“The only reality that matters is perception, and you control your own reality with perception.”
I paid the down payment on my 2014 Nissan Altima 2.5 S from an insurance check that I received after totaling the 10-year-old Infiniti my dad had given me while I was at college. So, I was at the dealership picking out my first brand new car a mere three or four weeks after having crawled out the back window of one I had totaled. I felt grateful. Immensely grateful. Grateful to be alive, grateful — and somewhat guilty as well — for the opportunity to turn a mistake into a positive that I knew many people never really have a chance to experience. But there I was, feeling high off gratitude as I signed the paperwork at the dealership. I was buying a brand new Nissan Altima. Driving home, I listened to music through my phone which was connected to bluetooth and I made fine adjustments on the position of the power driver’s seat. I couldn’t wait to get home and take pictures to share on social media for the world to see what I didn’t deserve but had anyway. But that was where my head was at. My family and I even made jokes that all you have to do if you want to upgrade your car is drive it off the side of a freeway and sideswipe a tree.
And it only took a few weeks to get completely and utterly used the new car. And within 2 years I was just about bored of it. The 4-cylinder engine wasn’t as powerful as the 6-cylinder in the car I killed. The rear view mirror didn’t have night and day sensors to automatically dim the reflectiveness of headlights in darkness. Sure, the turning radius was better, but this car is kind of wide and long so it’s a little hard to park anyway. Sure, the CVT transmission was smooth but I kind of missed the recoil of an engine jumping gears. The doors don’t stay put when you open them partially. Some of the plastic fixtures on the doors and dash make slightly audible but intensely annoying noises at highway speeds. When people would ask how I liked the car, my response was, “I mean, it’s a car. It’s fine.”
But look, why am I admitting all of this to you? It makes me sound ungrateful and entitled. It absolutely does. But I am admitting this to you because this is so common. I know I’m not the only one who does it and nearly everyone listening to this, you know you do this too. You climb on the hedonic treadmill and every new privilege and new stimulus becomes the new normal in no time. Whether you go from no car to a $2000 1990’s Honda Civic or from a ten year old Prius to a Maserati Gran Turismo, only those with outstanding command over their gratitude muscles can ward off the trap of the treadmill. And I was on that treadmill and I did not notice it. My reality was created by my perception, and my perception was that this car was a nice, but very normal and boring car. So what did I do? I was looking at upgrades. Shouldn’t I be driving entry level luxury? I work in Silicon Valley tech and many of my colleagues drive BMWs and Teslas. I could picture myself in a Mercedes Benz. That would make me happy to drive. That would have some power and some pizzazz.
And one day while looking at used Mercedes Benz listings online I thought of something. I thought of that day when I swerved the Infiniti off a 15-foot drop because I looked at the car stereo while exiting on a bridge and I overcorrected to get back into the lane and I lost control and I watched the wheels roll over the edge of the road and thought of about a hundred different things in the span of no more than 10 seconds. I thought of how I couldn’t kick the door open because the car flipped over and the door bent into the ground. I thought of how I crawled out the back and checked myself and seemed completely uninjured as highway patrol rolled up from the other side of the freeway in disbelief and asked me if I was okay and what happened. And I remembered most of all a phone call I had with my dad that day. He had invented a game that, as a psychology student, I wanted to understand. At the end of every day, if you had a great day, you’d put a small blue dice in a jar. I was a college student and generally disliked going to huge lecture halls and studying for exams and feeling inadequate when I didn’t do well on those exams, so I would typically put a dice in my jar no more than about two nights a week.
But I remembered that phone call I had with my dad hours after the accident. He told me that today was a great day. For a moment, I was puzzled. I’d had a generally stable, safe, and comfortable upbringing in a neighborhood so normal and middle-class that the worst thing that happened to me growing up was probably the fact that not a lot did happen to me growing up. So, I was puzzled, because certainly totaling a car was one of the worst things I’d experienced, and after the adrenaline and shock wore off it was becoming clear I’d be dealing with crippling lower back pain for at least a short while and maybe much longer. But after that moment of confusion passed, I started to catch on, and my dad gave up the charade of the dice-in-the-jar game. The trick was, that any day that you and your loved ones stayed alive, would probably qualify as a great day. It only takes one or two great elements in an otherwise poor day for that day to qualify as great. And the day I crashed my car, I defied so many horrible outcomes — yes, the day itself was maybe the least fun day of my life, but it was also one of the very best days of my life. I lost control of a car and swerved off a 15-foot drop into a strip of grass with several trees. The back right window of the car caught one of the trees which is how the car got the momentum to flip over. But I crawled out immediately after, through the window that was shattered upon hitting the tree. Had I been maybe 6 inches more to the right, it would have been the front of the car that hit the tree, and my face would’ve likely recoiled off the steering wheel before the airbags had the chance to deploy. I collected my things and drove home with the cops. To this day, the biggest consequence is the irritating soft tissue damage done to my lower back in the compression of the accident that makes it hard for me to comfortably sit or stand in a single position for very long, and if I’m not careful to lift with my legs my back can throw out, but I spent no time in a hospital bed. I had absolutely no damage to my head or vital organs. So it wasn’t the worst day of my life. It was one of the best, as I survived something that could have very easily taken my life or the lives of others.
The dice-in-the-jar game was a game of improving your perception.
So I thought of that phone call. I thought of that day. I thought of that game. And I went out to my “boring” Nissan Altima and sat in the driver’s seat and thought about how incredible this car is. I’ve never had to make a repair on it. It’s never malfunctioned when I needed it to work. The alignment is good. The driver’s seat is incredibly comfortable. It’s a good-looking car, with more aggressive and sporty lines than previous year Altima models. It gets really solid gas mileage, which lines up nicely with my efforts to save and spend responsibly. It’s got great crash test safety ratings so if I should ever be involved in another accident, I have a great chance of the seatbelt, airbags, and crumple zones doing what they were designed to do. The car is red, my favorite color. It’s got a ton of cabin space and trunk space, which is great now that I play in a band and need to move equipment around for gigs. I thought of how grateful I was to get this car in the first place and how grateful I would be to have any even remotely functional car if I were coming from a scenario of having none at all.
So what is the objective reality about my 2014 Nissan Altima 2.5s? It barely matters. Every individual’s reality is a product of his or her perception of it. In fact, the only reality that matters may well be an individual’s perception. It’s paradoxical and yet very easy to understand. If you’re getting into fights with your significant other, or sibling, friend, manager, parent, whoever – are you thinking about what you perceive as the reality of the situation, or are you thinking about what they are perceiving to be reality? If you’re in a group of people and you say something that offends someone or everyone in the group, it doesn’t ultimately matter if you are being objectively offensive. If you say something, and someone perceives it as offensive, that is the reality. You were offensive. The only reality that matters is perception, and you control your own reality with perception. Recognize that in others and in yourself and you will be better off — objectively — because you have made it so.