Friday, August 31, 2007

Happiness is a Serious Problem

I owe radio host and author, Dennis Prager, the credit for the title and the following equation: U=I-R (unhappiness = image minus reality).

Here's what it means. There are a lot of unhappy people in the world. And, oddly enough, money seems to have no bearing on a person's happiness. Many lottery winners are either broke or unhappy or both. I have seen profound unhappiness on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and profound happiness in the rural villages of Zambia. Basically, human nature is the biggest obstacle to happiness. Human nature is insatiable. Something in us longs for more. What we have is never enough. It's part of the human condition that the Bible speaks of. Ecclesiastes says that God has "set eternity in the hearts of men." Restlessness is part of the human spirit. We create idealistic images of what we would like our lives to look like. We create dreams in our minds where disease, death, and poverty do not exist. But rarely do the images/dreams match reality. Unhappiness is how we deal with the distance between our images and reality.

So, let's start simple. A young woman may have an image in her mind of the perfect husband with the perfect job with perfect kids - you know, the white picket fence kinda life. Then she marries, and after a few years she finds out that her husband is basically a jerk, her kids are brats, and they still live in some cheap apartment because of credit problems. Her unhappiness is the distance between the image in her mind, and the reality of her life. You can apply this equation to every aspect of life. A parent may have an image of their son as a doctor, but the son turns out to be a car salesman. The gap manifests itself in the parent's unhappiness. Or, you may have an image of yourself as a college professor, but your undergraduate GPA is a 3.0, so Ph.D programs turn you down. The gap becomes your source of unhappiness. Take people's unhappiness with God and religion - the same principle applies. One's image of what God is or what the church ought to be doesn't match reality, and people find themselves angry at God or angry at the church. Let's say you have an image in your mind of the ideal, loving relationship, but the reality is less than the image. The gap is unhappiness in your life. The images we create in our minds of what relationships ought to be hardly ever match reality. I have observed this to be the greatest source of unhappiness for people. NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE gets married expecting a divorce.

I could go on and on and on, but I want my readers to share. So let me be autobiographical. As a child I created an image in my mind of living in America as an American. But I was born in South Africa. The gap was highlighted by me putting up American flags everywhere and using American spelling. The day I became a U.S. citizen, the gap closed. Now I'm happy with my identity. When I was 18 I had an image that I would be a professional cyclist - then I moved to Texas, went to preaching school, was introduced to fried chicken and cheesecake, and all of a sudden, there was a huge gap between my image and the reality of my life. That's why I cried when I watched the opening of the 1996 Olympic Games. That image no longer exists in my mind, so I'm not unhappy being out of shape - yeah, yeah, I know I could lose some weight! Speaking of appearances - you see a magazine ad, or you watch Pretty Woman, and you create an image in your mind of looking like Julia Roberts. A lot of girls suffer eating disorders and depression because the gap between the image and the reality is a source of great unhappiness. This principle applies across the board - relationships, looks, health, career, home, finances, religion - you name it, this principle applies. Unhappiness = the gap between Image and Reality.

So, how do you become happy? It seems like there are 2 options. You could create a new, lesser image, or you could work hard to make reality closer to the image in your mind. Either way, for most people, happiness is a serious problem! Your thoughts?


David Skelton said...

This is in no way a theological or serious comment but I cannot resist myself.

Mind the Gap. Please Mind the Gap!

jennifer said...

We always want more or we always want what we can't have. A girl with straight hair wants curly hair and the girl with curly hair wants straight hair. Thank goodness for straighteners!!

We have to learn to be content with what we have and if we aren't content then we need to examine what the problem is and work toward fixing it. We also need to remember that it's not other people that make us happy. I am happy with my life, myself. It's not because any one person made me that way. I choose to be happy. I could easily sit at home every day crying because of all that has happened to me in the past year. But what good will that do? It will only give me a migraine!! I go on and make the best of what I've got. In the end I am the only one to look after me. We can play a part in other people's happiness but we are not responsible for other people's happiness. I wish for my son and daughter to grow up happy. I can instill thoughts, beliefs, values, morals. I can try my hardest to make them happy but in the end it is their decision to be happy or not.

At one point I lived a life of depression. It wasn't fun and no one wanted to be around me. But one day I realized that it was much more fun to be who I really wanted to be. I found that if I smiled more and held my head high people noticed me more. I found that if I was nice to someone I felt better about myself. My point is, I wanted to be a better person and feel better about myself but I wasn't doing anything about it. I was expecting magic to happen. But the magic didn't happen until I decided I wasn't going to live like this. I pulled myself out of my rut. My gap between my image and reality closed. Besides, it does take less energy to be happy than it does to be sad.

Charles North said...

It sure does take less energy to be happy. Being unhappy for a long time is very hard work! For a lot of people moodiness can be a form of control over others. Moodiness is like bad breath or strong body odor - you gotta cover it up before being around other people!

Bill Jordan said...

Most of us won't get any happier if we lower our image expectations. But we would all get closer to finding some real joy in our lives if we did a better job of dealing with reality.

Charles isn't the only one who has made the gap wider in one aspect of "life" by allowing fried chicken and cheese cakes to get a firm grip on our mid-sections.

I was out last night trying to buy a couple of pairs of new slacks. In my mind I should fit in a pair of all those really nice looking pants they have on the displays, but that's not the case. Before it was over I was being pointed toward the "big and tall" section. And I was not too happy about it I must say.

Now the truth is I enjoyed every bite of cheese cake, etc. along the way. But now it is time to weigh that "joy" against the reality of what it has done to my ever expanding pants size.

I don't see any point in thinking that lowering my image will improve much. But if I cut back on the sweets, get more exercise and deal with what really needs to happen I expect I'll be much happier with the results when I go back to the department store the the next time.

I knows that's not the best example of what we're all trying to say, but it is on my mind's list of current events, so I can relate to it better.

I guess it may point to how shallow I really am, but I hope nobody will think the only thing I've got going on in my life is pants shopping.

David Skelton said...

Oh just an fyi. You have to have ridden "The Tube" in London to get my "mind the gap" joke. I couldn't remember if you did or not but as one of my professors at Harding used to say about his esoteric jokes. Sometimes I just do things for me

Dr Bill said...

In my 20 years as a private practice therapist, the closest thing I can come to developing a formula for happiness is this: Know what you want, make sure it's healthy to want it, and use your personal power to go about getting it.

The problem is that unhappy people come to me talking about what they don't want. Others know what they want, have a pattern of doing exactly what they want, but don't know how to make sure it's in their best interests to want it. They only vary from doing what they want when they absolutely have to. Another type of client comes in with a history of being discouraged from using their personal power to pursue what they want. Anger or guilt are the common weapons used against them.

In talking about happiness, people often get the pursuit of pleasure mixed up with happiness. Seligman, the guy who became famous researching depression, has also researched happiness. A primary finding: developing virtues contributes greatly to happiness. Go to Amazon and search for happiness to find his book.

By the way, I know about your blog from Brian & Kristi. I was surprised this morning to see it pop up on a national headline feature on my laptop. This is an important subject and my first entry on a blog.

Brian England said...

I like the formula. Unhappiness = image minus reality. Lets put a theological spin on it.

Unhappiness = God's image minus reality.

Since God created humans in his image, and his image is one of community and relationship (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), then the further we drift from God's intention for us to reflect his image, the further we are from being truly happy.

In other words, God understands what it means to truly Live because no one understands our nature better than him. Our understanding of what the "good life" is is clouded by our desire to be independent and self-sufficient. That is the irony--we think happiness lies in the things that will make us able to live life self-sufficiently (wealth, power, knowledge, recreation, etc.). Yet, from the beginning God created us to be creatures of relationship (relationships with Him AND with his creation).

Like Adam, we have never really trusted God's design. Afterall, why should our happiness depend on anyone other than ourselves and our own abilities? As people who fall into line with all the great Western thinkers who believe we are "islands to ourselves," we have always believed happiness is something that can be achieved internally. What would happen if we really trusted God's design? What if happiness can only be found in relationship--relationship with God and each other? It seems to me, if true, we have been looking in the wrong place and are rebelling against the nature of our being.

A theologian once said humans do not understand what it means to be "fully human." We go about our lives denying the fact we are the "imago dei" (the image of God). Of all the great things Jesus taught us, I believe the greatest was he showed us what it means to be "fully human." He showed us how to live Life (with a capital "L"). The Life he showed us, is the authentic Life that God had intended from creation. For me, the question is, does my trust in God reflect that of Adam, or does it reflect that of Jesus? Its pretty easy to answer because I believe I run my own life pretty well. Tell me again, why do I need someone else, like God, to make me happy?

Brian England said...

Oh, welcome to the board Bill. For everyone else, Bill is Kristi's dad. I guess I'm going to have to clean up my act a little bit now that he is lurking around.

Charles North said...

Yeah - no more butt slapping or even talk of butt slapping now!

Charles North said...

David - I did get the reference. I've ridden the tube in London many times. It was funny!

Bill Jordan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Jordan said...

Since we've got a therapist that's joined the discussion I'll venture out on a limb ...

I've seen people who get so absorbed in the image part of the equation that they begin to believe the image is "truth" or soon will be "truth" and totally forget about "reality." Are they happy? Or is it that they're just nuts like the rest of us and that's their way of dealing with it?

... and by the way, this is Charles' blog, so send him the bill.