If the doctor gave you six months to live, it could be worse: he could have given you three months to live.
If you lost a leg, it could be worse: you could have lost both legs.
If you lost both legs, it could be worse: you could have lost both legs and an arm.
If you lost both legs and an arm, it could be worse: you could have lost both legs and both arms.
If you owed $1 million, it could be worse: you could be $2 million in the red.
If you’re depressed about your age, it could be worse: you could be much, much older.
Whatever you personal situation, it could always be worse. You could be bleeding to death behind enemy lines on an Afghan battle field. You could be paralyzed from the neck down after a televised powerbocks stunt gone awry.
The year could be 1943, and you could be an emaciated inmate at Auschwitz, having pain threshold experimentation performed upon you twenty hours a day, seven days a week.
At all times, there exists exactly one person on earth to whom the threadbare truism “it could be worse” doesn’t apply, namely the unfortunate individual who’s worse off than anybody else on the planet; and even then—who knows?—there might still be room for deterioration.
Thus, if you have a roof over your head, a portly log in the fireplace (plus a spare), are reasonably well-nourished and in possession of four functional limbs, and, being in such privileged trim, voice a grievance of any kind, then, as night follows sunset, you’ll be diagnosed with a condition of diminished enlightenment for seemingly failing to realize that, well, it could be worse.
In other words, that you really have nothing to complain about.
Now imagine your circumstances to be exactly the same—i.e., you have a roof, logs for your fireplace, bread and milk in your pantry, two arms and two legs that you can move, etc.—except everyone else in the world is still better off than yourself. So in spite of your blessed situation, everyone else is younger, fitter, and richer than you, with bigger roofs over their heads and twice the number of logs for their fireplaces. There are no poor, no sick, no hungry, and no downtrodden.
Now how are you supposed to feel about your situation?
Because as per the comparison rationale—which commands that you use others as a point of reference for assessing your personal level of contentment—you now should consider yourself less blessed and fortunate than before, even though your circumstances are identical.
So the question is this:
How would you grade your life situation if you weren’t privy to anyone else’s? How would you feel about yourself if you couldn’t point to other people in much direr straits than yourself and feel grateful for being better off?
Sure, on the one hand, we don’t want to plunge into a funk over a bad hair day, knowing that someone else has just lost his face and arms in a grizzly bear attack.
On the other hand, if someone asks us how we’re doing, it seems a bit odd to reply, “Hang on. First let me find out how everyone else is doing, and then I’ll know how I feel today.”
As mentioned above, the law of relativity works in both directions. If we feel better because there exist others who are worse off than we are, we must also feel worse knowing there are others who are better off.
Ergo, once we employ relativity as our guide, assessing our own degree of happiness gets a bit complicated, as we must make adjustments from both ends.
In principle, considering ourselves blessed because other people live in misery is no different than feeling depressed because our neighbor has a bigger car. In both cases, we allow our own internal state to be dictated from the outside. And once we keep feeling exactly how we’re supposed to feel relative to the world around us, the question arises whether we actually know how we feel about ourselves and our lives.
Yes. It could be worse.
It could always be worse.
We all know it.
So let’s bury the phrase, unless we really want to insult the intelligence and annoy the heck out of whomever we wish to cheer up with it.