12/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why This Recession May Not "Feel" That Bad

OK, let me backtrack before I even begin. This is shaping up to be a deep recession and it will likely get worse before it gets better. Consumers aren't spending. Companies are laying people off by the thousands. There are real individuals out there who are hurting. Technically, we are in for a real zinger.

But I believe that for many, this downturn may not "feel" as bad as you might expect. How can this be? It all has to do with our ability to perceive relative versus absolute things. Said another way - we humans stink! at measuring things on an absolute basis. Our brains have an incredibly difficult time distinguishing things like large, because what large is depends entirely on what an item is being compared to. Alternatively, we are actually quite comfortable comparing things on a relative basis. We don't understand large, we do understand larger than.

How we perceive our current stations in life also depends greatly on relativity. Keeping up with the Jone's is not about having specific things - it's about having MORE things than our tasteless, ostentatious neighbors. As the late George Karlin once said, "anyone going faster than you is a maniac, and anyone going slower than you is an idiot!" Exactly!

If we are progressing relative to others around us, we smile. If we perceive we are sliding behind, we frown. How we perceive our own success, and in fact our level of general happiness cannot be disconnected from what is happening around us.

There are two things about this current recession that directly play to our perceptual advantage. First, it has happened suddenly. We instinctively like to view today as an incremental version of yesterday - slightly better or slightly worse. But this time, yesterday is already but a fading memory. Things have changed so quickly that we can only view them in the context of a brave new world. Cold water dripping on you over time can be a real drag- sometimes it's better to just get the bucket of water dumped on our head.

The second perceptual buffer is that this recession is happening to everyone! No city, no industry, no country seems to be immune. Everyone I know is experiencing it, which may be why no one seems embarrassed to discuss it. On a global basis, somebody hit RESET. Our neighbors the Jones' have likely suffered the same destruction to their 401Ks. They, like us, are suddenly thinking creatively about cutting back on spending (and also rethinking their priorities). We are all feeling this, and in turn we all seem to be changing our behaviors almost in lockstep. Compare this to the dot-com crash in 2001. Around that time, a friend of mine jokingly warned me never to wear a sport jacket in Silicon Valley. "Why?" I inquired. "Because everyone will think you are the one A$$ who got their money out!" Back then, pain was only selectively distributed.

I recently heard someone comment, "You know, standing still when everyone around you seems to be going backward gives the perception of progress!"

Relatively speaking, that is.

What are some good things in your life that may come from this recession?