Be careful what you wish for

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see that one that has been opened for us.
-Helen Keller

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a speaker series of famous accomplished women from various industries. One of the speakers was none other than Lauren Bacall. As a fan of Humphrey Bogart, I was particularly looking forward to hearing her talk. Her speech turned out to be both surprising and educational. While it did not go as I was expecting, it taught me a powerful lesson that I continue to be affected by some 20 years later.

Lauren Bacall met Bogie on the set of “To Have or Have not” in 1944. She was 19 at the time, and Bogie was 44 (and married to his third wife). According to Bacall, when they met, she was pretty deep in character as Marie. Her character was witty, charming, and always knew the perfect thing to say. She oozed sensuality, suggestion, and playfulness. Bogie was smitten…with Marie. And Bacall was smitten with Bogie. How could she not be? He was an icon of masculinity…. He was Bogie. This put her in an odd predicament. She clearly wanted to impress him, but could she take the risk of turning off Marie and being herself. Was it Marie that he loved, or Bacall being Marie?

And what did she do? Well, she was 19, this was her first role, and Bogie was flirting with her. She was too anxious of the potential loss to take the risk. So she played Marie for the rest of their relationship. Bogart divorced his wife in 1945 and married Bacall. They remained married until his death at age 57, 12 years later.(1)

This story really struck me to be such a tragedy. Bogart never knew who Bacall really was. He never even knew that he didn’t know her. And she never got to find out if would love her for her. They were both robbed of real intimacy and she was robbed of real acceptance. Yet her decision is so understandable. The risk was too much; She had to choose between staying with him through a performance, versus hoping for true acceptance but risking rejection. One might say that if he would not love her being herself, then she would be better off knowing that and moving on. And that might be true. But imagining that star-struck 19-year-old I would add that it is one thing to acknowledge an ideal, but sometimes living up to that ideal can be really difficult.

This story seems to me to be an exaggerated version of the dilemma most teenagers wrestle with: to be oneself and risk judgment and rejection, or to try to be what you think someone wants you to be in an effort to assure acceptance. When I work with teenagers it is usually the opposite sex that they are trying to impress. As they get older, the same dilemma plays out with college interviews and job interviews. In each of these scenarios, there is an understandable fear of vulnerability and rejection, and an attachment to the desired outcome.

The irony is that even if we were to get what we want, there is little likelihood that we would be nearly as happy as we imagine. People tend to get fixated on acquisitions, achievements, or being with certain other individuals. We fantasize that having these things or achieving these things will ‘make us happy,’ and not having them is the reason that we are not happy. Somehow we forget that this is fantasy. We forget that the idea of having something or being with someone is largely different than the actual reality of having them.

It turns out that when research examines our ability to predict how much a given experience will result in our increased happiness, we are very poor at predicting our own responses. Even with repeated experiences to teach us this lesson, we fall for the fantasy again and again. Right now, most people have something that they WANT to acquire; something that they are sure that if they only had that thing, they would be far happier. And most of those people are wrong. When we imagine the having, we miss a lot. We do not know the downside. All we know is our yearning. And that yearning is pretty distorting. So be careful what you wish for. It is likely that having it would not be as great as you think it would be. And if you focus too long on what you wanted but did not get, you may miss the opportunity you did not want, but would actually enjoy more.(2)

(1) Howard Hawks was quoted as saying of Bacall: “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.” (Page 57) Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart by Richard Schickel, George Perry and Stephen Humphrey Bogart
Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (December 12, 2006)

(2)This topic is discussed heavily in Gilbert, Daniel. (2005). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books (Random House Inc.).

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