Are the Rules Playing You?

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Thinking of life as a sport comes naturally to many. As the new year begins, thoughts turn to “racking up points”, “the big score”, and “winning”. But unless you stop to figure out what kind of game you’re playing, winning may turn out to be losing. The good news is that whatever “game” you’ve decided to play, you can often change the rules.

Many of the rules you’re already agreeing to in your life are not only unconscious, but set up by other people. I knew a man from college who was a stellar violinist. He’d carry his violin around with him everywhere and never missed a chance to play it. At the same time he was studying to get into medical school even though he had little interest in being a doctor. His parents had insisted on this career path, and he invested several years in pre-med classes before transferring to a conservatory where he could use his talent. I received one call from my friend since his move and I have never heard him happier.

If you want to be miserable, have a bunch of rules for your life that aren’t under your control. While everybody wants to be loved, making others love you is out of your control. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by deciding to make yourself more lovable and leaving it to everyone else to recognize what a great mate you’d make. In the depths of the recession, if you make getting hired your goal, you may spend many months “losing” this game. While you may desperately want a partner and need an income, you’re still better off in making your goal to do just the things you can do to help these ultimate results come true. A simple change in focus can make you feel like a success while you wait for a result outside of your control.

For me in my younger days, as Christmas approached, I got my heart set on a particular toy or gift and made it my mission to get that as a gift. I’d make sure my parents knew what I wanted and then reminded them a few more dozen times just to be sure. As I was drifting off to sleep I imagined how great it would be to get that must-have toy. By Christmas Eve, I could hardly sleep. Then a funny thing happened. After I had my beloved toy, I quickly got tired of it, and it wasn’t long before I forgot about it entirely. This tendency to misunderstand what we want, to “mis-want”, can lead to some rules that do nothing for our fulfillment except provide a goal to chase. From research we find that money can make us happy, but money in excess of about US $70,000 does little to increase happiness. If we knew and accepted this result, how much time and effort could be saved chasing things that won’t make us happy in the end?

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As we’ve seen, people hurt themselves unintentionally with a lot of rules that aren’t in their best interest and don’t create pathways to fulfillment. But on the other hand, there are plenty of people with too few rules who run “out of bounds” in their lives. At a social level, we might call these rules laws or morals. At a personal level, we think of them as standards or boundaries. If you’re finding yourself disappointed with a string of bad relationships, what were some of the things that made them fail? Are all your exes controlling, or maybe irresponsible? Finding the commonalities can guide the development of new rules that help prevent old mistakes.

There’s an old equation that reads “satisfaction = reality – expectations”. While lowering your expectations may not always be the right answer, if you find yourself habitually starting sentences with “I can’t be successful until…” or “I’ll be happy when…”, you’ve “moved the goalposts” of happiness or success away from where you are right now. If you think you need unhappiness to motivate you, I challenge you to appreciate what you have while at the same time feeling the pull of your next goal and see what that does for your motivation and follow-through.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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