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?