It Could Be Worse.

It could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car.

Wise words from Tyler Durden, speaking in reference to the Narrator’s loss of his apartment due to an explosion in the movie Fight Club.

Personally, I find the phrase “It could be worse” quite comforting. No matter what situation you find yourself in, it can always be worse. In fact, someone, somewhere, is probably experiencing that worse situation right now.

I find that this phrase can sometimes make me laugh in the most unexpected situations. By the number of Memes on this very subject, I’m clearly not alone in my thinking.

I once cycled up a mountain in Sicily, with a friend and suddenly, it started snowing. I was completely unprepared in terms of clothing and I suffered the bitter cold on the way down. I was analysing the situation:

  • Is it snowing? Check
  • Are the roads icy? Check
  • Am I dressed for summer weather? Check
  • Am I going downhill so it appears it’s even colder? Check
  • Does everything hurt? You bet! Check

Then I realised that at least there wasn’t much traffic and that made me crack open a smile. Then I realised that it could be much worse, I could puncture and then I would be stuck by the side of the road and that stage far too froze my fingers to do any repairs. I would curl up by the side of the road and turn into a block of ice and that would be the end. So, in the scheme of things, I was doing quite well.

This did actually bring me a degree of comfort.

The Advantages of Negative Visualisation

I think the practice of negative visualisation simply means that you look at your situation and imagine how it could be worse. This has several distinct advantages:

By imagining what could go wrong, you can plan for it accordingly and so potentially decrease the chances of it happening. This is pretty much the basis for the useful, but much hated, Health and Safety procedures. Hearing stories of people going bankrupt during the last recession I am always amazed about the lack of a contingency plan, especially from small to medium-sized business owners. Employees also shouldn’t get off the hook, it’s not exactly unimaginable that anyone may lose their jobs, yet when it does happen people are caught completely unaware. Many business owners are happy to chug along and not diversify when business is going well. In some ways, this is understandable because it means exploring uncharted territory and that obviously has it’s risks. Except the risks of one failed attempt at diversification are far smaller than the risk of having all your eggs in one basket.

Negative visualisation can create a sense of gratitude for what you have. It makes you realise that even though your current situation might not be ideal, it could be a lot worse. A friend of mine always says that if you’re unhappy with your current situation, just imagine that you’ve lost both legs in a car accident. That should help you appreciate what you have.

It can increase your resilience in the face of adversity. If you’ve already imagined how bad things could get, the actual situation is likely to seem not so bad. This technique has been used by prisoners of war and others who have gone through harrowing experiences. They would imagine the very worst that could happen and in doing so, make the actual experience seem more bearable.

If something goes wrong, you are far more likely to handle it well if you had already imagined that it could have gone wrong. We tolerate misfortune far better when we are prepared than when things just happen out of the blue. For instance, both our hypothetical business-owner and employee would have built up an emergency fund because they would have considered the possibility of losing their main earnings.

It dramatically increases our appreciation of what we already have. This is one of the key factors to being content in life. I’ve discussed previously how we think our future self will be different from our current self but that’s actually hardly ever true. So if you are not content now, there will be little reason for you to be content in the future. Sure, you may have gained that job promotion you wanted, the car you really wanted, the partner you always dreamed of , but you will soon find that it’s just not enough. A perfect example of Hedonic Adaptation in full swing.

I have discussed negative visualisation before and it’s worth reiterating the point here. So let me modestly quote myself, as usual:

I have often mention how the phenomenon of Hedonic Adaptation means that we constantly get used to the things we have and then begin to take them for granted. Negative visualisation is a simple exercise that can remind us how lucky we are. The premise is simple, just imagine that bad things have happened, or that good things have not. You decide the scale of the catastrophe: Losing all your possessions, never having met your spouse, losing a family member, losing a sense such as your sight or your hearing. You can also imagine how situations that you are about to embark in will go wrong. While you may think that this is a type of pessimism and so is not conductive to a happy and fulfilling life, it can actually turn your life into pure gold by making you realise that all these bad things have not happened to you.

Contrary to popular belief, negative visualisation is not pessimism. Pessimism is a state of mind in which one anticipates undesirable outcomes or believes that the evil or hardships in life outweigh the good or luxuries. Negative visualisation is all about remembering exactly how lucky we are.

You Already Practice Negative Visualisation

The great thing about negative visualisation is that it’s not difficult to learn because you already do it. Think about the last time you, or someone near you, had a “near miss”. The overwhelming feeling of relief completely overshadows the reality that something did actually go wrong, just not as bad as it might have been.

By purposefully practising negative visualisation you can utilise that feeling of relief to help you see things in a new light. That’s the consolation that life offers, bad things generally don’t happen that often.

It’s also useful to remind yourself of all the good things in your life that you take for granted. Just because they are normal to you doesn’t mean they are normal in the grand scheme of things. Consider how different your life would be if you couldn’t see, or hear, or speak, or if you had to live in a warzone.

All of these things are completely outside of your control and yet you experience none of them. You may not have won the lottery but you have won the much greater lottery of being born human in a time and place where you can live a good life.

You are Living the Dream

If you have to realise that for everything that has happened to you, it could have gone a lot worse. In fact, I would go as far to argue that you are probably living the dream. I know this sounds slightly absurd, but there is an element of truth.

I’m sure that once upon a time you had a deep desire to have something which you now currently possess. At one point you probably really wanted the phone you currently use, the computer you have, or perhaps the car you drive. You once desired to hook up with your current partner, to nail that job interview which led to your current employment. Many things do turn out the way we want them to.

Imagine if you didn’t have it any of this anymore, realise how lucky you are, right now.

Develop Compassion

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Dalai Lama

One of the less obvious benefits of the “it could be worse” mindset is that it actually allows you to develop a deep sense of compassion towards others.

Action is not spontaneous, it is always preceded by reflection and by reflecting on how things could have been worse, and how, for some people, it is worse, you begin the process of becoming compassionate.

Eventually, you might start to take action based on this reflection. You might start helping others not because you may get a reward, but because it’s the right thing to do. The reward is a greater sense of worth and meaning in your life.

Additionally, compassionate people are actually happier. A study by the University of California found that participants who wrote about a time when they had helped someone else experienced an increase in happiness and a decrease in stress.

So next time you feel like things are tough, or you’re feeling sorry for yourself, take a step back and remember how lucky you really are. And if you want to be happier, try and make someone else’s life a little bit better.

Reality Check: The Five Year Rule

When something goes wrong, ask yourself if it will really matter in five years’ time. Often, it won’t even matter in five days’ time. By being able to detach yourself from the petty reality of day-to-day life and focus only on the really big problems you can bring back a semblance of meaning to your life.

In reality, you need to remind yourself that it’s all completely inconsequential. We are only a small planet amongst billions, if not trillions, of other planets. Don’t get too hung up on the things that go wrong, life is simply too short.

This is one of the most powerful techniques I have come across for putting things into perspective. It’s not about trivialising your problems, but rather about understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, they really aren’t that big. So instead of getting upset and having to solve the problem — just solve the damn problem.

Material Loss

I’ve decided to dedicate a special section to material losses as I think it’s extremely important to become emotionally detached from the things you own. After all, they are not life, they are just things. The things you own are not you. They don’t make you a better person. This scene from the movie American Beauty where the husband and wife and arguing and the husband sums it up perfectly:

It’s just a couch”.

So when you lose something or it breaks just tell yourself: “It’s just a..”

This is likely a paraphrase of the famous quote by Stoic Philosopher Epictetus:

The ship sank.
What happened?
The ship sank.

Only people who are unfortunate enough to carve an identity based on what they own or how much money they have in the bank will be worried over a material loss. The enlightened person will be thankful that it’s only a material loss. If you are in a car accident, don’t be sad that your new BMW is now scrap metal, be thankful that you can still walk.

A good way to test if material things are truly important to you is to imagine yourself as the last person left on earth. Practical issues aside, you could have pretty much whatever you wanted. Sports cars, jewellery, money, fancy clothes..but would it matter anymore? Probably not, as there would be nobody around for you to show off to. Nobody to appreciate the things you own.

This clearly shows us that material things are important per se but relative to the society you live in and the mindset you cultivate.

Every Cloud has a Silver Lining

While a cliche, there is an element of truth in this saying. In fact, I would go as far as saying that anyone who has lived a life without any disasters has, ironically, lived a disastrous life. They are ill-prepared to cope with whatever will eventually come along, and something will come along.

Another comforting aspect of the “it could be worse” mindset is when someone else has some kind of accident or incident.

I remember the second time that I broke my arm playing football when I was 11 or 12 and I was away from my family. My friend’s dad took me to hospital, and while I was sitting sulking and waiting at the ER (Emergency Room), he managed to make me laugh:

You know, it could have been much worse…

How could it be worse?

It could have been me.

And then one day it will be you, but until then I wouldn’t worry about it — because it could be worse.

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