In today’s quote, Ben Zoma asks “Who is rich? The one who is happy with what one has” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Ben Zoma believes that the key to leading a rich, fulfilling life lies in focusing on the positive.

It Could Always Be Worse offers a reminder that things are not always as bad as they seem. An interesting theme emerges in the story when we consider that while conditions are the same for the man at the beginning of the story as they are at the end, something else has changed. If the situation in the man’s house is externally exactly the same at the end as the beginning, and all that has changed is that the man has realized how much worse it could be, why is this enough to make “life sweet again” for him? How exactly does a change in perspective work, and more importantly, what does it tell us about the world?

Even if we cannot change the external conditions of an unpleasant situation, we can change the situation by changing our perspective. The interesting thing, again, is that nothing in the man’s life changes. What does change is something inside himself. When he goes to the rabbi initially, he wants advice about how to change his external surroundings so that he can be at peace. Instead, the rabbi shows him how much worse things could be and gets the man to shift something inside himself since changing the size of his house is not possible. This seems to suggest that our perspective has a lot of power in shaping how we will experience something.

The message of this story is that when everything seems just awful, we just have to reflect on all the ways it could be worse, and we can change our perspective, which will in turn, concretely change our experience of the world.

The recording concludes with a few questions to discuss. Here are a few more conversation starters:

  • How would you feel if you were living in that tiny house?
  • At the end, is the man really “happy”? Or is he just happier than before?
  • The family appreciates the calm and quiet at the end of the story but you wonder if anything changes in the way they relate to each other. Because really, nothing changed, right?
  • Let’s say you are carrying a pile of three books, and you are unhappy because they are heavy. Then I put one more book on the pile, so you are even more unhappy. If I take one book off the pile, and you are back to three books like you had at the beginning, how would you feel?
  • If nothing actually changes, than can you really be happy in the same situation that made you unhappy before?
  • Does happiness depend on your experiences?
  • Is happiness an attitude, a way you think about something?
  • Can you choose to be happy?