The Power of Perception: Why the Small Stuff Makes a Big Difference

I posted this recently to Facebook:

Before vacuuming the inside of car:
“This thing is a beater. It takes too long to start, it sounds loud, I think it’s misfiring, the transmission is near shot and it has no pickup left. I just hope it lasts me another few weeks.”

After vacuuming the inside of the car:
“This thing has a lot of pep! It rides so smooth for its age, and it really has some zip. I bet this car can last another ten years!”

Thinking more about how true this is for me brings to light an important fact.  Even if perception does not alter physical reality, it alters emotional & psychological reality and our emotional & psychological experience is what determines our happiness in the moment.

What kind of car we have doesn’t determine our happiness.  How we feel about the car we have does.  What kind of misfortune befalls us does not dictate our happiness, but how we interpret and process that misfortune and the narrative we build around it.

My friend Leon is a master at creating a fun narrative and living in accordance with it.  When he comes home and his power is shut off due to an unpaid bill, he laughs and chalks it up to the story of his unpredictable and fun-filled life.  He actually gets more jokes and stories out of the ordeal, so it’s a plus.  I remember he was elated when an overdue parking ticket (for a giant foam pig on a trailer…but that’s a different story) resulted in him being pulled over and going to jail.  When he energetically tells the story, it actually makes you jealous it didn’t happen to you.  But if it actually did happen to me I would’ve been pissed.  It would have ruined my day.  It didn’t ruin his.

Circumstances don’t change in any objective sense due to our feelings about them (though the way we approach them can lead to different outcomes).  But the level of enjoyment or stress in those circumstances does.

Back to my car.  It will last as long as it lasts.  Physical realities, not my feelings, will determine when the engine finally conks out.  Besides doing basic maintenance, I can’t change or control that.  It will happen when it happens.  But I can alter my quality of life in whatever number of days I left driving my car.  I can experience those as enjoyable days or stressful days.  If I vacuum my car out, it makes it feel less old and increases the enjoyment level and decreases the stress.

That small act – like Leon telling jokes about his misfortune – alters my perception of the situation and increases my quality of life.  It matters.