Is Reality Enough to Make Us Happy?
20 Aug 2015
Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash
As a child, I firmly believed in magic.
And why wouldn’t I? The evidence was everywhere!
So many cartoons, stories and films were packed with magic.
And to a child, almost everything that happened was beyond comprehension. Magic just didn’t seem that unbelievable compared to what was constantly happening around me.
That massive metal dragon we rode to school every morning? Magic.
That shiny metal box that showed pictures of talking people from far away? Magic.
Sure, when I actually created a magic potion by mixing ingredients in the garden, it never worked.*
* And contrary to popular rumour, I was not “19” at the time.
But I probably just got the spell slightly wrong… right?! Surely it was just a matter of time until I discovered the secrets to magic, and the world of psychic powers, powerful spells and amazing adventures would be mine for the taking.
Sadly, as we know, the real world turned out to be something of a disappointment.
But… disappointment depends entirely on your perspective!
Thinking about it, we clearly don’t need magic to exist in order to be happy. Every single thing we’ve ever experienced happened in this world: the dull mundane reality we are all forced to live in.
Sure, that includes all the bad stuff. But all the good stuff happened here too.
Every moment of joy, wonder, surprise or delight you have ever felt happened in the boring old universe we inhabit.
In fact, none of us have EVER experienced any of those emotions except in this tedious reality where wizards don’t exist and wishes don’t come true.
So… maybe our reality isn’t so bad?!
When we wish the world was different – whether to have magical powers, a nicer house, a new partner or whatever – we are saying that we are not content with reality.
But reality is the only thing there is. It makes no sense to be discontent with it. It just is.
Inner critic: Wait a moment! You’ve gone off the deep end, there. Clearly, it’s not the same to wish for magical powers as to wish for a new partner… because only one of those things could conceivably happen. Blathering nonsense about “reality being the only thing that is” doesn’t change that.
Fair enough. But what you’re really saying is “I’d be happier if I had a new partner”. And I want to counter that by asking… is that really true? Would you ACTUALLY be happier if your dreams came true?
Imagine a world where rhinoceroses didn’t exist, and someday you read a story about one. It would sound like a fantastical beast. A massive charging grey water-cow with a horn! What a wonder! You might daydream of how delighted you’d be if you could someday see a rhinoceros.
Well, we live in a world where such a fantastical beast exists! But does that make us happy? Do we live in a permanent sense of wonder that a potentially mythological beast exists?!
No, of course we don’t. Because it’s normal.
We normalise whatever is real, and magnify how much we would appreciate whatever is not.
In just the same way, if we lived in a world where dragons existed, we wouldn’t be constantly overwhelmed by wonder. We’d relegate THEM to the normal too.
Maybe we’d go on dragon-safari someday, or enjoy seeing them at the zoo. But it certainly wouldn’t be the world we imagine it would be if we daydreamed today “what if dragons existed”.
We’d probably invent some other mythical beast and tell stories about it, and wonder what it would be like if only UBERDRAGONS existed. (Or Flying Bears. Or Splashcows.)
Inner critic: Okay, but what are you getting at here?
The point is that we are often dissatisfied by things simply because they’re real. And that’s a recipe for sadness.
So we must instead enjoy the magic of what is real. Remember – every bit of magic we’ve ever experienced happened here!
Sure, we can’t spend all day being overwhelmed with delight that mobile phones exist, or whatever. But occasionally taking time to recognise the good things that exist in our lives would definitely help.
There’s an important second consequence to this:
We overestimate how much happier we’d be if our dreams came true.
That new partner? Would start to seem remarkably normal after a while, if our attitude is such that we don’t appreciate what we have.
That new house? Same.
Even that lottery win would become a “new normal” for us after a while… unless we take the time to enjoy the magic of reality as it is.
There are lots of reasons to be delighted by reality. Even in tough circumstances, there is still (hopefully) reason to hope.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.