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. He is speaking in reference to the Narrator’s loss of his apartment due to an explosion in the movie Fight Club.
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 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 not alone in my thinking.
I was once cycling up a mountain in Sicily, with a friend and it started snowing. I was completely unprepared, wearing summer clothing. 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 a tyre and then I would be stuck by the side of the road. My fingers were far too frozen by that stage 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.
This did actually bring me a degree of comfort.
The Advantages of Negative Visualisation.
The practice of negative visualisation means you imagine how things could be worse. This has several distinct advantages:
By imagining what could go wrong, you can plan and stop bad things happening. This is pretty much the basis for the useful and much hated Health and Safety procedures.
I am surprised about the lack of contingency plans for small business owners. During the last recession, so many went bankrupt due to low cash reserves.
When business is going well, owners think there will always be another customer. They don't think of the worst case. In some ways, this is understandable because it means exploring undesirable situations.
When something does go wrong, you are likely to handle it well if you had already imagined that it could have gone wrong. We tolerate misfortune far better when we prepare than when things happen out of the blue. For instance, our hypothetical business-owner would have built up an emergency fund.
Negative Visualization increases our appreciation of what we already have. This is one of the key factors to being content in life. I’ve discussed before how 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 wanted, the partner you always dreamed of. But you will soon find that it’s not enough.
A perfect example of Hedonic Adaptation in full swing.
The phenomenon of Hedonic Adaptation means that we get used to the things we have. Then, we begin to take them for granted.
Negative visualisation is a simple exercise that can remind us how lucky we are. The premise is simple, 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 type of pessimism is not conducive to a happy and fulfilling life, it can actually is. It can 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 believes that the 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. In fact, you already do it. Think about last time you, or someone near you, had a “near-miss”. The overwhelming feeling of relief was awesome. It completely overshadowed the reality that something did actually go somewhat wrong.
By practising negative visualisation, you see things in a new light. That’s the consolation that life offers, bad things generally don’t happen that often.
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, you are likely living the dream. I know this sounds 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 posses. At one point you wanted the phone you currently use, the computer you have, 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.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama
This is one of the less obvious benefits of the “it could be worse” mindset. It actually allows you to develop a deep sense of compassion towards others.
Action is not spontaneous, it is always preceded by reflection. Reflecting on how some people have a worse life than you, you being to develop compassion.
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.
Reality Check: The Five Year Rule
When something goes wrong, ask yourself if it will matter in five year’s time. Often, it won’t even matter in five day’s time. Detaching yourself from the petty reality of day to day life allows you to focus on big problems. It 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 too short.
It is important to become detached from the things you own. After all, they are not life, they are things. The things you own are not you. They don’t make you a better person.
There is a scene from the movie American Beauty where the husband and wife are arguing. The husband sums up the issue:
“It’s just a couch”.
So when you lose something or it breaks tell yourself: “It’s just a..” Only people who create an identity based on what they own or how much money they have in the bank will concern themselves 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 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. Sport cars, jewellery, money, fancy clothes...but would it matter anymore?
It wouldn't, as there would nobody around to for you to show off to. Nobody to appreciate the things you own. This shows us that material things are not important per se but relative. It depends on 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 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:
It could be worse – it could be me.
And then one day it will be you, but until then I wouldn’t worry about it, because it could be worse.