Every one of us has a picture in our head of what we’d like our life to look like. While it may be different for every person, each of us possesses some kind of a mental image of our ideal life. For most people this picture is a collage of ideas about personal fulfillment, financial prosperity, relational harmony, physical vitality, and vocational success.
Just take a look at the typical television commercial for popular investment firms. They often portray the picture most Americans entertain in their head. You know the ones with air-brushed images of distinguished looking couples sniffing expensive wines at some picturesque vineyard, leisurely gardening in the backyard of their lovely beach house, or soaking naked in white clawfoot bathtubs of hot water overlooking the coast. (Oh wait, wrong commercial on the tubs.) Well, anyways, have you ever wondered where they come up with that stuff?
Their ad agency gets it from sitting down with prospective investors and asking them what the picture of the perfect life looks like inside their head. This mental picture has an incredible influence on our sense of happiness. We track against it almost all of the time. It becomes our template for contentment.
If we are enjoying a life that is similar to the picture in our head, we are happy. If an experience is better than the picture, we are elated! We use phrases like, “better than I imagined” or “beyond my wildest dreams.” Both statements reveal that we had an idea in mind for how we thought that event should have gone.
In other words, we had expectations!
However, if our experience is far from what we imagined, we are disappointed. That disappointment often ends up looking like complaining, grouchy, critical, impatient, and depressed. The list goes on and on, and it’s not pretty. You know people like this. You might have even worn their shoes to work today.
Unhappy people are generally those who live in the disappointment of how life didn't turn out quite like they imagined.
You see this a lot with family vacations. For months we anticipate getting away to some exotic destination. We’ve planned for it extensively and paid for it dearly. Our excitement is palpable as the day of our departure draws near.
“We can’t wait to get there!”
“It’s going to be so wonderful.”
“We’ve wanted to do this for years.”
“We are going to have such a great time.”
Upon our arrival, we immediately begin evaluating if, in fact, the experience is anything like we imagined it. If it is, we are beside ourselves with satisfaction. If it exceeds our expectations, we gloat to our friends that we had a wonderful vacation. However, if it fails to meet our expectations, we come home disappointed, determined to never go back there ever again. Depending on how it turns out determines what we post about our vacation on Facebook. It’s either the humble brag or the caustic critique.
I’m pretty sure those vacationers who spent a few extra days adrift on the Carnival Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico last year didn’t have that picture in mind when they departed Galveston. Their experience was neither a carnival nor a triumph. In other words, it didn’t go quite like they imagined.
Would you be surprised if I told you I see this same pattern in many people’s experience of marriage? Careers? Lifestyles? Relationships? Finances?
We look forward to something for years only to be disappointed if it doesn’t turn out like we imagined. If we are not careful, this disappointment can become a fog of negativity hanging over everything from that point forward.
I recently came across the following equation. I thought it was pretty wise.
“Happiness = Reality minus Expectations.”
Our expectations for how we think our lives should go often determines the amount of fulfillment we are experiencing at any given moment. This can ruin an otherwise wonderful life.
Want to know what your expectations are? Just take a look at the picture of happiness inside of your head.
• The picture of how you think your partner should treat you.
• The picture of the house you want to own.
• The picture of the car you want to drive.
• The picture of how you think your children should behave.
• The picture of how you think your friends should include you.
• The picture of how much money you wish was in your bank accounts.
• The picture of how you think your day should go.
• The picture of how you think your boss should reward you.
• The picture of what you think your body should look like.
• That picture of what you think your spouse’s body should look like.
Our picture of the ideal life has an enormous influence on our happiness.
We see this with children all the time. When something doesn’t go quite like they want, it can get pretty ugly with the whining, crying and tantrums. While such behavior is understandable when they’re four, it’s a bit of a problem when they’re forty!
For some people, their picture of what life should look like is very idealistic. Why is that these people’s mental picture always looks like some bad hip-hop video? Inside their head it’s raining dollar bills while they’re rolling in their Bentley. It’s the naive stuff of fantasy and impossibility. There is no way in the world life could ever be as perfect as some people imagine it.
These people are often easily disappointed.
For others, their picture of life is very realistic. Their expectations for themselves and others are reasonable. Even with big dreams and challenging goals, they’re able to create a life similar to the one they imagine with a little bit of old fashioned diligence and discipline.
People who live with realistic expectations for their life are generally very amiable. They’re enjoyable to be around. They don’t drive such a hard bargain for themselves that the intensity of their expectations leave contrails of stress in their wake. What they leave behind are gifts like positivity, smiles, hugs, hope and encouragement.
So let me ask you, “What’s your picture of the ideal life?”
If you have some time right now while you’re reading this, make a list of some of the images that are part of your picture of happiness. Be honest with yourself. Nobody is going to see your work. When you’re finished, refill your coffee cup and come back to read the rest of the article.
(Take your time. I’ll wait.)
(Don’t mind me. I’ll just wait right over here.)
Some Serious Thinking About Being Happy
Okay, are you ready to do some serious thinking about being happy? Are you willing to take an honest look at yourself and figure out why you might not be quite as happy with your life as you’d like to be?
Hang on. Make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened, your tray table is in the upright and locked position, and your luggage is secured in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. The ride could get a bit bumpy as we may encounter some turbulence between the reader and the writer over the next few moments. I am about to challenge a way of thinking many of us have used our entire life.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but you are exactly where you are at this moment in your life because you chose to be here.
Oh sure, there are the explanations and excuses for why your life is the way it is. You could cite some circumstances beyond your control. You can even blame others if you’d like. But the fact of the matter remains that at some point in your life you accepted or allowed whatever happened in your past to determine your future. And that future has now become your present.
And here you stand with the life you chose to have.
• Do you like what you see?
• Is this what you always wanted?
• Had you hoped for a whole lot better?
Let me let you in on a little secret:
The strategy you are currently using for your life
is working perfectly for the results
you are presently getting.
• That conversation you choose to avoid.
• That habit you choose to excuse.
• That lie you choose to believe.
• That credit card you choose to abuse.
• That behavior you choose to permit.
• That abuse you choose to endure.
• That decision you choose to postpone.
• That mistake you choose to defend.
• That advice you choose to ignore.
• That person you choose hate.
• That fear you choose to allow.
• That addiction you choose to feed.
• That dream you choose to neglect.
• That attitude you choose to adopt.
It’s a difficult truth to come to grips with when we are talking about our one and only life. We alone are responsible for the choices we make. Even when faced with what feels like insurmountable odds or oppressive control, we choose how we will respond when life throws us curveballs.
But that’s good news! If we possess the power to choose, it is possible to make a different choice any time we want. It is possible to select a different course of action if we are disappointed with the direction our life is headed.
Zig Ziglar, the great motivational mentor to so many, often said, “You may have made some mistakes and you may not be where you want to be, but that has nothing to do with your future.”
I have come to the conclusion that the entire course of our life is determined by three fundamental activities.
Our thoughts influence our choices and our choices determine our actions. No exceptions. Everything we make of our life is the result of what we think, what we choose, and what we do.
Our choices, then, become the catalysts to every move we make; the triggers we pull that propel us forward. Choices are those places in the story of our life where the plot turns to the right or left; backwards or forwards. Choices determine if we become bitter or better.
Think about the choices you have made up to this point in your life.
• How you chose to apply yourself in school.
• What college you chose to attend.
• What branch of the military you chose to enter.
• What career path you chose to follow.
• Which friends you chose to hang around.
• What habits you chose as patterns in your life.
• Which foods you chose to eat.
• Which person you chose to marry.
• What mortgage you chose to assume.
What you are experiencing right now – personally, physically, relationally, professionally and financially – is the result of choices you have made up to this moment in your life.
As a Life Coach, I am fascinated with human behavior. After years of observation, I have come to the conclusion that human beings are remarkably predictable. We are inclined to do the same things the same way all the time.
The routines of our life are where many of us find comfort, security and peace. As long as everything is going along as it normally does, we are happy. But mess with our routine and we can get really annoyed and aggravated.
I am not bashing routines. Many routines are important to achieving greater efficiency and productivity in our life. However, some routines can become liabilities if we are not careful. It’s possible to develop some habits that hurt us more than they help us.
Unhealthy habits complicate our lives. Until we make the choice to replace them with more healthy patterns, we will always endure the ill effects of our poor habits.
If our behavior is so predictable, then we can change it. All we have to do is figure out the current pattern and choose to do it another way enough times that we develop a different pattern. Preferably, a better one.
If you take the time to carefully watch your routines, you will find that almost every unhealthy behavior in your life is the result of a predictable pattern. As human beings, we generally dislike anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. Consequently, we are very quick to do whatever it takes to make negative feelings go away. Unfortunately, some of the behaviors we resort to in order to get away from those uncomfortable feeling can be immature, irresponsible, and even destructive.
Coping behaviors almost always become compulsive behaviors. Do some things enough times and before you know it, you have an unhealthy habit, possibly even an addiction!
• Drinking alcohol to numb emotional pain.
• Abusing drugs to insulate oneself from fear.
• Savoring nicotine to cope with stress.
• Viewing pornography for sexual pleasure.
• Procrastinating on what needs to be done by trolling social media.
• Eating as a means of comforting yourself when you feel upset.
• Buying what you don’t need or can’t afford to boost your morale.
• Sleeping as a way to escape reality.
• Gambling to shirk financial discipline.
• Listening to country music to deal with disappointment.
Okay, maybe not that part about country music. I made that up.
A few years ago, a couple sat in my office to discuss the mess they had made of their marriage. To say their relationship was on life support is an understatement. Interestingly, as we talked about how they had grown so far apart, they both shared vivid recollections about how wonderful their marriage could be at times. They told me story after story about when their marriage was amazing. Even while they were preparing to file divorce papers, they admitted to stretches of marital harmony. But after a week or two together, their dreamy picture would melt into a nightmare…again.
I recognized that, figuratively speaking, they wanted to live in Hawaii, but they kept taking the bus to Detroit. When it came to their marriage, they wanted to live in paradise but kept taking the wrong route to get there. They were doing all the wrong things to nurture the kind of companionship and intimacy they longed for in their marriage.
When it came right down to it, they only had to do two things to save their marriage. First, they had to figure out what they were doing when their marriage was amazing and do those things consistently. Second, they had to figure out what kept complicating their relationship and stop doing those things.
It’s no different for any of us.
When it comes to the quality of your life, if you want to end up in paradise you will have to take the proper route to get there. And that comes back to choices. The choices we make have a profound influence on the course of our life.
• If the pattern you have adopted for how you talk to your spouse always ends up in arguments, you can choose a better approach.
• If the food you are currently eating always ends up as extra pounds on your rear end, you can choose a healthier diet.
• If the financial habits you have adopted always leave you with more month than money, you can choose a different strategy.
All of us know, some choices carry serious consequences without the luxury of first taking them for a spin. You have to live with the repercussions of those choices for the rest of your life.
While you may not be able to change everything in your life, you can choose to make the best of a difficult situation. Just the attitude you choose in the midst of a trying situation can make all the difference in how you negotiate that experience.
However, more times than not, the only explanation for the state of our life is that we keep making the same choices over and over again. My money back guarantee to you is this: if you quit making the same choices over and over again, things in your life will change. If they are better choices, you will live a better life. If they are healthier choices, you will live a healthier life. If they are wiser choices, you will live a wiser life.
So Whatcha’ Gonna’ Do?
When it comes right down to it, you have two choices. You can either choose to live you own life or you can choose to let other people live it for you. Either way, what becomes of your life will be up to you.
What’s it going to be?
The choice is yours.