If you’re looking at a tiled ceiling or floor and one tile is missing, your eye will be drawn to that missing tile, and you’ll continue to focus on that missing tile rather than the rest of the tiles. Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem, calls this the “Missing Tile Syndrome” and says it explains why many of us focus on what is missing in our lives instead of what we have. This tendency causes us much unhappiness. Let me explain.
The problem is that in life, we will always have something missing, and even when we don’t, we may imagine a more perfect and complete life.
Sometimes a lack in ourselves may focus on what others have that we don’t. If we want a flat stomach, we notice people with flat stomachs. If we want perfect hair or radiant skin, we notice others with perfect hair or radiant skin. If we want fancy clothes, we notice others with fancy clothes. If we want to become pregnant, we see pregnant bellies everywhere. But we are creating our own unhappiness by focusing on what others have that we do not.
We frequently impose the missing tile syndrome on others as well, figuring out what trait they have that is missing rather than focusing on the traits they have that are strong. Prager shared that when he was seeking a mate, this was exactly what he did. After each date with a different woman, he would identify her missing trait. He’d call his friend and say he figured out the most important trait he was looking for, and it was always the one the recent date lacked—whether intelligence or attractiveness or sense of humor. It took his friend to point out his habit for him to embarrasingly realize what a destructive one it was.
I admit sometimes I focus on the attributes my children do not have (which I think are critical at the moment) rather than on the great characteristics they do have. I do it with my husband at times, and even more frequently with myself. Sometimes I wish I had more talent, other times longer legs, more patience, greater creativity—the list goes on and on.
If we are unhappy with ourselves, it’s extremely difficult to be the perfect mate for our partner. And if we are picking others apart, it’s nearly impossible for them to appear right for us at the same time.
Prager sums it up well: “It is human nature to concentrate on what is missing and deem it the Most Important Trait. Unless we teach ourselves to concentrate on what we do have, we will end up obsessing over missing tiles and allow them to become insurmountable obstacles to happiness.”
Now that we know this is a problem and realize its power in our lives, what can we do to minimize its effect? Whether you perceive something is missing in your life or in your marriage, follow these steps:
1) Clarify what you perceive to be the missing item in your life (or marriage), or what you think may be troubling you.
2) Decide if this missing item is central to your happiness or whether you can be happy without it. From here, you can either “get it, forget it, or replace it.”