By David Joel Miller.
You get what you look for. Sounds simple, but this basic principle has a huge impact on how happy we are. Take two couples one happy and the other miserable – what is the difference?
Couple one, let’s call then Bob and Sue, for no particular reason. Bob complains that Sue nags him. She never likes the tie he wears. Nothing he ever does is good enough. Sue is sure that Bob doesn’t love her. He never wants to spend time with her. He is always too busy with his job and his studies for his night class to spend time with her. Sue says the only time Bob does things around the house is when she nags him, he always puts off taking the garbage out till the last possible moment. She has to keep at him because he will put off taking out the trash until bed time if she doesn’t keep on him.
The couple next door, let’s call them Juan and Ann, again for no special reason. Juan says he is so happy in his relationship. Ann is always trying to be helpful. She wants him to be successful and look his best. She is so helpful; she even makes suggestions for which tie will make him look his best. Ann tells me she is so happy to be with Juan. He works so hard to provide for the family. He is even taking a night class to help improve their income. Juan is so helpful around the house, Ann says, sometimes she has to remind him because he is so busy, but he always gets the trash out before he goes to bed.
Now Bob and Sue are sure that their neighbors are very nosy, always minding other people’s business. When the family came to visit that old busybody across the street came over and demanded to know who was there. Sometimes that woman brings over food in an effort to get into the house and spy on them. They have had to tell the neighbors several times to mind their own business. This town is so hostile. The other day one of the people up the street followed Sue all over the grocery store.
Juan and Ann report they feel so safe in their neighborhood. They have a neighborhood watch. One time when Ann’s parents came for a visit, Mrs. Smith across the street came over to check who was going into their house. She almost called the police on Ann’s family. Mrs. Smith brought over a cake she had baked for the family to enjoy. Ann and Juan feel so safe knowing that the people on their street will keep an eye on their house when they are not home. It is such a friendly town. Last week they went shopping and ran into Mrs. Smith in the market. She was going one way and Ann was going the other, they must have run into her ten times that day. They had a good laugh that they just couldn’t stay away from each other.
Why is the experience of these two couples, who live just a few houses apart so different? One couple loves their town and their marriage and the other is miserable. Two important happy life principles are at work here. First, the happy couple has a happy positive belief about the way they are, the way the world is and how the future will turn out. This illustrates the principle that beliefs about things, not the things themselves create our feelings. But no matter what you believe, life experiences will impact your beliefs and feelings. Both couples have a bias in their thinking.
We call this bias confirmatory bias. If you think your spouse is uncaring or lazy you will watch the things they do and pick out the things that confirm your belief as proof you were right. It is a natural human tendency to look for things that will make us right and to ignore or discard the things that might force us to change our mind.
Happy couples see things their partner does and interpret them as positive. Unhappy couples can find plenty of proof that their partner is unloving and uncaring. Now we know there are bad relationships and uncaring or dishonest people out there. But if you enter a relationship expecting your partner to make you happy they are likely to. If you go into a relationship with the expectation your partner will mistreat you then you will find lots of “proof” for that also.
Much of our news fits this pattern also. Two people hear the same economic report, one sees things in the report to say that the economy is improving; the other person sees things to prove that the economy is getting worse. Political speeches and debates especially demonstrate this principle. If you are strongly in favor of a candidate you will think they made a great speech. If you dislike that same candidate you will find something in the speech to seize upon and “prove” that person is unfit for public office. If you are wrong about a candidate for office you can complain about them till the next election. If you live with someone it is a bigger problem.
Sometimes it pays to challenge those beliefs. Is your spouse really being uncaring or unloving or do you look for the faults and miss the positive things they really did do for you?
For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.
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