How your reference frame determines your happiness (and you can control it!)

Reading time 7:30 minutes

If you are able to buy bread, does this make you happy? For many people it doesn’t in the Western world it doesn’t. We can buy bread every day, it very cheap to us. However, for some people who are short on money it would be wonderful to buy bread. So actually, you should feel good when buying bread when you compare yourself with people who are worse off. Now imagine the thing you want to have, but is impossible to get. Is it something expensive, someone out of your league? By the thought of never achieving this beautiful thing we get unhappy. In this blog I will try to tell you something about your mind, and talk about some technique’s that might make you happier, even feel more successful, or in less pain. Nevertheless, don’t assume that your challenge is a quick fix, you have to work on it yourself. This is just a theory of mine, so I am not sure how well it works for you, but I know that it works for me and that the logic behind is quite tight. Nevertheless, I won’t pretend to solve your problem immediately because embodying this technique takes time and effort. But here it goes.

The first thing you need to know is that happiness, success, and all emotions are about making comparisons. You have to compare the one thing to another to experience something. For example; you can only experience richness, if others are poorer. You can only be happy if you haven’t felt happy before. You can only judge someone’s beauty if you have seen different people. Thus, you need (at least) two things an compare these with each other. I call these two things a focus- and a reference frame. The focus is the thing you look at, the reference frame is the thing you compare it with. For this blog we will keep the focus on ourselves, on the current state you. For example, I am poor (focus) compared to a billionaire (reference frame). I am rich (focus) compared to the average homeless person (reference frame). Shifting your reference frame consciously can be a powerful tool to become truly happy, successful, and satisfied. However, there are several key important things to think about when shifting your reference frame, which I will describe below. Shifting your focus itself (like the focus on money/meaning/beauty) can also be powerful but this is not the purpose of this blog. (Read this blog about one of my own experiments where I talk about changing focus and the meaning of life).

  • The current state of you (your focus)
  • Reference frame

The problem with our reference frame
We all want things we are not able to get easily. We compare ourselves often with the things that are way above us. A successful career, a lot of money, a happy family, a big house, etc. When you are sad by the fact that you aren’t rich, you are comparing yourself with rich people. Often, we compare ourselves with the most absurd beautiful and rich people who overwhelm us in the magazines, on the internet, and on the billboards in the streets. The other (less worse) mistake we make is that we compare our current self with someone we want to be in the far future. This happens when we think about how rich we are over 20 years, and what kind of supercar you will drive. Although, this future self view can be a little motivating, the gap between your current you, and your far future self is often very large. I will come back to this issue later on.

Our automatic response to our unhealthy reference frame
If you compare yourself with a successful person, you become unhappy. Our automatic response is to change ourselves. If we want to become successful, we need work harder. It is not strange that changing ourselves is our first response, because we are easy to change. There are plenty opportunities to work harder and to become successful. This is what is encouraged by the media, the school, and the government: change yourself to become successful. It is not encouraged to change the reference frame itself. Nevertheless, by avoiding media with the beautiful and successful people, and through conscious attention you can change your reference frame.

The self-comparison figure. You are in the center and can compare yourself with “higher” or “lower” people, or with your future or past self. You should keep everything as close to yourself to feel good about your current situation

Once you can consciously control your reference frame, you’ll find happiness
What you can do, is to shift your reference frame. If you constantly compare yourself with people who are way more successful than you, like Elon Musk, Will Smith, Jennifer Lawrence, you are going to have a bad time. If you try to become someone who is far out of your league, you will never be satisfied with who you are. You will always keep working, while never being satisfied. If you compare yourself with someone who is more close to you, your goal becomes much more achievable. However, our next challenge is that our reference frame will shift as well when you reach your goal. For example, suppose you want to become like your (local) popstar who sings in the local bar every Saturday. You are trying hard to become like that local popstar, but in the meantime your local popstar has a major breakthrough and becomes famous nationally. And thus, her spot is free at the bar, and the bar asks you to sing every Saturday. You reached your goal! But the sad thing is, that you probably have the urge to breakthrough nationally as well. “Because she could do that as well”. You will always be chasing the success of your role-model what makes your chase an infinite journey. And if your role-model fails, you will find another successful one. Therefore, focusing on superstars and role-models as comparisons might not be such a good a idea. However, growth and learning is really in our DNA, we never (want to) stop with developing ourselves.

Try to become who you are now
In mindfulness, it is taught to try to live in the here and now. By doing this, you shift the reference frame towards yourself. You can become who you are right now. It is a very easy and effortless job to become who you are now. Just try it; imagine you are in a blank empty universe and there is no one else to compare with. In this universe there is no past, and you can’t think about the future. Then you aren’t ugly are you? You aren’t poor, you aren’t sick, you couldn’t even be happy. If you can do this perfectly, then focus and reference frame are at the exact same point. This can make you detach from all your emotions, you are okay! Nonetheless, it is very hard to do this for us. Mainly because our society, and our minds are mostly focused on comparing ourselves with others. I believe that is one of the reasons why monks are locking themselves in their temples to avoid the comparisons with other people (however sometimes they create sub-world and this problem repeats on a different level; read this blog about sub-worlds).

Compare with yourself
When I was younger I fancied to snack once in a while and said to my mom at 2 pm: “Mom, I’m hungry!”. Then, she often replied; “You aren’t hungry, children in Africa are hungry”.  My mom tried to shift my reference frame to a lower level (the African Children who are worse off than I was) to make me less hungry. I usually kept my mouth shut after her response, but I don’t think that her technique is a sustainable one. Although, you can consciously compare yourself with lower levels of people to make yourself happy, I think this is unhealthy to do. I believe that comparing yourself to others is not fair. The situation of other people is completely different. This accounts for both poor- and wealthy people. Other people are born in different families, countries, ages, houses, neighborhoods (and so on) and thus they are different people. Even the people close to you, like your brothers and sisters are born differently from you and might have had more luck than you. So please stop comparing yourself with people who grew up wealthy, beautiful, and smart! And even stop focusing on people close to you. I think it is only healthy to compare yourself with you. Therefore, you should only compare your current situation with the “near future you” or “the near past you”. From which situation did you came from? Where do you want to go? Nevertheless, don’t look to far ahead, and don’t look to far back; tighten the gap of comparison.

Tighten the gap of comparison
I have Quantified Self data from my daily happiness over the past four years. I always struggle which data I should to compare my current happiness. I try to avoid data that is very old. Mainly because data from four years old is a long time ago, I’m not that person anymore. I have changed, and people around me have changed. Therefore, you shouldn’t pin your reference frame to far in the past. If you still think a lot about things that happened 10 years ago this isn’t healthy. Whenever you feel like comparing yourself with very old versions of you, just try to consciously stop that, and think about “you from a few weeks back”, have you grown since then? It’s much better to use little distances as your reference frame. Also, take small gaps regarding the future. Mainly, because external circumstances/parties can have a significant impact on your future which my distort your dreams. Using small gaps will motivate you to grow little by little. And you can adapt if necessary.

Feeling good is not always being healthy
If you are manage to control your reference frame consciously and you feel good about yourself, that doesn’t necessarily mean that are healthy or will stay happy forever. Suppose, you are heavily overweight but you only compare yourself to yourself, you will feel good about yourself but you won’t be healthy. You still have risks on several diseases. The trick in this blog is about “feeling good about yourself” and not become more healthy, richer, or prettier. This is an important distinction. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, but you could look at the scientific norms for a healthy weight, and try to pursue these.

The most important thing is to focus on yourself and to be able to shift your reference frame consciously. It is a very easy advice but this goes wrong all the time. You can consciously shift your reference frame over and over. I know that this might be hard to do, but if you give it consciously attention, it will get easier. If your past sucked, focus on the now. If now sucks, focus on the future. If your future is limited (if death awaits), treasure the past. Find a comparison that suits you most. But if it comes to feeling better about yourself, focus on yourself and keep the gap of comparison as small as possible. Good luck!

Leave a Reply

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.