Happy New Year! You are about to embark on a Thinking Experiment (TE). Your goal is to find an answer to this question: Why is Mark, the father in the following story, so unhappy? To gather information, Mark will be asked five questions.

Mark (39) is a carpenter who is employed at his father’s construction company. His wife Connie (32) teaches high school Spanish. They have two, 10-year-old twin girls. Over the past two years, Mark has become angry, irritable, and withdrawn.

Question 1: When you are not working or engaged in a task which demands your full attention, where does your mind wander to? What are your day-dreams which give you relief, joy, hope or comfort?

Mark: “Move to Florida, build an oceanfront home, and buy a boat big enough to go deep sea fishing.”

Question 2: What are your top regrets?

Mark: “Not pursuing my dream of becoming an architect who designs homes. I never wanted to work in my dad’s company”.

Question 3: What do you most easily spend money on?

Mark: “I’m super tight. I don’t even allow family vacations. I spend the most on fishing gear and my boat.”

Question 4: What is your greatest failure?

Mark: “I didn’t finish college. After my mom died, I left to work in my dad’s company”.

Question 5: What events trigger your anger?

Mark: “If my wife or kids spend over $25 without telling me first. Also, if someone makes me feel stupid or wrong, or puts me down”.

The next step in your TE is to put all the data together, as if Mark’s dreams came true...

Mark’s family now lives in Florida, in a big, beautiful house on the ocean. His boat is big enough to go deep sea fishing. But, his daughters don’t like fishing. They’d like to learn how to ski, but Mark says, “that’s a stupid use of my boat.” His daughter’s daydream about having a father who would spend time with them, riding bikes, or going on picnics. The mortgage, utility bills and taxes on their new home have eaten up the family budget. Mark works longer hours.

Connie, his wife, has a new job at a private school, teaching Spanish. Her principal is helping her navigate the details of her new job. They share a love of cooking. Oh, I forgot, the principal is recently divorced (wonder what he dreams about?)

We are now ready to answer our question. Why is Mark so unhappy? To do so, allow me to share a personal story. For 20 years, my family spent weekends at our camper. We shared many fun activities – rock throwing, goose chasing, fossil hunting and fishing. We ended each campout by sitting around a blazing campfire. We scared each other with ghost stories, roast marshmallows and listen to each other tell tales, or concerns. Hard questions often surfaced; is it immoral to worship money? Why is killing ok if it is done by Armed Forces? How does one find happiness?

As you have already guessed, there was a lot more going on besides having fun. When we returned home after camping, we were closer to each other. Why? Camping had become our parental reminder that on the last day of our adult lives, we would be able to say that we had invested enough time, energy, and love into the lives of our children.

Conclusion: Living a life without a purpose is like sitting around a campfire which gives us heat, but no light. The illumination cast by a fire is a symbol of the thinking part of us which gives us the insight, or vision, to find a reason for living. The heat of the fire is a symbol of our feelings, passions, and emotions, which act like fuel to motivate us, so that the specific purpose we have chosen can be achieved. When we have both parts of the fire, light and heat, our lives take on meaning, thus, we feel good, fulfilled, and happy. Our culture tells us, wrongly, that all we need to do to be happy is feel the heat of our passions. Worse, it has produced many attractive substitutes for happiness – money, power, fame, beauty.

Mark is unhappy because his hands are stuck in our culturally accepted cookie jar, which gives only empty substitutes for happiness: bigger house and boat. He needs to look at these reasons for living: Be a faithful husband, find a job that is more fulfilling, and spend much more time with his daughters, doing fun activities such as teaching them how to water ski.

If Mark finds a fulfilling purpose for living, how could you tell? Just look for the fire in his eyes. (The content of this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Reference: “Counterfeit Gods”, 2009, Tim Keller.

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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