We may think that our experience of happiness is objective, but it’s not. We all carry an unconscious frame of reference in our heads that filters how we feel about our lives.
Everything – our relationships, our beliefs about our own success, our friends, family, and wealth, are perceived through this filter.
Since we’re always comparing ourselves to the people around us, we need to discover our frame of reference if we ever want to understand our life.
I once had a secretary, I’ll call her Sally, who lamented that her life was grossly unfair. She went to lots of parties at the yacht club she and her husband Charlie were members of.
“I can’t lose weight,” Sally complained. “I take less food from the buffet than anyone I know, and I’m still fat. My friends pile food on their plates and they’re all thin. It’s disgusting.”
“Who are you comparing yourself to?” I asked.
“My friend Steve ate 5 times more than I ate last weekend and he won’t gain an ounce.”
“How tall is Steve?”
Sally thought. “Maybe 6 foot 3.”
Sally is 4 foot 10.
I used to compare my divorced state with the married couples I saw around me.
One client, I’ll call him Jeff, was a good-looking, educated, professional who lived in a luxurious house in an affluent section of Long Island. He complained that his wife was cold and rejecting, while all he wanted was to be close to her.
I enjoyed my conversations with Jeff and felt deprived. Would I ever meet someone as attractive, in every way, as Jeff was? I suggested he bring his wife in for a marital session. I had to take a look at this lucky woman.
When Jeff arrived with his wife, Lisa, I saw that she was as unhappy as she was beautiful, which was very.
Lisa described how Jeff threatened her, belittled her, deprived her of financial resources, and devalued every contribution she made to the family.
I was incredulous. I turned to the soft-spoken, kind-hearted, witty Jeff for his response.
Jeff’s face turned the color of a boiled lobster. A vein in his temple throbbed. And then a vicious string of obscenities poured from his mouth.
As Lisa dissolved into tears, Jeff sneered at her in contempt. “She’s pathetic. See what I have to put up with?” Then he stormed out of my office.
That was the last time I envied someone their luxurious life and happy marriage. I’ve learned many times that we don’t have a clue about the internal lives of other people.
But I still experience life through filters.
When my sons were young, we took summer vacations at Lake George, in upstate New York. We loved the mountains, the boating, and the amusement parks. I felt fortunate to share these trips with my two healthy, wonderful boys. Yet sometimes, when I looked around at the “perfect” families everywhere – husband, wife, and children, I felt, as a single parent, that I was missing something.
I’d failed somehow. What was wrong with me?
Then I went on a trip to the Berkshire Mountains for a weekend at a lake. The resort was filled with single fathers and single mothers, all with their children. Just like me and my children.
This time, I saw what a success my life was. There was nothing wrong with me.
It’s all how you look at it. And how you look at it, is in a constant state of flux.