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