The matter of perspective

A friend of mine recently learned that she had stage 1 breast cancer. Surgery now complete, chemotherapy is next.

My grande hazelnut mocha came with only one pump. It was supposed to have two.

His sister-in-law took her life two weeks ago, after a year or more of mental dysfunction.

That guy on the freeway this morning moved into my lane without signaling.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq have no future they can see except exile and poverty.

We may have to repair the moisture seal on our home’s foundation to prevent water incursion during the rare occasion of rain. Could be expensive. Might not be able to go on vacation to Italy next spring. Bummer.

“There are starving kids in China,” parents used to say. Now, they have to pick a different country, thankfully. “There are starving kids in Somalia. Clean your plate.”

Problems are relative. The kind of difficulties most of us face in this country are the wildest dreams of joy for billions of people.

But that doesn’t stop us from complaining. Did reminders of what we have to be grateful for change your behavior when you were acting like a spoiled brat? Me, neither.

We recognize it in others, but not so much in ourselves. Overheard at the restaurant at The Bridges residential development near Rancho Santa Fe: Complainer says to his friend, “When they sold me the house, they said the wine cellar was lined with cobblestone. I later found it was really custom cut granite to look like cobblestones. They were not actual salvaged pavers. I was livid.”

The clubhouse waiter who was standing nearby rolled his eyes, as if to say, “Oh, right. That’s a real problem!”

Later on, the waiter is standing out back smoking a cigarette on break. He says to his co-workers, “They don’t pay us much here. For what these people are worth, they could afford a dollar an hour raise for us!”

The homeless dumpster diver rolls his eyes.

Psychologists have conducted research to try to understand this behavior: People express a state of dissatisfaction independent of any absolute measure of quality of life when such measures remain fairly constant.

If life is getting worse, dissatisfaction increases. If life is getting materially better, satisfaction increases. When life is a fairly steady level of material, physical well-being, our dissatisfaction increases.

Think about that for a moment. The only time we’re consistently happy is when we perceive acceleration in the rate of what we perceive to be “improvement.”

This is one reason why people can become depressed in old age. Not much is improving in terms of the fundamental prerequisite for a happy life — good health. That particular aspect of life is declining. And the rate of decline itself increases as life lengthens.

That seems pretty logical. But the dissatisfaction associated with constancy of material comfort is the curious aspect of this phenomenon. We finally reach nirvana of physical security and comfort, then, after a while, we descend into the quicksand of ennui.

Buddhists have been preaching this for eons: “It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.” If our happiness is dependent upon external factors (house, cash, cars, travel, clothes, Academy Awards, front-row tickets, a good-looking spouse by our side), then we will never be fundamentally happy. We’ll be transiently happy at each new elevated position on our self-defined ladder and then attempt to rise another rung.

But if our happiness is not related to things outside ourselves, if we find that elusive inner peace and appreciation for being able to simply breathe, then we are freed from situational factors determining our quality of life experience.

We would no longer need to be reminded of our relative good fortune compared to others. We wouldn’t become dissatisfied with what others long for. We wouldn’t need the misfortunes of others pushed in our face to feel the gratitude life deserves.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He is vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at

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