Adelberg: Power of Perspective

How our world and our perceptions shape each other.

by Steven Adelberg | 5/16/19 2:15am

What could be beautiful about a bad day?

Last Tuesday seemed about as bad as a bad day could be. I slept through my alarm and stumbled late into class, having slept for only five hours. After learning that I had to redo a project that was due in two days, I met up with a girl I liked for a disastrous lunch date at King Arthur Flour. I didn’t have much time to be upset though, as I had to write an essay before cramming for my microeconomics quiz the next day. So I gave up Tae Kwon Do practice for about 10 hours of studying in Baker-Berry before finally heading home at midnight — only to then find myself caught in the rain without a raincoat. 

As I opened the front door to my dorm hall, miserable in my cold cotton shirt, I saw a girl who was also caught in the rain after midnight without a raincoat. In a split-second decision, I held the door open for her, and she thanked me. I made a half-hearted joke about the rain being a perfect ending to a perfect day. She laughed and agreed. She in fact loved that rain could be refreshing after a long day. I looked at her as if she was from another planet — how could anyone have a good day after being rained on? But then it hit me that she had a point. There was nothing inherently bad about rain. My day was neither good nor bad until my perspective made it so. 

The power of perspective, up to this point, had been inexplicable to me. But it was a very well-known phenomenon in the ancient world. Seneca famously posited that “we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Seneca’s view was that much of our suffering is a construct of our own imagination. Half a world away and centuries earlier, the Buddha asserted that imaginative forces like desire and ignorance lay at the root of all human suffering. By corollary, the Eightfold Path to the end of suffering was mainly an act of reimagination. The sages of old understood the power of perspective as a central component of the human experience, one that had the ability to endow life with its value and meaning.

This ancient understanding should not be dismissed as mere superstition. Modern social psychology not only proves the power of perspective but also documents its ability to change observable facts about reality. The practice of behavioral confirmation, for example, is a type of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby people’s social expectations lead them to behave in ways that cause others to confirm their expectations. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management finds that this effect is particularly powerful in response to social expectations of mistrust: Misplaced fear of the evil in others can create monsters where they otherwise would not exist. 

But guided carefully, the power of perspective can also be a positive force in the world. Industrial designer Doug Dietz helped children’s hospitals coax their timid patients into intimidating MRI machines by using colorful decals to reframe MRIs as an adventure. The number of patients needing sedation before entering the MRI machines decreased dramatically, hospital staff were happier, patients were happier and one little girl even asked to go again after her scan. Perspective is thus more than just a source of suffering. It is the reference people use to make meaning of their experience and a core determinant of human welfare.

When we have this much power to influence not just the meaning and value of our experience but the physical world we experience, we have an obligation to use this power for good. This means trusting the best in people to create self-fulfilling prophecies of virtue. This means understanding our experiences as microcosms of exciting and wonderful life journeys. This means actively searching for the beauty hidden in the difficult times we face. Virtually everyone would agree that we have an obligation to improve virtue, personal meaning and beauty where we can in other areas of life — why not in the realm of our own perceptions? 

Some might oppose the notion of “seeing what we want to see” in a post-Enlightenment world that worships the power of objectivity to uncover universal truths. I would push back against this fetishization of objectivity by drawing a firm distinction between “truth” and “meaning.” While there is an objective truth about whether or not it is raining, there is no objective significance of rain to my life’s story, the lessons I can learn from rain, the net value of a rainy state of affairs or how walking home in the rain without a raincoat should make me feel. Facts fail when it comes to questions of meaning. 

While “seeing what we want to see” would be delusional, “seeing as we want to see” is the only way to take responsibility over the meaning we make of the world. This is a responsibility we should embrace with open arms — with power of perspective firmly in our grasp, we can take a time-tested path to worthwhile and meaningful lives.