28/10/2015 08:43 GMT | Updated 27/10/2016 06:12 BST

Comparing Down: A Life Lesson From Maximum Security Prison

One of the most useful skills I learnt during over a decade in prison was to be thankful that things weren't even worse. In psychology this is known as comparing down and helps make you grateful for what you have. Comparing down was a skill that I learnt in New Zealand's toughest maximum-security prison, Paremero.

People talk about prison being like the university of crime. I completely agree with that analogy. People spend time in prison learning how to more effectively commit crimes and build on lessons learnt from previous offending. To follow this analogy even further, maximum-security prison or maxi, is like graduate school. You have to qualify to get there. Normally this involves getting kicked out of other prisons. Moreover, like graduate school, when you make it to maxi you are surrounded by people who are very serious about how they spend their time. Yet unlike most graduate schools, people in maxi have often devoted their time to full facial gang tattoos and years in the prison gym while serving long sentences for violent offending. These are people who will attack you for any sign of weakness or disrespect, often through surprise attacks that come when you are in the shower stall or sitting on the toilet.

I always knew I'd end up in maxi due to non-compliance. I was a drug addict when I went to prison and I didn't stop using because I was locked up. Hell, my life was even worse, so I consumed even more drugs. It was a good strategy to escape my reality, but resulted in the prison administration punishing me with a rapidly growing number of days, weeks, and months in solitary confinement. Just the sort of resume maxi was intended to accommodate. No one likes solitary confinement and being an extrovert made the isolation even harder. I liked being able to talk to people and play chess or cards. Solidary confinement comprised of a small concrete box. The only luxury was a dirty mattress on the floor that the guards would remove from your cell during daylight hours.

I lived in nearly constant fear during my time in maxi. I was attacked by gang members with weapons and bad intentions and saw enough stabbing, clubbing, and general bashings to last a lifetime. Yet it was during this time that I started reading about Russian prisons. If there's one thing you can do to make yourself feel better about your situation, it's reading about others in far worse situations. I read Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which is a collection of books on the forced labour camps during Stalin's era. I was sitting in a comfortable New Zealand climate while reading about often innocent people being worked to death in the most extreme climatic regions of the Soviet Union from the Arctic north to the Siberian east and the Central Asian south. The work was brutally hard and the violence, extreme climate, meagre food rations, and unsanitary conditions led to extremely high death rates in the camps. Yet here I was getting three meals a day and spending my time reading and exercising. Then there was the fact that I had a cell to myself while the gulag cells were so packed that not everyone could lie down to sleep at the same time, and people would often be murdered while sleeping. So unlike those in the gulag, even when I spent all day worrying about getting attacked by gang members, I'd still get a respite at the end of each day, until unlock the next.

No matter how hard life is there is always a worse situation. There's always the neighbour with cancer while you are worrying about the interest rates on your home loan, or the extra weight you've put on. When you're the neighbour with cancer, there's always the patient with less time or resources than yourself. No matter how bad things may seem, there's always someone going through something worse. Yet comparing down doesn't have to be about others that are worse off than yourself. Comparing down can be just as much about reflecting back on harder times in your own life. These days I regularly reduce my frustration at a badly made coffee or last minute meeting cancelation by comparing to my life behind bars.

In situations where we can make positive changes in our lives we need to do so. In these circumstances unpleasant emotions like dissatisfaction or frustration can be powerful motivators to do what needs to be done. Yet in situations where factors are outside of our control, such emotions just sap our strength and deplete our psychological resources. In these circumstances switching our perspective from thinking about how much better things could be, to how much worse, can help us maintain a better psychological equilibrium and preparedness to cope with the challenges we encounter.

Here are two take away messages:

Figure out what's in your control:

Comparing down is most useful in situations where you can't readily change the circumstances that cause you difficulty. If you have the capacity to make change then use any unpleasant emotions you experience as motivators to do what you need to do. If you can't change what worries you, compare down.

Compare down:

When in a bad situation compare yourself to others who are in worse situations. If possible, look back to even more challenging times in your life to give you perspective.