I don’t remember when I began saying it, though as a worldview it seems to have always been with me. Whenever things are bad—annoying, unpleasant, dire, morbid, arduous, depressing—and someone offhandedly says, “It could be worse,” I always reply, “And it probably will be.” I certainly never thought of it as a morale booster, more of a sardonic rejoinder to a mindless remark, a platitude in response to a platitude. It turns out, though, that this approach might be a more helpful response to the darker corners of human existence than I thought.
In his new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber, 256 pp., $25), which is to say, intelligent people, Oliver Burkeman recalls finding himself chatting with the pre-eminent behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis, then in his nineties. One of the main methods Ellis advocates for modulating one’s view of life is realizing “the difference between a terrible outcome and a merely undesirable one.” Many of the events that cause us anxiety and unhappiness are in fact not nearly as bad as the level of emotional fervor we cover ourselves in while fearing them. Taking this thinking to its extreme, to prove the point, Ellis pointed out, “If you are slowly tortured to death, you could always be tortured to death slower.” In other words, it could be worse. (And it probably will. Ellis died shortly after Mr. Burkeman met with him.) Read More