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. Use the power you have and enjoy more of your life.
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? 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 a single 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 effects your direct perception of reality.
In Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, 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 put back in the normal prison, the tiny amount of horrible food they usually ate seemed like a feast. The comparison with something worse changed his direct perception.
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.
This may explain what's called a "helper's high" (people who volunteer often feel happier) — they are getting a real-life, first-hand comparison between their own life (however bad they may have thought it was) and someone else's life (which is much worse).
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. He had to escape because the government was trying to execute anyone with an education.
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're 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.