Looking