In the movie, The Game, Michael Douglas plays Nick Van Orton, the wealthy son of a wealthy man. The story begins when Nick’s brother (Sean Penn) gives Nick a birthday present: A life-changing experience, sort of like a personal-growth workshop, except it doesn’t take place in a classroom — it takes place in your life, and you never know who is an actor and what is real. The game is especially tailored to you and you never know what is staged and what isn’t.
The creators of the game make Nick’s well-ordered life completely fall apart. All the things he identifies with — his money, his calmness, his place in society — are taken away from him. His life is destroyed one piece at a time.
When Nick tries to find out if this is all part of the game, it appears the company was a big scam, stole all his money, and left town. They very realistically give Nick the impression they took him for everything he’s worth. He lost his mansion, his credit cards, his Swiss bank accounts. He was penniless.
While all this is going on, we (the people watching the movie) really don’t know what the truth is, and we see Nick going through all these miserable experiences and on the one hand we’re seeing it as anybody would — just miserable experiences and nothing more — and at the same time we are half-viewing it with the question, “I wonder if this is the perfect experience to teach him to be happier?” Because we realize these experiences are teaching him against his will to care more about people, to appreciate what he had, and for the first time in the movie, we feel he is actually engaged in his life. He looked deeply bored with his predictable life before the game started.
He was a snob who lived in a bubble and didn’t really experience real life or real connections with regular people. He needed nobody. But now he has no money, and he has to rely on the kindness of a waitress in order to get something to eat.
Is this a humbling experience, a potentially life-changing experience for Nick? Or is it merely misfortune? We, the viewers, really don’t know until the end of the movie.
Watching the movie was a great demonstration of a profound fact: That the same experience can be seen in at least two different ways, both of them equally valid. One way of looking at it only makes you miserable without any benefit. The other one helps you learn to be a better person, to have better values, and to be happier.
And of course, the thinking viewer will also eventually realize while watching the movie, that all of life is like this.
Someone might get an ulcer, and that is clearly just a hassle and he has to take medication that gives him dry mouth or whatever...or... this is an indicator-beacon that says change your life — the way you live your life produces too much stress.
With the first viewpoint, he just feels frustrated and that probably just makes his ulcer worse. The ulcer itself becomes another stressful thing to add to all the other stressful stuff in his life.
With the second viewpoint, he may feel motivated to change his life in ways that’ll make him feel better. The second viewpoint, the better one, the one that doesn’t come naturally to anybody but the most buoyant optimists, is a reframe.
The point of view you have about something is like a frame around a painting. You can take a painting and put it in an old beat-up frame and it looks like trash. Or you could put it in a fancy, museum-style frame, and it would have an entirely different feel.
Reframing means seeing the same situation in a different way. It means to see the same picture through a different lens. It means to see the same event in a different context. It means interpreting a situation a different way — in a way that makes things better. It means reinterpreting an event in a way that helps you feel better and get more done.
We automatically see (interpret, understand) the events in our lives in a certain way. You found out in Antivirus For Your Mind that it really helps to scrutinize the way you naturally explain setbacks and find mistakes in your explanations. You look at your explanations and ask, “Is it true?”
But sometimes you can’t answer that question. Either you don’t know or the answer cannot be known at all. That’s a good place to use reframing.
You must explain events. If you don’t do it deliberately, your brain will do it automatically. What explanation should you use? When you don’t know whether an explanation is true or false, what criteria should you use?
The only intelligent criteria to use in that case is, “How helpful is it?” Does your explanation help you feel better and get more done, or does it hinder you?
If you find your interpretation isn’t either true or false (either you can’t find out or there is no objective way to decide), and you find out it is definitely not helpful, unfortunately, you can’t just leave it at that. You have to come up with another interpretation. Your mind will not allow “no explanation.”
Your explanation can certainly be provisional — good until something better comes along, like a scientific theory — but you’d better choose your best explanation or your brain will do it for you.
Learn how this can best be done: Grow Stronger With a Good Reframe.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.