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/

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

  1. Pingback: 10 Hindrances To Cultivating A Romantic Vineyard | The Romantic Vineyard

  2. Thank you for the great post.

    Some say that it is a core attribute of the ego to focus on what’s missing, on problems to solve, on “this isn’t it”. In a way this even makes sense. There is a huge upside to proactively identifying dangers, having a motivation to improve oneself, fixing problems before they become harder to fix. From a pure survival standpoint well-being and contentment can actually be hurtful.

    What really has helped me in the past was to keep a gratitude journal, to coax myself into the habit of acknowledging positive things, to give positive feedback, to be “here” right “now”.

    As Eckhart Tolle says, you rarely have a problem “right now”, most of our problems lie sometime in the future. By coming more into contact with the present moment and letting go of expectations and worries, we can live so much happier.


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  4. Great post! Thank you! This missing tile principle can be applied in so many areas! I think this is a driving force in failing marriages, when spouses only focus on what they are missing from their spouse and not what they are getting or what they are also not contributing.
    This is the driving force in workaholic husbands (or wives too) who are always seeking to fill the missing tile with one more achievement, one more project, one more success. Always thinking that if the just work a bit harder, a bit longer they will fill the missing piece.

    The solution is exactly like you said, learning to be thankful, it is a difficult task to tear your eyes away from the hole, and to the beautiful tile, but that is exactly what God calls us to do! In my experience if we make the effort in a short time we will find that we hardly notice the missing tile anymore.

    Of course there are exceptions to this, and it is important that everyone prayerfully consider shifting their focus off the negative. At times the missing tile is so large that the whole floor is going to fall in!

    Again thank you so much for your insight!
    God Bless,
    Brad & Kate -Onefleshmarriage

    • Thanks, Brad, for sharing your feedback. I agree it is a tremendous problem in many marriages. It’s not easy to effect a change, but it can certainly be done, and we can create better mind habits. Best to you,

  5. Pingback: Are you or your spouse being taken for granted? Check out these obstacles and keys to gratitude. | Marriage Gems

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