Tag Archives: Finding Happiness

Don’t be Afraid to Underachieve in Life to Better Achieve in Your Family Life: Lessons from a former Indpls Colt

smith-hunter-01Last week, I attended a talk in Indianapolis given by former NFL punter Hunter Smith and his wife, Jen. One of his biggest messages was this headline. The former Colt advises those who want to be good spouses and parents to not be afraid to underachieve by the world’s standards, in order to make the time to succeed in your family life.

“I’m never going to be all I could be, and I don’t want to be. In America that’s counter-cultural,” says the former Indianapolis Colt. “Achieve in your marriage and with your children, and not in what the world expects of you.”

Other pieces of advice from their talk at Better Together included:

  1. Keep good company—trusted friends who will help keep you from making wrong decisions.
  2. Be who you say you are—live your life well.
  3. Understand that men have the tendency to be lustful and passive, while women have the tendency to be controlling. As men, don’t abdicate leadership in the home.
  4. Be willing to show your true self to your spouse.
  5. Be willing to share each of your needs honestly with one another.
  6. Place your spouse’s needs above yours. If you both practice giving, you will both receive more.

Hunter and Jen have four children, and they aren’t afraid to “miss opportunities” for their kids to develop in sports or other areas. Instead, they focus on the priorities of their family and their faith life.

Hunter shared openly about life in the NFL both with the Colts and with the Washington Redskins. He also expressed how much impact one person can have, using the example of Tony Dungy changing the culture of the Indianapolis Colts team by calling all the players to be authentic men full of strong character.

You can read here in an Indianapolis Star article about how Hunter calls the life of NFL athletes “tragic” with false images and frequent divorces and bankruptcy following the end of their football career. Hunter took a different path and retired to follow his interest in music and singing. His wife shares his love of singing.

Is his advice to underachieve difficult to hear, especially from someone who at one time made a multi-million dollar annual salary and who has a Super Bowl ring? My opinion is that he seems genuinely interested in using his platform to share the lessons he has learned. What are your thoughts on the other suggestions?

My next post will be about how earning more money does not usually make us happier. Instead, working more takes time away from activities that would probably give us more happiness.

Photo credit: Indianolis Colts

Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, family interference and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.

Happiness Comes Before Success in Life, Not After

Happy Life; Happy Marriage

I have been bombarded in the last weeks with information leading to the same conclusion; that is, if we want to be successful (in things like work, parenting and yes, even marriage), we have to figure out how to be more happy and positive first. This is because increased happiness is correlated with more success, not the other way around. Most cultural messages switch that around to say if you are successful, then you can find happiness, but for reasons I will try to explain, our brains just don’t work that way.

Maybe you know people who are both happy and successful, and it never dawned on you that they were happy first, which helped them achieve success. But studies show that happiness fosters achievement and success. On the flip side, striving for success doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find happiness. In fact, there are good reasons your brain can’t make that leap.

Shawn Anchor, a Harvard psychologist who was recently profiled in this Inc. article called Happiness Makes Your Brain Work Better, explains his theory very well (and in an entertaining fashion) in this TEDx Talk, The Happy Secret to Better Work. If you’re at all interested in success or happiness, I’d recommend watching it. Today, I’ll address how this theory relates not only to work, but to our personal lives and relationships as well.

Here’s the fallacy with us using success as a means to become happy:  Every time we set a goal then achieve it, we change our benchmark for success rather than becoming happy with our success. Since your brain changes your view of success, you can’t reach the happiness that comes on the other side. That’s why you often see people who seem successful from the outside who are anything but happy, even if they achieved the lofty goals they set.

How can we boost our happiness, especially if our life isn’t ideal right now? Happiness is much more under our control than you may think. Only 10 percent of our long-term happiness is predicted by our circumstances, say experts, while 90 percent of our long-term happiness is predicted by the way your brain processes the world. By adjusting the lens through which you view the world, you can not only increase your happiness, you can also improve your outcomes. This theory applies to whatever outcomes you want to improve in your life or goals you want to reach.

If you’re following the logic, you probably want to know… how (and why) can we improve the way our brain processes the world, thereby increasing our happiness? The answer is that we can actively increase the positivity in our lives and alter our brain functioning. Our brain performs significantly better when it is focused on positive things than at neutral or negative stress levels, says Anchor. Our levels of intelligence, creativity and energy rise, and we become more productive. This allows us to reach our goals and be more successful. The positivity in our brains also causes the release of the feel-good chemical, dopamine. All of these things can lead to more happiness and success.

Do you believe some people have a happier, more positive bent than others, that maybe you’re born with a certain disposition and can’t change your genetic inclination? Anchor is quoted in Inc. as saying, “Happiness comes easier to some people, but happiness is a possibility for all if we change our behavior and our mindset.”

4 Ways to Boost Positivity

Anchor says we can train our brains to be more positive in just two minutes a day. Select one of the following actions to do for 21 days in a row, and you can help rewire your brain and retain more positivity:

  1. Write down three things you are grateful for, and select new ones each day.
  2. Write in your journal about one positive experience you have had in the last 24 hours.
  3. Exercise—This can help alter your behavior.
  4. Meditate—This allows you to focus on just one task at a time.
  5. Perform a Random Act of Kindness, such as emailing one person to praise him or her, or writing a kind note to someone.

Boosting Marital and Family Happiness

My thought is if your goal is to increase positivity into your relationships, try focusing 1,2, and 5 on your mate. For instance, write down three things about your partner for which you are grateful. We know through the research that focusing on gratitude increases marital satisfaction.

In this excerpt from this week’s Washington Post, Christine Carter, a sociologist with the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, comes to the same exact conclusion as Archer does. She says “studies are finding that achievement does not necessarily lead to happiness, but that happiness is what fosters achievement. She points to an analysis of 225 studies on achievement, success and happiness by three psychologists that found that happy people — those who are … comfortable in their own skin — are more likely to have ‘fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health, and a long life.’”

Hopefully you caught that part about how happier people have more fulfilling marriages and relationships. It’s also key to those of us who are parents in how we raise the next generation and how we conduct our lives as parents.

“We tell our kids to work hard now so that success, then later happiness, can follow,” Carter explains. ‘The underlying American assumption is, if our kids get into a great college, they’ll get a great job, then they’ll be happy,” Carter said. “Our cortex of fear is around achievement. So, in order for our kids to get into a great college, get a great job and be happy, we get them piano lessons, after-school Mandarin class, we think more, more, more, more, more is better. And it blossoms into such pressure that by the time the kids get to college, about a quarter are on some kind of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. Our hovering and insecurity as parents breeds insecurity in our kids by teaching them that they can’t handle discomfort or challenge.”

“What we need to be parenting for,” Carter said, “is not achievement first, then happiness — but happiness first.” To do that, she advises parents, when they can, to lose the self-sacrifice and take care of themselves; expect effort and enjoyment, not perfection; savor the present moment; and do simple things together such as have a family dinner. “When our children are happy, when their brains are filled with positive emotions like engagement, confidence and gratitude, we know from science that they are more likely to be successful and fulfill their potential,” Carter said.

That’s really a lot of words to explain what we said at the beginning—if you want to be successful in your marriage, in your parenting or in your work, figure out how to increase your happiness first, don’t look for those things/people to give you happiness. What we focus on, we become.

Lori Lowe is a marriage blogger at MarriageGems.com. Her book First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage is now available on Amazon.com and in all e-book formats at www.LoriDLowe.com.  Lori and her husband of 16 years live in Indianapolis with their two children.

Photo by Photostock courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

Celebrate Each Day With Your Loved Ones

I want to wish a Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate. As we reach the holiday season again, I’m reminded that I haven’t lived up to my aim to celebrate each day of 2011 in my own way. Many days, I was caught up with the to-do list and didn’t have my heart leaning into celebration. I’m re-reading those tips and trying to take them more to heart. I hope you will, too.

My friend Debi Walter recently wrote about the famous Jim Croce song, Time in a Bottle here at The Romantic Vineyard. The lyrics that struck me were: “But there never seems to be enough time to do the things we want to do once you find them. I’ve looked around enough to know that you’re the one I want to go through time with.” Listen to the song, and let it remind you that we can’t save time in a bottle and spend them again with those we love. We just get the one shot, and before we know it, another year has passed. 

When I was young, my mother and I used to watch the soap opera, Days of our Lives, which always began, “Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” Thankfully, I gave up soaps long ago! But I think of those words as I look at the hourglass in my son’s room. Please share your ideas for making each day really count, both as we finish up 2011 and as we make plans for 2012. Blessings to you.

Online florists offer flower delivery to help people show loved ones they care.

There’s More to Life and Marriage Than Happiness

Happy Life:  Happy Marriage Series

Despite the headline, I’m not suggesting that people live unhappy lives or in unhappy marriages. However, I do think people misunderstand what true happiness is and what it involves.

Is happiness overrated? Happiness is too often confused with feeling good, says Martin Seligman, author of Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Rather than just feeling good, he says leading a good, happy life entails more than creating positive emotions. We need five critical elements to flourish in life: positive emotions, engagement (i.e., feeling lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

To flourish, we can’t just feel good in our own heads, we must have something good to show for it. This is a theme I have returned to occasionally (such as in this post on the difference between pleasure, happiness and joy), because I think our modern culture encourages us to seek immediate pleasure without regard for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us. Sacrifice and service to others are valued far less than freedom, independence, and display of material wealth.

If we reflect back on an older person’s life, we often admire the times of hard work, sacrifice, integrity, productivity and innovation. We connect how they contributed to others with a life well lived. I wonder if enough of us measure our own lives in the same manner, asking how fruitful and helpful we are rather than merely how happy we are in a particular moment. The same goes for how we raise the next generation. Are we focused on helping our children achieving great academic and athletic prowess and collecting impressive achievements that they can use for the next stage of life, or are we also guiding them on how they can build healthy relationships, engage with others, find meaning in their work, and contribute to a better world?

Whom do you admire? How do you define a life well lived? What role models do you have for achieving a happy life and/or a happy marriage?

When you ask yourself how happy you are in your marriage right now, are you also factoring in what you are contributing to the marriage, how fruitful you are being in the marriage, how engaged you are with your spouse on a daily basis, etc.? Or, are you asking yourself what you are “getting” from the marriage right now? Imagine yourself and your spouse in your “golden years” looking back at your current life. What are the things you would be glad you accomplished or invested time in? What are the passions you would be happy to know you participated in together? Who are the people you will be glad you helped? What are the regrets you might have if you don’t change course? Are you spending too much time or not enough time in an area of your life?

Living a happy, fulfilling life is a worthwhile aim as long as we understand what we’re working toward. What are you working toward in your life in your quest for happiness?

Related posts:
Why does our experience with pleasure fade?
An eye-opening post by Jane Devin explaining why unhappiness is not a disease and the tyranny of positive thinking.

SURVEY PARTICIPANTS NEEDED

If you, your spouse, or someone you know is unemployed and married, you can assist a researcher who is preparing his dissertation research on the impact of unemployment on marital relationships in the current economy.  Go to this survey page, and share the link with others who may be willing to help  Andrew Bland in his work. The survey is anonymous. As you know, I’m a fan of research that can help us in our relationships. And in order to get that useful research, the researchers need participants willing to provide their experiences. Thanks in advance.

Photo ©Lori Lowe

Is seeking success keeping you from a happy life and marriage?

Happy Life: Happy  Marriage Series

“If you equate happiness with success, you will never achieve the amount of success necessary to make you happy.” –Dennis Prager

The above quote from Happiness is a Serious Problem stood out to me as a major challenge in today’s society. Many of us are focused on achieving an ideal lifestyle to make us happy. In other words, living in a certain home that is well decorated, having an attractive spouse and children, working in a challenging and well-paying career—these things become prerequisites to happiness, not additional blessings to enjoy.

Prager says this is one of the most common obstacles to achieving happiness in our lives. I would add that it is also an obstacle to achieving happiness in our marriages, because our relationship happiness is so heavily influenced by happiness (or unhappiness) in other areas of our life.

Are there goals (either subconscious or conscious) you are seeking—specific areas of success that you can write down? Jot them down and imagine how your life would change if you achieved these items. Most of us will realize that 1) our life wouldn’t change that significantly if we achieved them and 2) we would then become focused on new goals that would then be required to make us happy.

“Identifying success with happiness is like moving the goalposts back 10 yards every time your football team has a first down—your team may be more and more successful, but the goalposts will always remain unreachable,” says Prager. The solution is to decide today that you are successful. This doesn’t mean you must stop seeking new goals and challenging yourself, but rather that the additional success isn’t required for your happiness.

There are plenty of people who are not successful by the world’s standards who are very happy, and the converse is also true. (“Unhappy poor people at least have the fantasy that money will make them happy, unhappy rich people don’t even have that,” says Prager.) So we should realize that seeking a worldly view of success doesn’t guarantee any increase in our happiness. Success on its own is not bad. For instance, achieving career goals and providing financially for your family can be quite positive and rewarding, but negative when ever-increasing amounts of money, recognition, fame, or ego-boosting are necessary to feel fulfilled. The pursuit of financial success is not necessarily destructive to happiness; it is destructive when engaged in for its own sake and not for reasons that increase happiness, explains Prager.

Prager suggests we ask ourselves “why” we want to be successful. For some, their parents loved them when they were successful academically or with certain career choices. Others may have a fear of financial failure. Many individuals are driven by demons that no amount of success can assuage, says Prager.

On the flipside, when our work is joyful and meaningful, success at work can certainly bring about increased happiness. This is why unpaid volunteers can derive more joy from their work than the highest paid professionals. What would you do if money weren’t a driving force in your life? If success gives you peace of mind, helps you give of your time and money to worthwhile causes, then it is likely building happiness.

For example, I derive satisfaction and enjoyment from researching and writing about marriage, an endeavor I have been working on for three years without compensation. I have another job that supports me financially. On balance, I feel my career is rewarding and adds to my happiness. I believe investing in my personal relationships adds even more to my happiness.

Where else do you seek success?
Since you have read this far, you are likely focused on marriage improvement and self-improvement as well. These are areas in which success can be equated with increased happiness: success in love, in relationships, in child rearing, in gaining wisdom, in doing good, in spiritual growth, and in learning about oneself. Seeking worldly success can be more likely to bring unhappiness than happiness, as it detracts us from the areas that will ultimately bring us happiness.

What success are you seeking in your life, and in your marriage relationship?

Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.com/Stormcab

How Important is Love to Happiness?

Four in five adults of all ages rate love as important to their happiness. And it turns out those in loving relationships do enjoy greater wellbeing than those who are single. (This despite our culture glorifying the endless positives of remaining unattached.) Fewer than 25 percent of unmarried adults say they are “very happy” but 40 percent of married adults say they are.

David Myers, PhD, in The Pursuit of Happiness, cites the above research and says even more important than being married is the marriage’s quality.  While women suffer more emotional disturbances in a stressed marriage than do their husbands, wives also report slightly greater happiness across all marriages. Researchers suspect this is because women find more joy in positive, close relationships than men do.

Further, most married people say their marriages are happy. Myers says three out of four in the U.S. say their spouse is their best friend. (This seems high to me, but I’d agree with it in my marriage.) And this relationship happiness carries over into their overall life happiness.

Why are married people happier? Marriage is likely to provide an enduring supportive relationship, and married people are less likely to suffer loneliness. Those who parent together may experience additional stresses, yet also receive additional rewards from their roles as parents.

While I completely agree that my marriage has made me a happier person, I also strongly believe that we as individuals control most of our happiness. When we are happy on our own, that happiness tends to bleed into our relationship. We’re more interesting to be with, more supportive and more engaging when we have a life we enjoy.

A National Opinion Research Center study found that nearly six in ten Americans who rate their marriage as very happy also rate their life as very happy.  And among those NOT in a happy marriage, only one in ten say their overall life is very happy. A bad marriage is worse than no marriage, and loneliness within marriage can be the loneliest feeling of all.

 When we are unhappy as individuals, we tend to project on our partners that they aren’t supportive enough or don’t understand our needs. But the truth may be that we are in a life transition, or have lost a loved one, or in one way or another are struggling with our life or identity. Our marriage or spouse shouldn’t have the burden of “making us happy”. Instead, we can enrich and enjoy our lives more fully because of the close, intimate relationship we share.

If you think you are unhappy in your relationship, consider that you may need to make improvements in your own individual life to improve happiness. For example, a person who feels overworked and underappreciated in their job may bring those feelings into their home and feel taken advantage of across the board.

Myers says to avoid two mistakes in thinking if you aim to have a happy marriage. First, even if you’re newlyweds, don’t take a successful marriage for granted. “Unless nurtured carefully, the relationship you counted on for love and happiness may leave you crushed, lonely, feeling like a failure, or trudging hopelessly along, resigned to your despair.” (Ouch.) Conversely, don’t be overly pessimistic saying marriages seldom last, so why should I commit, invest and work on my marriage? A positive attitude channeled by a wariness of real dangers offers the best chance at a happy relationship, he concludes.

So, is this a chicken and the egg question? “Which comes first personal or marital happiness?” I think they feed on each other, but the personal happiness ideally comes first. What do you think?

Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.com

Traits of Happy (and Happily Married) People

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

Unhappy people are less happy after marriage than happy people who marry. It’s not marriage that makes us happy or unhappy. What inner traits lead to increased happiness?

David Myers, PhD, author of The Pursuit of Happiness, says there are four inner traits (based on dozens of studies) that predispose positive mental attitudes and lead to more happiness and feelings of wellbeing. These traits are self-esteem, sense of personal control, optimism, and extraversion.

  1. Self-Esteem. Prisons are full of individuals who have high self-esteem, as the saying goes, and many of us have focused too much on building self-esteem in children at the expense of helping them build character. However, one’s level of self-esteem is important to wellbeing. Importantly, having low self-esteem is linked with psychological disorders, such as depression. Individuals with low self-esteem may feel unlovable, untalented, or unworthy of a great life. Clearly these feelings will not assist us on our road to happy lives and happy marriages. Having high self-esteem is linked with wellbeing. A University of Michigan study showed “the best predictor of general life satisfaction is not satisfaction with family life, or income, but satisfaction with self.

Too much self-esteem or self-bias can be a problem. Myers says experiments show must of us accept more responsibility for our good deeds than for bad, and for successes more than failures. We credit outside forces to our failures and our own merits for our successes. This is also true for marital successes and failures. “Compared to happily married people, unhappy couples exhibit far greater self-serving bias by blaming the partner when problems arise.” Divorcing people are 10 times more likely to blame the spouse for the breakup than to blame themselves.

We all have insecurities. As spouses, we have great power to either build our partners up or make them feel weak and insecure. Still, most people have a reasonably high opinion of themselves. The healthiest self-esteem is “positive, yet realistic” and includes feeling accepted.

  1. Personal Control. When people feel more in control of their destiny, they tend to be happier and more satisfied with life, and vice versa. Those who feel they influence the direction of their lives tend to achieve more in school, cope better with stress, and live more happily. Increasing people’s control, for example, making decisions about health care, environment or personal decisions, can improve their health and wellbeing, says Myers.  

Within our marriages, it’s important that both spouses understand we influence the relationship quality through how we act and react. It’s when people decide they have no power to make things better that they give up on the marriage. Setting personal and professional goals and using our time effectively helps give us a sense of control and accomplishment.

  1. Optimism. Optimists are healthier and have stronger immune defenses. They are happier, too. If we internalize bad events and display pessimism, we are more prone to illness. Studies have shown that those who are most pessimistic are more prone to colds, sore throats and flu, and that optimists recover more quickly from cancer and heart surgery.

When optimists have setbacks, they try another approach to find success. I would guess that married optimists are more successful, then, if they are using new approaches rather than blaming themselves or their partner. Optimistic people have hope that things will improve. However, with too-high expectations, optimists can be disappointed while pessimists with too-low expectations can be pleasantly surprised. Complicated? Not really.

Pollyannaish optimism goes too far, with people feeling invulnerable and taking too many risks. In addition, we must avoid blaming people for getting sick or having failures “because they weren’t thinking positively enough.” The best combination, says Myers, is to have “ample optimism to provide hope, with a dash of pessimism to prevent complacency, and enough realism to discriminate those things we can control from those we cannot.” (Think: Serenity Prayer)

  1. Extraversion. As an introverted person married to an extrovert, I wanted to learn more about this one. Studies show sociable, outgoing people report greater happiness and satisfaction with life. They are more likely to get married, find good jobs, make close friends, and have more social ties.

I know from reading other research that social ties are a key to wellness as we age. So whether we are married or single, outgoing or introverted, we need improve and increase our ties to others if we want to be happier and healthier. Joining a book club or a church group or socializing with other married people can improve our personal and marital happiness.

You may be wondering if you can control these four internal traits or if you are primarily born the way you are. Researchers find we do tend to have basic dispositions that we carry through our lives. Angry children are more likely to become angry adults, for example. But there are plenty of examples of unhappy, troubled children who grow into successful, conscientious, happy adults.

“We may be products of our past, but we also are architects of our future,” says Myers, who adds that personality is NOT programmed like eye color. We can even use behavior to help change our attitudes if we are proactive and thoughtful. “Don’t worry that you don’t feel like it. Fake it. Pretend self-esteem. Feign optimism. Simulate outgoingness,” he says. It sounds like being phony, but research shows the phoniness subsides and the new behaviors and attitudes become more comfortable and internalized.

When you’re in a sour mood and the phone rings, you often fake a cheerful greeting and talk to your friend. After the call, you actually feel better. Act as if you’re wildly in love with your spouse, and you just might start feeling that way.

Which of these traits do you possess? Do you think they influence your happiness level?

Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.com

Is “No Pain, No Gain” True in Life and Relationships?

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

Many people avoid some of the richest opportunities to have lasting happiness because of fear of pain. For example, many children of divorce don’t want to risk marriage because they have lived through family breakup. Others avoid having children because they fear being bad parents or don’t want to make the necessary sacrifices to their lifestyle. Some may not want to work through a college education, because of the toil and challenge it may require. Even commitment to a church or to friends may seem too demanding. The hookup culture demonstrates that many young people don’t see a reason to devote themselves to a long-term relationship.

Taking risks and working hard can lead to deeper happiness. However, it’s more common to act on the belief that having fun leads to happiness, and avoiding pain will keep us happy.  Unfortunately, some pain or toil may be necessary in the short-term to be able to reap long-term joy.

This is true in life and marriage. For example, couples who avoid all arguments are unlikely to make it over the long haul. If they are willing to work through the smaller problems as they come up—confronting them effectively instead of avoiding them—they are more likely to be happily married in the long term. A desire to avoid confrontations will eventually create unhappiness and resentment. The easy road is often the poorly chosen one.

Even our bodies will not be healthy and happy in the long-term if we opt for an undisciplined, easy lifestyle of eating anything that gives us momentary joy and not sweating it off. Reckless spending can also bring momentary elation and long-term financial failure.

Fear and desire to avoid pain can prevent deep happiness, says Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem.  He says always choosing fun activities, such as TV watching, contributes to little happiness, while working hard at a worthwhile pursuit can bring great satisfaction. To live life to its fullest, we will need to experience some suffering. Of course, every marriage also needs fun and excitement built in, but we need balance.

I’ve often heard that any marriage that isn’t improving is deteriorating, drifting without us even realizing it. Improving takes work and time, but we can be rewarded with more happiness later.

There may even be times when we “don’t feel happy” in our marriage. Research shows if we can work through that turbulent period, we are more likely to be happy down the road than if we divorce. Sometimes seeking to avoid the pain of unhappiness brings even more sorrow. Keep working, and you may be closer to victory than your realize. Many couples I have interviewed said they were certain their marriage would fail after an affair, drug addiction, losing a child and other crises. They were surprised to find a great marriage was still within reach.

Is your aim to live a life with as little pain as possible, or one that helps you fulfill your dreams? What things caused you short-term pain but long-term happiness?

Photo credit: ©Pavel Losevsky/PhotoXpress.com

Focusing on What’s Missing in Life Can Cause You to Miss What’s There

Happy Life, Happy Marriage Series

If you’re looking at a tiled ceiling or floor and one tile is missing, your eye will be drawn to that missing tile, and you’ll continue to focus on that missing tile rather than the rest of the tiles. Dennis Prager calls this the “Missing Tile Syndrome” and says it explains why many of us focus on what is missing in our lives instead of what we have. This tendency causes us much unhappiness. Let me explain.

The problem is that in life, we will always have something missing, and even when we don’t, we may imagine a more perfect and complete life.

Sometimes a lack in ourselves may focus on what others have that we don’t. If we want a flat stomach, we notice people with flat stomachs. If we want perfect hair or radiant skin, we notice others with perfect hair or radiant skin. If we want fancy clothes, we notice others with fancy clothes. If we want to become pregnant, we see pregnant bellies everywhere. But we are creating our own unhappiness by focusing on what others have that we do not.

We frequently impose the missing tile syndrome on others as well, figuring out what trait they have that is missing rather than focusing on the traits they have that are strong. In Happiness is a Serious Problem, Prager shared that when he was seeking a mate, this was exactly what he did. After each date with a different woman, he would identify her missing trait. He’d call his friend and say he figured out the most important trait he was looking for, and it was always the one the recent date lacked—whether intelligence or attractiveness or sense of humor. It took his friend to point out his habit for him to embarrasingly realize what a destructive one it was.

I admit sometimes I focus on the attributes my children do not have (which I think are critical at the moment) rather than on the great characteristics they do have. I do it with my husband at times, and even more frequently with myself. Sometimes I wish I had more talent, other times longer legs, more patience, greater creativity—the list goes on and on.

If we are unhappy with ourselves, it’s extremely difficult to be the perfect mate for our partner. And if we are picking others apart, it’s nearly impossible for them to appear right for us at the same time.

Prager sums it up well: “It is human nature to concentrate on what is missing and deem it the Most Important Trait. Unless we teach ourselves to concentrate on what we do have, we will end up obsessing over missing tiles and allow them to become insurmountable obstacles to happiness.”

Possible Solutions
Now that we know this is a problem and realize its power in our lives, what can we do to minimize its effect? Whether you perceive something is missing in your life or in your marriage, follow these steps:

1)       Clarify what you perceive to be the missing item in your life (or marriage), or what you think may be troubling you.

2)      Decide if this missing item is central to your happiness or whether you can be happy without it. From here, you can either “get it, forget it, or replace it.”

3)      If the item is within your power to obtain, and it is central to your happiness, focus on how you might “get it.” Examples might include wanting a high school or college diploma, finding a mate, having another child, spending more time with your spouse, or moving to another state.

4)      If the item is not within your power, do your best to “forget it” or at least to try not to think about it as much. Examples might include lamenting a past failed relationship or (as in the author’s case) wishing he didn’t have to share custody of his child and see him only half time. There are items in our lives that will always bother us, but we may need to stop focusing so much attention on them and make the best of what we do have. If it bothers you that your husband doesn’t do dishes, but he’s a good husband who helps in other ways and doesn’t like to do dishes, think about forgetting that fault and moving on.

5)      Replace your missing item with something else. It reminds me of the star athletes who are injured and who go on to have successful, inspiring careers in another field. Focusing on the inability to play football would only increase unhappiness, while creating a new dream helps bring fulfillment. Similarly, I’ve known individuals who were unable to have their own children, but who used increased time devoted to nieces and nephews as a way to fill their lives with the joy of children. There can be less important repacements as well. Maybe you always dreamed of having a wife who is a great cook, and yours doesn’t enjoy cooking, but she is a generous wife and mother. Think about the reasons why you chose your wife instead. 

The solutions may not be perfect, but they can bring you closer to a happy life. You may even find the new path brings you in exciting new directions you never expected. Do you recognize the Missing Tile Syndrome in your life?

Photo credit: ©Adrian Hillman/PhotoXpress.com

The Formula for Unhappiness is Revealed: U = I – R

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

The images we have created from our earliest memories regarding how our lives and our marriages should be have incredible bearing on our happiness, or rather our unhappiness.

Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem, says these images are so powerful “that you can almost measure your unhappiness by the difference between your images and your reality.”  U = I – R  (Amount of unhappiness equals images minus reality.)

This is a useful concept whether we are comparing our ideal career with what we currently have, our ideal body with our current body, our ideal spouse with our current spouse, our ideal family with our current family, or our ideal income with our current income.

It’s curious where and when our ideal images were constructed. Many of them may be based on childhood notions, fiction (fairytale love stories in books and movies or TV), or simply dreamed up in our own little noggins.

What is the solution to this problematic formula? Prager suggests “unhappiness can be reduced by either dropping your images and celebrating your reality or keeping your images and changing your reality.” That seems easier said than done, and neither is recommended more than the other. In fact, both may be needed. Certainly, if our reality is a positive one and we realize our expectations and ideal images are not at all realistic, then we ought to try to revise our images. On the other hand, if our reality really bites, then attempts to change that would be the better course. Many times, there may be elements of our reality we’d like to improve, but certain images that we really need to scrap.

Prager offers a poignant example from his own life, sharing that when he was growing up there were no examples of divorce, so when he married, he married for life, believing that he would achieve his image of a loving family with four children around the dinner table. When his own marriage imploded after five years, and he became a divorced father of a three-year-old child, he viewed his life as complete failure. He also failed to achieve his ideal family with four children. In time, he learned to celebrate (not just accept) his new family after remarrying and becoming a step-father to another child, and later having a third child. He was able to do this only by removing the images that he had previously held onto as mandatory for happiness.

Many of us seem to rotate our ideal images. One day we think being a successful career mom is ideal, and the next we think staying home with the children would be perfect. One day we want to be at the top of the corporate ladder, and the next we want to be successful entrepreneurs. Media and cultural influences have also shaped what we think our own bodies should look like, and what our partner should look like. Sometimes we are motivated by these images to make healthy choices toward proper diet and exercise, and sometimes we are driven to self-loathing or to point out our partner’s minor flaws.

Images are not necessarily harmful. Although I was a child of divorce, I created images for an intact, healthy family life that helped me find a mate and build my own family. Others may be inspired by positive role models in movies, books or in real life.

I think it’s helpful to ask, “Do your images help you achieve happiness, or do they ensure your unhappiness?” The answer to that question will reveal whether your images are helping or hurting you. Are they driving you to a better life, or are they making it impossible for you to be satisfied?

We may not even realize the expectations we have are incongruent. For example, I confess I don’t watch the Bachelor, but I read an article in which the current bachelor was being criticized for saying he was looking for an independent career-oriented woman, but then selecting only women who would relocate to his city and be a traditional wife. Are there men who want a wife at home cooking and cleaning, but also want her to be a working professional and bring in a good income? Sure. Are there women who want a strong, take-charge, high-level businessman, but then become upset when he’s not available to travel frequently and spend as much time at home? When our mate isn’t living up to one or more of our ideal images, we tend to think maybe they aren’t right for us after all. (Read We all married the wrong person.)

Sometimes it’s our images and expectations that may be far enough from our reality that we are preventing our happiness. Maybe our job isn’t what we would love right now, but it’s allowing us to have the kind of family life we want. Or maybe our house isn’t always spotless, but with two working parents, we realize we have to live with an occasional mess. Or maybe we realize our spouse is imperfect, just as we are. Instead of looking for the perfect marriage, maybe we should try to create some perfect moments, some perfect experiences, and some perfect memories. If we can appreciate our spouses for who they are and not who we fantasize them to be, we have a better chance of making those perfect memories.

Are there images that you’ve been holding onto that have either helped you in life or kept you from being as happy as you could be?

Photo Credit: ©Tina A./PhotoXpress.com