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? Because taking something away for
awhile allows you to compare your normal circumstances to something
worse. And what you compare your life to will determine how happy
you are at the moment.
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.
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 his life raft, Callahan
was often soaked in salt water for long periods of time during
his time. So it was especially pleasurable to 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 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.
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.
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 puts 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.
Okay, so it makes a difference to feel
some contentment. 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 the effect doesn't last is no reason
to dismiss it. If you're willing to put a little effort out,
you can feel more satisfied with your life.
Here's what to do: 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
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. 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 you're lucky to be where you are and who you
are. It's a good feeling. It's relaxing and peaceful. It won't
last very long, but you can always do it again. The technique
works 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 also. 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,
and Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors.
Their difficulties will help you see your own life with new eyes.
"I'm glad I'm not a..."
In an experiment, people were asked to
do a simple task: 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 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
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 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? Oddly enough, though, 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 that 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
In Nelson Mandela's autobiography, 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
back in the normal prison, the tiny amount of horrible food they
usually ate seemed like a feast.
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.
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. 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 are 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.
looking into the future
My wife, Klassy, used to teach workshops
for couples. She taught communication skills and put them through
exercises so they could practice. One of the exercises she put
them through used this principle of comparison.
Klassy would have each couple sit facing
each other, and then start talking to them while slow, wordless,
beautiful, moving music was playing, while they sat looking at
"Imagine," Klassy would say,
"that you two have lived a long life together. You're both
very old. And your partner is now on their deathbed. Your mate's
life will be over soon. Imagine how that will feel to you then.
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 (or will)
"What would you miss about your partner?"
Klassy said, giving them long pauses of just music playing for
them to think about this. "What special memories would you
When they really couldn't take any more
and the room was about two feet deep in tears, Klassy would say
something like this:
"Imagine how much you would want to
come back to this moment...to be here with your partner...to
have your future 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 fifteen minutes and talk about your experience
with each other."
People 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 it deliberately.
This is a way to make positive events more
memorable than negative ones. It directly counters the negative bias that makes you naturally compare
things in a negative way. When people say, "count your blessings,"
they are essentially telling you to 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 for only five minutes
a way, and wrote about only what they were grateful for, were
measurably happier. To know what you're grateful for, you automatically
imagine not having it.
If you want to feel contentment and happiness,
compare your present circumstances to something worse. It is
simple, it works, and it will never wear out.
Compare your circumstances
to something worse.