How A Change in Perspective Leads to Happiness

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Young thoughtful businessman leaning against a window and looking out of it in the office

If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. – Maya Angelou

Despite my love of travel, I tended to avoid exploring places that required a long flight. Anything more than about six hours on a plane seemed to be the magic cutoff for me. I guess I didn’t want to get bored out of my mind or claustrophobic on longer flights. So, despite wanting to explore every place on the planet, trips to far off places never seemed to make it to the top of my travel priority list.

Once, while on my way home from a trip, I got stuck in terrible traffic approaching the airport. All lanes of a major highway were shut down for hours. Thousands of people were stranded in their cars. I, along with everyone else, missed my flight home.

Eventually, the traffic cleared and we reached the airport. I was dreading the thought of competing with thousands of others trying to rebook flights and assumed I would be spending the night – or two – in a hotel before being able to start my journey home. Running through the airport to my airline’s desk, I was lucky to be the first in line. I asked for a flight to any destination on the East Coast of the U.S. Luckily, I was able to get a flight that took off only 45 minutes later! Yes!

The flight was almost 10 hours long. Did I worry about being bored or claustrophobic? Not one bit. I was so relieved to be out of traffic and out of a crowded crazy airport. I was so glad I wouldn’t be stranded for a day or more before being able to head for home. I wasn’t even thinking, frankly, about the length of the flight. I was practically giddy to be on any flight at all. What a change in perspective! I had been forced to look at a possibility that was far worse than the one I had been facing. The length of my flight home now felt irrelevant.

“It could be worse” can be cold comfort at times. However, taking a look at a fear, complaint or problem from how it could be worse can be helpful in realizing how lucky we really are.

We could, for instance, get upset about reaching another birthday without realizing some of our life’s dreams. Or, we could consider the alternative and be thankful we are still here. After all, some people’s reality doesn’t include another birthday at all. Changing one’s perspective is not meant to minimize the disappointment of unrealized dreams, but it can make us thankful for having another year to achieve them. It can also give us the motivation to do just that.

When watching the Olympics one year, a commentator did a story about how the reported levels of happiness of medalists did not correspond to the level of medal won. The gold medalists reported, understandably, the highest levels of happiness of all three medalists. Bronze medalists, however, reported the second highest levels of happiness. They focused on the fact that they could have failed to medal at all and so were very happy to have received one.

Ironically, the silver medalists reported the lowest levels of happiness. If a silver medalist had the ability to win the gold, but “only” achieved the silver, they were disappointed that they had “lost”. If they saw themselves as “not winning the gold” instead of “winning the silver” they were not only not happy, but they were very disappointed – sometimes crushed.

It is understandable that athletes who have been training their whole lives for an Olympic gold medal are crushed if they fail to meet their goal. However, those of us sitting at home watching the games on television hold a very different view of silver medalists. We see an amazing athlete who has accomplished a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of which anyone would be proud. If the disappointed athletes could see themselves with the same perspective as that of the viewers at home, they would cheer up quickly. Easier said than done!

We have all looked at others’ complaints and been mystified about how they do not see how lucky they truly are. There is an old joke in which two people are commiserating about how poor they were as kids. The first person says, “I was so poor I had to drink my soup out of my hat because I didn’t have a bowl.” The next person says, “You had a HAT?”

I often hear people complain about how their partner stacks the dishwasher. I didn’t share my home with anyone until I was about forty years old, so I’ve been stacking the dishwasher myself for almost twenty five years. (Someone reading this just said, “You have a DISHWASHER?”) After I met my husband, I was thrilled that I had a handsome man in the house who stacks the dishwasher without being asked. You can’t get much sexier than that, in my opinion. Do I even notice how he stacks the dishwasher? No way.

It is easy to appreciate what we have when we have gone without for so long. However, imagining a situation that is worse than what we have presently can also make us appreciate what we do have.

Appreciating what we have does not mean we should give up striving for those things we want. We can be thankful and goal-oriented at the same time. We are more likely to move forward, however, if we avoid getting stuck in our negativity and focusing on what we don’t have. Gratitude for that which we do have is where a true sense of fulfillment and motivation is generated.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great post! Totally agree that keeping things in perspective can give such delight in what we already have. Every July, my husband and I thank god we never have to take another bar exam again. “Hey, it could be worse!”

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