bhapte13 88-149 January 20, 1990

Remember that when told that life is hard, Voltaire asked, "Compared to what?" One's actual state, almost no matter how bad it is in objective terms, can only cause sadness when you compare it to some benchmark hypothetical state of affairs, the denominator in your self-comparisons Mood Ratio.

Whether a self-comparison is positive or negative depends on the benchmark standard of comparison as well as the perceived facts of your life. (The latter was discussed at length in Chapter 12.) Many cases of depression can best be attacked by changing the benchmark state. This chapter discusses how that may be done.

People we consider "normal" tend to adjust their denominators flexibly in such fashion that they will feel good about themselves. They seem to do this almost automatically, but in fact they may give considerable thought to the process, and the change may require a fair amount of time and pain to accomplish. Nevertheless, non-depressives people do alter their denominators when necessary for their well-being. In contrast, depressives--people with a propensity for depression--usually have a tendency to hang onto their denominators even when afflicted by them.

People are not wholly free to alter their denominators for the sake of emotional comfort. A woman who has trained to be a professional tennis player cannot reasonably take much pleasure from entering local club tournaments and doing well. An even stranger case: a man who was paralyzed in an accident should not expect to have no unusual difficulty in maintaining a merry mood. A dog may be unaware of having lost a leg and hopping peculiarly on three legs, but humans almost surely have a consciousness of their situations that dogs do not have. One can try to use the facts as they are; the paraplegic may focus on his courage in meeting his terrible fate with fortitude. He may even get satisfaction from participating in wheelchair athletics. But this is not the equivalent of not being paralysed.

This is true in one's occupation as well. If one is striving to make a great scientific discovery but so far without success, it is almost impossible to maintain total serenity as the results continue to be negative, and as others are making better progress.

Depressives can use the following systematic procedure to alter their denominators: (1) First, grasp the importance of the denominator in the Mood Ratio as the standard of comparison. (2) Then, accept that your denominator can be changed, and that you can change it, though of course you may decide not to do so. (3) Next, consider whether you are willing to change your denominator, that is, whether you are willing to exert the effort as well as give up any rewards (including the benefits of depression) that you obtain for yourself from the old denominator.

This procedure for helping you change your denominator to one that will produce fewer negative self-comparisons is described in this chapter. Chapter 18 discusses Values Treatment, which is a more radical procedure for changing your denominators and other aspects of your self-Comparisons Mood Ratio.


The standard of comparison in a denominator may be (a) your former state; or (b) the state in which you think you ought to be; or (c) the condition in which you wish to be; or (d) what a peer is; or e) it may be a goal that you aspire to achieve. Because achievement goals and workaday failures are so commonly implicated in depression in our modern society, let us take them as our examples for discussion here.

William James vividly described how it feels to be depressed about such perceived failures:

Failure, the failure! so the world stamps us at every turn. We strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation. And with what a damning emphasis does it then blot us out! No easy fine, no mere apology or formal expiation, will satisfy the world's de- mands, but every pound of flesh exacted is soaked with all its blood. The subtlest forms of suffering known to man are connected with the poisonous humiliations incidental to these results.1

Aspirations and achievement goals have a particularly important place in the depressions commonly found in a modern society because success in one's occupation is so important in the evaluation of a person by others and by himself. Hence the comparison between, on the one hand one's actual achievements, and on the other hand the attainments to which one aspires, frequently results in negative self-ratings and consequent sadness. Even if an individual has no special reason to compare herself negatively in this way, but has some generalized need to compare herself negatively on some dimension, success is the dimension she will probably pick in a modern, mobile, profession- oriented society.

Therapists and medical doctors faced with depressed (and also anxious) patients have often advised the person to lower or change her goals, even though it has not been part of their theory. For example, psychoanalyst Rubin reports:

My depressed patient eventually learned that her depression was always linked to personal dissatisfac- tion with herself, to seeming "failures." ... She eventually also learned that her self-hate was connected to impossible standards, which required considerable reduction to realistic human levels and possibilities...She became aware that to block depres- sion successfully she must realize first that she was depressing and putting down angry feelings and thoughts about herself and others.2

The tactic of changing one's standards derives directly from the view of depression embodied in the self-comparisons Mood Ratio: Sadness and depression result from an unfavorable comparison between a person's actual and hypothetical states. The theory and the practice fit perfectly with each other.

Arbitrary Goals

Goals that obviously that are obviously arbitrary are the easiest to change, whereas those that are involved with basic values and philosophy of life are hardest to change. If I set a goal of forty sit-ups a day for this week, that number obviously was selected for what I thought to be my own good, a number that would gradually increase my strength and improve my health, as well as perhaps giving me satisfaction in attaining it. If I cannot nearly achieve that goal and feel helpless to do better -- which makes me sad --or if I achieve the forty sit-ups only with painful effort, then the goal is clearly a poor choice; instead, the goal chosen for my own good is bad for me. Of course I might argue to myself that the gain in strength is more important than the pain of sadness. But if I at least get this argument into the open, and if I recognize that goals are intellectual tools, and in this case the purpose of the goal is my own welfare, then I'm likely to revise the sit-up goal downwards.

Another example of how one arbitrarily chooses a goal--and with it the prospects of failure and sadness--is in a game such as tennis. As a sports psychologist says,

If you compete with players of ability equal to yours, you are setting yourself up for disappointment about fifty percent of the time. If you compete with players who are more capable than yourself, you set yourself up for an even greater percentage of unsatisfactory games. If you seek out less skilled competitors, you could win all the time, but you wouldn't feel like a winner.3

If you are willing to struggle a bit for wisdom, alone or with a therapist, you should find it relatively easy to improve your choice of arbitrary goals of this sort, and hence reduce negative self-comparisons and sadness.

Let's work out a specific exercise, for convenience returning to Nancy in Chapter 12 who told herself "I'm a bad mother." And let's say that for one reason and another, Nancy is not convinced by the analysis of her numerator given there. And she now says, "Eleanor is the kind of mother I should be".

You respond to Nancy as follows: "Is Eleanor an average mother? Does she have an outside job or do volunteer work? "

Nancy: "She devotes herself entirely to her children".

You: "Is that ordinary behavior?"

Nancy: "No, she's an unusually good mother, the best one I know."

You: " Why do you compare yourself to her?"

Nancy: "Because I should be as good as I can be, and she shows how good a mother can be."

(Notice how skilled a depressive like Nancy can be in making her comparisons seem logical.)

You: "Does Eleanor bring home a paycheck the way you do? Does she serve as president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving as you do? Does she do anything else besides be a mother?"

Nancy: "That's enough".

You; "Maybe it's enough for her, but what's that got to do with you? Remember, you said you are a bad mother, not less devoted a mother than Eleanor -- if that is good for the kids, anyway. To whom is it reasonable to compare yourself as a mother? "

After considerable more argumentation, Nancy sees the point. (We assume so for brevity; the fact is that she might out-logic anyone on this point.) And when she does see that Eleanor is not an appropriate comparison, and she truly concedes the point, her denominator will become less harsh and her Mood Ratio will become more Rosy.

Uninvited thought Causal Event Self-comparison "I'm a bad mother". Note from I should be like Eleanor A. son's teacher Analysis Response Denominator: Is Eleanor the appropriate person with whom I should compare myself? . . . . Eleanor is atypical.

Goals That Are Not Arbitrary

Other goals are less arbitrary and hence more complex. If I set a goal of writing five pages of this book each day, it is obvious that that number was chosen relative to what I think I can do, and relative to what I have done in the past. But I might say to myself that I ought to set the goal so as to get the maximum output from my productive capacities. If I think that way, deeper values--a matter to which we shall come shortly--as well as my psychological history are then also involved. This is more complex and harder to deal with than the number of sit-ups that I do.

The person who never clearly chooses a single direction, or decides on an achievement goal, has another sort of goal-setting problem. As Montaigne said: "No wind favors him who has no destined port".4 That sometimes describes me in my occupation. (The rest of this paragraph and the next one were written in 1977, and is less true as of 1989). I start with the value that a person should contribute to society what he can, and with the belief that I have some talent (for research and writing) that should be harnessed to make a noticeable social contribution. But beyond this I have no well-defined goal. And I always feel that what I do is not enough, not sufficiently good. I find fault with most or all the pieces of work I've done, even those that I believe are technically excellent, because they have not produced the social changes I hoped they might, or because they have not started more than a few people thinking in new ways, or because they did not persuade many of my colleagues. If I can't find anything wrong with the idea or the research itself, I criticize myself for having failed appear too unconventional, or I did not write it simply enough (or complexly enough), or I did not make it seem more interesting and palatable to others, or I did not concentrate enough on it and spend enough extra time presenting new versions of it and giving talks and writing letters and buttonholing people, and so on and so on.

Clearly I have not succeeded in developing an appropriate denominator. A wiser person than I might revise her goals downward by telling herself that experience has proven these goals to be too high to attain. For my own welfare, and with little likely loss to society, I probably should aspire to do less, or at least try not to feel that it is necessary that I do as much as is humanly possible. Or, a wiser person in my situation might simply force herself to choose entirely new sorts of goals--say, spending most of her time advising student research, and writing only texts. But I have not been successful in operating on my goals with these approaches. (Perhaps a wise counselor could have led me to do so. Instead I dealt with the consequences of these goals with Values Treatment, to be discussed in Chapter 18.) But fortunately I have found other ways of reducing neg-comps and thereby avoiding sadness and depressing.

Wants and Oughts

A common cause of depression located in the denominator is the belief that one "ought" to do or be something that one is not or does not do. Just as imprecise language can produce numerator problems, so it can sour your denominator, especially by turning statements of your tastes or desires into statements of more obligations. Albert Ellis coined the term "musturbating" for the practice of telling yourself that you must do be this or be that -- make a lot of money, keep your temper under control, or go to church regularly. Depressives also believe that if they do not do what they believe that they "must" do, something terrible will happen, perhaps a punishment of some sort. "Awfulizing," "horribilizing," and "catastrophizing" are the terms Ellis uses for this belief in terrible consequences of not doing what one believes one must.

If you are afflicted with "musturbating" and "catastrophizing," examine the basis of your beliefs about what you "must" do, and the terrible consequences you believe will ensue if you don't do it.

As to the notion of "must" or "ought": Usually it is more correct to say that you want to do or be certain things. Any "must" or "ought" is just one of your wants, but converted into a command that turns the desire into a compulsion. Is it an important enough want to be sad about? And after you think about it as a "want" rather than an "ought," do you still feel as strongly about it as before? Are you as disturbed about not satisfying the "must" as before?

As to the consequences of not doing what you think you "must," ask yourself: Why must you finish college? Will you be unable to make a living if you don't? Will people you like refuse your company if you don't? Will you be a bad person if you don't? Or do you think you must finish college because a relative once told you that you "must," when you were a child?

You may experience an extraordinary sense of relief when you suddenly conclude that you don't have to do something or be something you believed that you "must." You can feel free as a bird and light as a feather after feeling weighted down and overloaded by the unwelcome burden. Try for yourself! Ask yourself honestly: Why must I do ---- ? And what will happen if I don't?

Ellis and Harper re-train people as follows:

When clients (in individual or group therapy) state, "I must work harder at the office," or "I should not hate my mate," we frequently interrupt them with: "You mean, "It would prove better if you worked harder at the office," or "You preferably should not hate your mate."4.1

When you shed these unnecessry oughts and musts, you lighten and sweeten your denominator, and remove the sources of much sadness and depression.



There is a long and honorable tradition of writers who reduce sadness by inspiring people to "think positively", ranging from Bertrand Russell5 to Norman Vincent Peale, with lots of lesser writers in between them intellectually.

This method is simple: you remind yourself how well off you are compared to the situation you might be in. The mechanism works this way: you shift to a radically different standard of comparison than you begin with. Instead of comparing your minor arthritis with perfect painless freedom of movement, you shift to comparing yourself with a paralytic. Instead of comparing your daughter who just threw a stone through the neighbor's window with a kid that never gets into trouble, you compare her against a really delinquent child, or a child that lacks vitality enough even to get into trouble. Instead of comparing your third- highest salary raise to that of the person in your office who gets the biggest raise, you compare it to the average or the lowest raise.

Different people use different devices to shift their denominators to those that make their present situations seem blessed. My own practice is that whenever I feel myself sinking into unfavorable self-comparisons in work or family situation, I ask myself "Compared to what?" This usually serves to jolt me into seeing the absurdity of considering myself as ill-served by life when so many people that I can think of are much worse- served in that particular respect. Then I'm amused at myself, and sadness is behind me (if the device happens to be working that day).

Does this anti-depression tactic seem more like philosophy than psychology? Choose the label you like. But more and more, the wisest psychologists have come to view many (though not all) depressions as philosophical in origin, and therefore as requiring a change of philosophy for a cure; some philosophers have known this for thousands of years. William James made this very clear when he talked of the depressive as a "sick soul." And Ellis and Harper put the matter bluntly: "For effecting permanent and deep-seated emotional changes, philosophic changes appear virtually necessary."6

Certainly there is nothing wrong with the technique of counting your blessings. Professional counselors often use it to good effect. And it often works for all of us when we are sad in a mild or transient way. Why, then, is it not a sufficient cure for all depression?

There are several reasons why "count your blessings" therapy alone is often insufficient to pull a person out of deep depression. 1) Much mental energy is required to focus on your blessings. Just as it is hard work to keep one's eye fixed firmly on the ball in tennis or golf, depressed persons often lack the necessary energy. 2) Pain from a particular source-- physical or mental--may be sufficiently intense to prevent concentration on something else. (Remember your lack of complete success in distracting yourself when the dentist is drilling?) Furthermore, you must believe that your blessings are important relative to other aspects of your life in order to focus on them, and many depressives have mechanisms that systematically act to devalue their objective blessings.

James put it this way:

The method of averting one's attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. It will work with many persons; it will work far more generally than most of us are ready to suppose, and within the sphere of its successful operation there is nothing to be said against it as a religious solution. But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one's self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inade- quate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life's significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.7

Perhaps the most important reason, however, why "count your blessings" doesn't do the whole job with some people is that a person must "want" to achieve the good feelings that come with counting one's blessings. If you believe that you ought to count your blessings, or to achieve good feeling, then you might be disposed to do so. But if you have had little experience in your lifetime with simple good feeling, this goal will not seem a reasonable or achievable one. More about this in Chapter 18 Values Treatment.


Learning how and why you acquired certain benchmark standards of comparison can often make it easier for you to change your denominator. This is often a matter of realizing that you did not choose the standard yourself on the basis of reasonable experience and thought, but rather the standard was thrust upon you. Then you can be responsive to Ellis's command (!) that you not let yourself be commanded to accept any goal or standard that others have set for you, or that you have set for yourself; this is the heart of his method for overcoming depression.

Take, for example, my mother always telling me (surely with the best of intentions) that I could do better than I had done. This caused me to feel that I had accomplished less than I ought to have accomplished (and less than I had accomplished). After I came to understand that as an adult I criticize myself in the same way that my mother criticized me as a child, I could then take the next step--understanding that I am not obligated to accept my mother's point of view about this; I am not required to always judge that I could do better, to always get closer to perfection. And with that discovery I learned to say to myself "Don't criticize" every time I hear myself saying, in imitation of my mother, "You can do better," or "That's not up to the standard you should reach." And with that discovery I took the first step on the road to conquering depression (though in itself this did not, and could not, cure me of depression, for my own idiosyncratic reasons; more about that later.)

The Freudian method known as psychoanalysis is essentially a technique for self-discovery, and especially for learning about one's childhood, which is assumed by Freudians to be necessary for a cure. Delving into memories of one's early years takes place in several hour-long weekly over the course of several years, usually. Discovery of the causes of your contemporary behavior and feelings--for example, the causes of your contemporary negative self-comparisons and depression--might be enough to cure your depression, because the necessary change in your behavior and outlook may be obvious. But more likely, the discovery is not enough, though it can be used as valuable input to careful thinking about your present and future.

In contrast cognitive-behavioral therapy does not find that examining one's childhood memories is usually crucial in overcoming depression.

The learning gained in psychoanalysis may come from dredging up forgotten or repressed memories of childhood events. This can be a sudden illumination induced by free association or related techniques. Or the learning may come from creating a new set of experiences to offset the old ones, for example, learning that one can trust a therapist and other people after coming to believe as a child that all other persons are untrustworthy, or that one is helpless to deal successfully with other people. This learning is closely related to the more recently-developed method of Interpersonal Therapy, which has had considerable success in helping depressed people. And if the focus is on learning that one is capable of dealing with other people rather than being helpless, the learning is related to Seligman's approach to depression, discussed in Chapter 17. Once more, different therapeutic strokes help different folks, but all of these approaches fit nicely into the general intellectual framework of Self-comparisons Analysis.

Psychoanalysis intends that a patient identify, relive, and understand childhood experiences--either traumatic experiences such as losing a parent, or repeated experiences such as being criticized for not doing better in school. The aim is that the person learn that the childhood experiences were not what they are subconsciously remembered to be--that all relationships need not be the same as the person's relationships with his or her parents, and that as an adult the person need not be obedient to the dictates of his or her parents in the past. That is, like behavior-modification and cognitive therapies, psychoanalysis is supposed to be a special process of learning (and unlearning) with respect to negative self-comparisons.

With respect to traumatic childhood experiences, the person can learn to recognize the continuing influence of the childhood event, to understand its impact, and perhaps to lessen its tension by reliving it in a context where it no longer is so terrible. For example, Joan H., a woman of thirty-five who relived in therapy the death of her mother when she was seven, came to understand that the deprivation she felt at seven no longer applies at thirty-five. That is, the difference between being a woman of 35 without a mother versus being a woman of 35 with a mother is much less important than the difference between having a mother versus not having a mother at age seven. If Joan recognizes that the traumatic loss -- a huge negative self- comparison-- that she experienced at seven (and still remembers vividly) no longer applies, then she can feel less sad.

Another aspect of re-living traumatic experiences is that a person can finally get the facts straight, and hence get rid of damaging misconceptions. For example, many children whose parents [or siblings] die in childhood actually feel responsible for the event, believing that the death happened through the child's neglect or misbehavior. Joan was such a person. As an adult, she can finally realize that her mother's heart attack did not occur because Joan was being too noisy, and hence she can now shed that horrible guilty self-comparison, and with it the attendant sadness. This is really an improvement in one's numerator, the perceived facts of one's life, but I've mentioned it here for convenience.

With respect, now, to non-traumatic childhood experiences: understanding one's history can also have beneficial effects in reducing negative self-comparisons, as illustrated by the story about my mother and me just above. Knowledge of one's history also can help you understand why your inner logic leads you to choose being depressed, if this is your pattern. This observation may convince you that the benefits of self-pity in depression may not be worth the pain. Being obviously depressed may be effective for a child by inducing others to show pity and love. But exhibitions of depression by adults tend to turn away other people. The people most needing love are usually the least lovable, someone once said.

So, a device that was successful for the child, and therefore made into a habit, may be counter-productive as an adult. If the adult recognizes this change in circumstances, and correctly evaluates the cost/benefit ratio of adult depression, the adult may quit the habit. Of course the direct pleasures of self-pity may continue to outweigh the pains of depression, in which case the depression will continue to be relatively attractive. But with the recognition that depression is not a profitable tactic outwardly, the balance may tip away from choosing to be depressed.

It may also be helpful to understand destructive patterns of interpersonal relationships learned in childhood. For example, my difficulty in dealing with bosses stems from my childhood relationship with my father. I concluded that he did not have my interests at heart but rather only his own. I never felt he could be believed, or relied upon to deal honestly with me. Psychoanalysts believe that, without psychoanalytic reliving of the event it would be a waste of time in a case like mine to try to build a habit of dealing confidently with a boss. They believe that unless one goes back to the original problem, cleans out the Stygian stables and builds a new solid groundwork, one cannot have a psychologically-safe future. In this case a psychoanalyst would attempt to show me, by laboriously building a trustworthy relationship with me--that is, by laying a new groundwork of interpersonal experience--that all relationships need not be like the relationship I had with my father. In this way, the psychoanalytic therapy might improve my numerator, that is, my view of my possibilities.

It is as if psychoanalysts say that one can never simply replace a bad faucet successfully; the past will always ruin such simple replacements unless one replaces all the old plumbing and hence gets the past straightened out.

Psychoanalytic inspection of the past--whether by yourself, as was mostly the case with me, or with a therapist--certainly may be of value in discovering the historical sources of contemporary negative self-comparisons. But in the majority of cases professional psychoanalysis is of dubious value for treating depression:

Most psychoanalysts will not treat patients with clearcut depression for a number of reasons. First, the energy-depletion process, however they may understand it, contributes a pathogenic factor which strongly resists psychoanalysis. Second, the frankly depressed patient usually has insufficient interest in treatment to be able to pursue the arduous regimen of psychoanalysis. Third, the frankly depressed patient is too miserable to have patience for analysis. Moreover there are far too many depressed patients to be treated by psychoanalysts, and psychoanalysis is far too costly for most individuals.8

In my own case, I did not want to spend the time or money to reflect at length with a therapist about my childhood relationship with my parents. Furthermore, psychoanalysis by itself does not have a very good statistical record of relieving depression, even after prolonged therapy. In contrast, cognitive therapy has been proven successful in controlled tests.


After you have decided to substitute a new and less demanding denominator for the harsh old one, you must build the habit of implementing that decision. With such a habit, your "insight" and decision to change the denominator becomes more than just a bit of interesting self-knowledge. The principles of building such a habit are similar to those we discussed for improving your numerator.

An illustration: Basil T. is a small businessman who makes a decent living--but only a decent living. No Cadillac for him, no three-month trips down the Nile for his family, no fat portfolio of stocks and bonds. Basil used to spend most of his hours working around his store. When he wasn't working he felt sad because he wasn't getting enough done, or earning enough; he was frequently depressed. Then Basil came to understand that his sadness arose from the negative self-comparison between his actual income and what he felt he ought to earn. And it was easy for him to figure out why he felt he ought to have an upper- middle class income, and ought to be able to afford luxury rather than just a decent living.

In the extended family in which Basil grew up, the only mark of success was being "rich." Basil long ago decided that he rejected this benchmark standard. But he kept on with his workaholic schedule, and continued to be depressed, until he built the habit that resolved the problem. He built the habit of saying to himself, "Stop pushing, you've got enough", together with taking in a deep relaxing breath deep in his abdomen, each time he noticed himself thinking "You aren't getting any work done." And Basil found that he liked his new, more-relaxed way of life well enough so that it reinforced his habit and kept it going. And Basil began to enjoy his life, and afterwards he seldom let depression stay with him for more than a few hours at a time.

The key point about Basil's case is that no single anti- depression tactic by itself was enough. It was necessary that Basil (a) understand the role of negative self-comparisons, and the need to reduce them; (b) notice that his benchmark standard of an upper-middle class income was depressing him; (c) recognize that he held that particular denominator because he carried the ideas of the particular family in which he grew up, rather than because of any objective or logical or moral basis for it; (d) decide to change the denominator; and (e) build a habit of pushing that benchmark standard out of his thinking as soon as it came in.


One's actual state, almost no matter how bad it is in objective terms, can only cause sadness when you compare it to some benchmark hypothetical state of affairs, the denominator in your self-comparisons Mood Ratio. That is, whether a self- comparison is positive or negative depends on the benchmark standard of comparison as well as the perceived facts of your life. Many cases of depression can best be attacked by changing the benchmark state. This chapter discusses how that may be done.

People we consider "normal" tend to adjust their denominators flexibly in such fashion that they will feel good about themselves. In contrast, depressives--people with a propensity for depression--usually have a tendency to hang onto their denominators even when afflicted by them.

You can use the following procedure to alter your denominators: (1) First, recognize the importance of the denominator in the Mood Ratio as the standard of comparison. (2) Then, accept that your denominator can be changed, and that you can change it, though of course you may decide not to do so. (3) Next, consider whether you are willing to change your denominator, that is, whether you are willing to exert the effort as well as give up any rewards (including the benefits of depression) that you obtain for yourself from the old denominator.