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Day 13: What’s the comparison?

October 27, 2023

One of my favourite experiments ever is one where participants were told the following story:

You’re visiting a town you haven’t visited before and, while you’re there, you pop into the bank to withdraw money. This is unusual behaviour for you as you tend to use bank machines or online banking but on this day you go into the bank. While you’re in the bank, a robbery takes place and you are shot in the arm. Nobody else is injured.

At this point, participants are asked a question: “Were you lucky or unlucky?”

The answers were split – some said they were lucky, while others said they were unlucky. When asked about their answers, they shared the reasons for their choices. In all cases, the choice was determined by the alternate reality they constructed for comparison.

Those who said they were unlucky were comparing it to an alternative reality where they hadn’t gone into the bank and would therefore have avoided the whole thing.

Those who said they were lucky, compared it to an alternative reality where they were shot and killed or where more people were injured or where their children were with them at the time.

I share this with you because yesterday I wrote about the ways in which I make misery and this is one of the ways – the alternative realities I construct, to which I compare my everyday life and then complain about it.

Expectations, worries, fears, doubts, anxieties, they all require this type of “alternative reality” thinking – or some version of “time travel” where we leave this moment and travel to a moment in the past or future (either way, constructed within our minds).

I find this is one of the simplest and most effective ways to make misery out of even the most stable, comfortable life.

Kids’ behaviour, who did the dishes, red traffic lights when I’m in a hurry, cars that break down, a poorly loaded dishwasher…the list can be endless.

What I’ve also realised is that the alternative realities I create in my mind are determined by my mood in the first place – so having habits that stabilise my moods make me less likely to create anxiety provoking or anger inducing alternatives.

The Practical Implications

I see three ways I can stop creating misery.

  1. Stay in the present and deal with what IS. Forget what should, could or would be because it isn’t. It doesn’t exist and it serves only to make what IS feel worse.
  2. When I can’t do 1, notice what alternative I’m creating. Be aware that part of my misery is being created by the alternative and maybe take 5 minutes to write down my thoughts or sit quietly and focus on my breath or meditate so I can bring my attention back to the present and quiet my mind – even if just for a moment.
  3. Keep investing in improving my mental health habits so that I’m always doing things that help stabilise my moods in the first place. This is the main bulk of the work I do with clients and I’m aware there are still a few improvements I could make.

Do your alternative realities cause you misery?

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