Getting Perspective On Life: The Trick to Seeing Your Own Life With New Eyes

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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 would his account give us a new appreciation? Because taking something away for awhile allows you to compare the circumstances you are accustomed to with something worse.

And what you compare your life to determines how happy you are at the moment.

One of the reasons people go on fasts is that food is so amazingly delicious after fasting. Eating is almost like a religious experience. Why? Because eating is wonderful compared with 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 the colors and the sounds and the aromas. 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 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? Because of the comparison between a cold, wet, abrasive, salt-encrusted life raft and an 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.

One of the barriers to contentment is that 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 with others' and with your own ideals and aspirations. When you compare your life to something worse, you feel more satisfaction. When you compare it to something better, you feel dissatisfaction and desire — feelings that may help an advertiser sell products, but feelings that ruin your good mood.

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 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 some contentment. It's good for you mood. 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 it doesn't last is no reason to dismiss it. If you're willing to put out a little effort, you can feel satisfied with your life a lot more often.

Here's what to do: When you feel discontented, ask yourself, What could be worse? And really try to think of something specific. You can always think of something, and it's 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 500 years ago, sentenced to generation after generation of poverty with no chance of escape. Or imagine being born into a North Korean prison and living there your whole life. 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 it is a fact that you're lucky to be where you are and who you are. That lucky feeling can put you instantly in a good mood. It's relaxing and peaceful. It won't last very long, but you can always do it again. The technique works every time and it never wears out.

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 how it used to be worse, or think about what others have gone through.

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. Their difficulties will help you see your own life with new eyes.

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