Monday, January 23, 2012

On the Importance of Comparing to Reality Rather Than Fantasy

I am beginning to think that the secret to happiness is in learning the difference between real options and idealized fantasy, and to only allow yourself to compare your current situation to real options.

Cases in point, none of which were always obvious to me. Item 3, in particular, was hard won, and I still struggle with it from time to time:

(1) Awhile back, I got in an internet discussion with another woman who had worked in tech about whether or not software and related tech careers are a good careers for women. The other woman had had left her tech career because she was so disgusted by the sexism she encountered, and she came across as very bitter and unhappy about that. She accused me of being blind to the sexism in my field. I am most certainly not blind to the sexism in my field. I just don't think that it is either unique to my field or a good reason to leave my field. I could compare the current situation in my field with my idealized view of what a sexism-free career would be like, and that probably would make me miserable. Instead, I compare my career with likely careers in other fields, note that I cannot think of a career I could pursue in which I would not face the effects of sexism in some form, and I'm reasonably happy.

(2) I have, however, been thinking about making changes to my career. I am trying to be realistic about the other options I might pursue. I could allow myself to believe that some other career would be perfect, but that would be fantasy. In reality, all career paths have pluses and minuses. I know that, so even while I'm debating whether or not I'd be happier changing my path, I am not really unhappy now. (The downside of this, by the way, is that I'm not all that motivated to make a change, and my poor husband is getting tired of discussing the subject with me. I will almost certainly write some blog posts about this sometime soon, since blogging is one way I can think things through without forcing my husband to listen to me talk about the same thing over and over.)

(3) I refuse to compare my body to the images of women I see in the mainstream media. I know that those images are an airbrushed idealized fantasy, not a reality. As this old Blue Milk post makes clear, even the women in those pictures cannot live up to that fantasy. Sure, I want to lose weight- but that is because my clothes and my scale tell me that I have gained weight. Rather than being miserable because I cannot live up to those airbrushed pictures, I set myself a realistic goal for my weight and fitness level, and I have a plan to get there. So I'm reasonably happy.

(4) As I have noted before, I'm a happy work outside the home mom. I don't experience much mommy guilt. I do get twinges of guilt sometimes, and other people certainly say things to me that can start the mommy guilt cascade going, but I'm fairly good at short circuiting it. I think this is because I have a very realistic picture in my head of what my life would be like as a stay at home mom, and I prefer the life I have now. If I were comparing my life to some rainbow and fairy dust fantasy of what my life as a stay at home mom would be like, I am sure I would not be so happy, and I suspect that guilt cascade would be far more likely to take hold. Note that I'm not saying that I think stay at home moms have crappy lives. On the contrary, I know some very happy stay at home moms with wonderful lives. But knowing what I know about my personality, my kids' personalities (and low sleep needs!), the cost of living in our city, and the lifestyle we like- in short, knowing what the reality of me staying at home would be- it is better for everyone concerned that I work. And so I am happy to do so.

What do you think? Can you think of other examples of situations where you can make yourself happier by making sure you're comparing your situation to reality and not fantasy? Can you think of counterexamples?


  1. I suppose the downside to what you are advocating is that (at the extreme) it restricts us to thinking about what is available, as opposed to what should be. So that, for example, if all fields are phenomenally sexist we should just pick the least sexist of what's available and go with that rather than, you know, work for change.

    That said, I think there is much wisdom here. As a teenager (many, many years ago) I hung around (because of shared interests) people who had lots of money and many nice things I would have liked to have. Something I noticed was that those people weren't happier or "better off" (in a metaphysical, not financial) sense than was I. Indeed, many appeared to be worse off. And I made up a rule that it was OK to be jealous of someone provided I was jealous of everything they had -- their age, health, money, marriage, family, sense of self, etc. Applying that rule, I have not yet ever found someone I am jealous of, not once -- mostly, of course, because I have made series(es?) of choices that have been right for me (not because I live some charmed existence, believe me).

    More generally, I'm a big fan of ambivalence. Nothing in my life is perfect, and acknowledging that this is the way things are and getting on with my day generally works much better than doubting myself, making frequent large-scale changes, or moping in a corner.

  2. This is really good advice. I also have a mantra where it comes to how I look versus how the famous look. I remind myself that being thin, keeping their roots down and highlights up and skin clear is their job. If I got to spend the 10 hours/day that I spend at work on personal maintenance, I would look a whole lot different.

  3. My house!!! I love my house, and I certainly appreciate a clean, neat, and orderly house -- but mine is probably never going to be the cleanest or most orderly house. I'm learning, bit by bit, that I should not be embarrassed by a pile of shoes at the door, mount laundry, or dust (watching a few episodes of Hoarders helped) but rather I should work to figure out what level of orderliness and cleanliness is important to ME. I've figured it out on the clean portion of this (cleaning lady does an awesome job every other week, I spot clean between, kitchens and bathrooms stay clean, there are some dust bunnies under the bed). The orderliness bit is still a work in progress. Those magazine pictures are so lovely -- but who lives there?

  4. I think I get more mom "guilt" whenever I let myself forget how tired/exhausted I was during my maternity leave. Well, I'm still tired and exhausted but I have to remember that it's not all reading, playtime and fun when you stay home. It's also more housecleaning, laundry and diaper changes! Good advice, which I so needed today.

  5. love, without a doubt, the ideal of romantic love, with its hearts and flowers, passion and fun, getaway weekends and date nights, etc all meeting the harshness of a life lived together.

  6. Good points!

    Re: careers: Economists would say it's all about the compensating differentials. There are trade-offs we make for most things. Fun jobs don't pay as well as not-fun jobs (for the same level of education etc.)

    I respectfully disagree re: love. I may be deluded, but totally living the dream. And delusions become reality when you're living a dream. But the same may be true in many areas of life.

  7. @Alexicographer, I see what you're saying. I didn't actually go into a career with as little sexism as possible. I'm in a field that is rife with sexism- in fact, I have seen NYTimes editorials arguing that I am likely to be biologically inferior in many of the skills I use in my career.

    So, my response has been to work to change the sexism, but not let it make me miserable in the meantime.

    On love... maybe the key is what your idealized fantasy would be? I think I have it pretty good, but I also don't think my life would work as a romantic comedy, you know?

  8. Well, in romantic comedies, boy loses girl before gaining girl back again. Who wants to live like that? It's different when you're watching the movie rather than a character in it.

    Maybe My Big Fat Greek Wedding. All the tension there was with the extended family, not the relationship itself. Good times. :)

  9. I needed this. I read blogs like SouleMama and daydream about what it would be like to stay home and homeschool n kids (where n is more than the 1 we have now). The photos make it look so lovely, and crafty, and FUN.

    But honestly, with our personalities, jobs, and outside interests, I'm not sure we could maintain a solid marriage *and* be happy with everything else with more kids. I know in my heart that 1 is the right number for us, but the blogs get me in trouble every time ;)

  10. @Cloud, yes, good point on the (your) career. And I never really imagined you to be saying we should accept things as they are, just that I think a pernicious version of the case you are making might involve that.

    @NicoleandMaggie I love this, "It's different when you're watching the movie rather than a character in it." Another good thing to remember. I have a whole category of stuff in my life (often on trips -- the travel kind, not the psychedelic kind, though might apply to either %)) about which I think, "This is no fun [while it's happening] but will be great in the retelling." Which is useful as far as it goes, but clearly has limits.

  11. Great post, Cloud, and definitely great advice.

    DH and I often talk about the "ideal" career - but we make a game of listing all the things that would be awful about that job. Basically, we've found that every job has aspects that suck --- there is NOT a perfect job.

    I think our perceptions of romantic love, friendship, family relationships, career, finances, and happiness in general are often skewed far to the fantasy side of things. It would be so nice to know how everyone around us is REALLY doing!

  12. More kids. I have a hard time shaking the ideal of two/three kids because of the siblings playing together, large family for the holidays, hallmark movie aspect of it. My reality with one as a baby was so god-awful, though, that it keeps me in check. I think the middle ground might not be so bad, in fact it would probably be a bit of both, hard and hopefully worth it, but at my age and at the very beginning of a new career path, the reality would cause trade-offs I don't think I want to make.

  13. It has been so interesting reading all of your examples. Thanks, everyone!

    @Alyssa- I like to say that you can never know what it is like inside someone else's marriage. I usually use it when I'm wondering why they hell someone is putting up with a spouse who seems like a jerk. But I think it applies here, too!

  14. My child's sleep, my need for sleep and how fucking tired I am.

    I frequently think about how much better my life would be if I had a child who just napped easily, fell asleep appropriately early (like 7.30 instead of the more usual 9pm) without and hours and hours long bedtime routine involving variable amounts of screaming and chatting to herself... y'know, like *normal* children.

    I'm sure I'd do more exercise, be able to work after she goes to be instead of falling onto the couch exhausted etc.

    Maybe. Or maybe I'd still be the same lazy ass. :-)

  15. What @mom2boy said about the fantasy of having more kids. Yep. Not going to do it though!


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