‘Can it get any worse?’

A poor man lived with his wife and six children in a very small one-room house. They were always getting in each other’s way and there was so little space they could hardly breathe!

Finally the man could stand it no more. He talked to his wife and asked her what to do. “Go see the rabbi,” she told him, and after arguing a while, he went.

And so the poor man told the rabbi how miserable things were at home with him, his wife, and the six children all eating and living and sleeping in one room. The poor man told the rabbi, “We’re even starting to yell and fight with each other. Life couldn’t be worse.”

The rabbi thought very deeply about the poor man’s problem. Then he said, “Do exactly as I tell you and things will get better. Do you promise?”

“I promise,” the poor man said.

The rabbi then asked the poor man a strange question. “Do you own any animals?”

“Yes,” he said. “I have one cow, one goat, and some chickens.”

“Good,” the rabbi said. “When you get home, take all the animals into your house to live with you.”

The poor man was astonished to hear this advice from the rabbi, but he had promised to do exactly what the rabbi said. So he went home and took all the farm animals into the tiny one-room house.

The next day the poor man ran back to see the rabbi. “What have you done to me, Rabbi?” he cried. “It’s awful. I did what you told me and the animals are all over the house! Rabbi, help me!”

The rabbi listened and said calmly, “Now go home and take the chickens back outside.”

The poor man did as the rabbi said, but hurried back again the next day. “The chickens are gone, but Rabbi, the goat!” he moaned. “The goat is smashing up all the furniture and eating everything in sight!”

The good rabbi said, “Go home and remove the goat and may God bless you.”

So the poor man went home and took the goat outside. But he ran back again to see the rabbi, crying and wailing. “What a nightmare you have brought to my house, Rabbi! With the cow it’s like living in a stable! Can human beings live with an animal like this?”

The rabbi said sweetly, “My friend, you are right. May God bless you. Go home now and take the cow out of your house.” And the poor man went quickly home and took the cow out of the house.

The next day he came running back to the rabbi again. “O Rabbi,” he said with a big smile on his face, “we have such a good life now. The animals are all out of the house. The house is so quiet and we’ve got room to spare! What a joy!”

Source: Aaron Zerah, How the Children Became Stars:
A Family Treasury of Stories, Prayers and Blessings
from Around the World

The above story brilliantly illustrates the importance our mindset and attitude in determining our happiness. It is a cliché to say that nothing outside ourselves can bring us happiness but this is true simply because our happiness is always determined by the state of our minds in any moment. Happiness is an inside job because happiness is an experience inside of us. If we feel happy when for example we have money, or we get a job we like, or go to some wonderful place on holidays, it is simply because we believe those things will make us feel happy and so they do. We have made an agreement with ourselves and set up an expectation: when this happens, I will be happy.

But it is not the thing itself that has made you happy but your allowing yourself to feel happy in response. The liberating thing about this is that we can take back power over our happiness by deciding what will make us happy. In theory, we could set ourselves up to feel happy in response to virtually any situation by simply fully believing that that particular thing will make us happy. It simply requires the capacity to be imaginative and flexible in how we view things. If we judge something as good it will make us happy and if we judge something as bad, we will be unhappy. Power therefore lies in our judgements, which we control.

One of the great blocks to human happiness is the tendency to habituate to our circumstances and so take things for granted. The negativity bias within the brain compounds this by tending to focus on what is missing or what might go wrong than to appreciate what is right and good. Therefore we need to exercise ourselves in working against this. In the story above the poor man and his family undergo a change in perspective which shifts their mindset. They had lost sight of the things that they could appreciate in their situation and instead were focused on what was wrong or problematic. Only when they could experience a worse reality were they able to realise how lucky they were.

How often are we grateful for misfortunes that haven’t happened? When we are sick or in pain, or lose somebody or something, we are often struck, in retrospect, by how lucky we had been previously but had not fully realised it. Why did I not appreciate my health, my partner, or the place I lived more when I had it? The presence of a toothache, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, reminds us of how little we are appreciate not having a toothache most of the time.

We don’t need to wait for a worse experience to feel grateful for what we currently have. When we find ourselves focusing on what’s wrong we can engage in an imaginative exercise of shifting perspective by thinking about how things might be worse or how so many bad things that could have happened didn’t happen. Still being alive and well means that everyday of your life so far something has been going right. It is a sad irony of life that we often only appreciate things once we lose them but it need not be that way. We have the choice to cultivate gratitude and appreciation for what we have and what has happened – and also all those misfortunes that haven’t happened. One step further in this practice is to try to see what is right with every wrong. Can you find benefit and feel gratitude even for misfortunes that have befallen you?