This post is intentionally luring you in as the seeming beginning of a rant about how the world is one way but people refuse to accept it. On the contrary, however, seeing what you want to see is actually one of the keys to life and the secrets to happiness and success. To use it as a derogatory comment is pretty ironic in the grand scheme of things. Let’s take a look at how and why it evolved as an insult and why it’s actually a good thing that people do this.
When someone says, “People see what they want to see,” it usually refers to people in denial of reality in a way that might be detrimental to them. If someone has an abusive spouse or family member, for example, making excuses for that person as if they have a good reason for lashing out can prevent the person from getting away from that relationship. If someone believes that a politician, company, leader, friend, or partner will do the right thing when his or her friends point out all of the signs that it is not true, he or she could get accused of seeing what they want to see. Indeed, not seeing the truth when it is harmful is where the coin was turned into an insult. The logic goes, if only they could see the truth, they would behave in the way that others believe they should.
However, for every time someone is not seeing reality in a way that is detrimental, there are times when “being realistic” about a situation is limiting. If you believed that you couldn’t win the game, you wouldn’t play. If you believed that you couldn’t succeed, you wouldn’t try. So seeing what you don’t want to see can be just as detrimental. To make matters worse, remember how miserable people are who subject themselves to terrible events all of the time by watching sensationalized news or being involved in an activity or job that makes them unhappy because others told them they should. How is “seeing reality” helpful in those cases? Clearly, there’s something wrong with that statement as a blanket comment on life.
People buy items that they like and put them in their homes so that they are surrounded by things that please them. They watch news that supports their beliefs about the world. They engage in activities that interest them. They support causes that they believe in. In that sense, of course you see what you want to see; if you chose to see what you didn’t want to see, you’d be a masochist. If you want to be content, happy, and fulfilled, you’ll focus as much of your attention as you can on things you like, want, and that make you happy.
But, if that’s the case, what about reality? Well, you’ll be surprised that people who are in denial aren’t necessarily against seeing reality but are taken away by either their desires or beliefs. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. Someone who sees an empty field and imagines a day where millions will come to ride roller coasters is not living in the current reality but going after what they want. Someone who ignores the naysayers about trying to become a professional athlete is going after what he or she wants and believes despite the resistance and hurdles. These are good “denials of reality”.
It turns out, though, that a lot of the bad denials are not because they don’t want to see reality but rather that they have destructive beliefs. The person who is staying in an abusive relationship might believe that they deserve it. The person who continues to drink or take drugs might not only be fighting the addiction but also their beliefs about how their lives turned out much differently than they had hoped. So it’s not that they can’t see reality but that their beliefs are preventing them from acknowledging that they should do something to get out of the situation. It’s your desires and beliefs that shape both your current reality and your destiny. If you want your future to be as best as possible and for your current reality to be as pleasant as possible, then absolutely you want to see what you want to see.
One final point: I used a photo for this blog post of the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant. If you are not familiar, the point of the story is that, because they’ve never experienced the sight or touch of an elephant before, each of them believe that they are touching something different: a tree, a snake, etc. based on the part of the elephant they’re touching. The point of the parable is that people draw conclusions based on the limited information they have, will disagree with others who have a different set of facts, and they could either both be right about what they’re experiencing but also both be wrong about the conclusion overall because neither has the whole picture.
I thought that this parable was appropriate here because, like how the men draw conclusions based on their limited information and beliefs, everyone is drawing conclusions about their world in the same way. Add the part we discussed today about focusing on what you want to focus, and now you have someone choosing to focus on the “part of the elephant” that they like best—even after they get more information that gives them the whole picture.
So, if you get mad at people who don’t seem to get upset every day about starving people in other countries, the political scandal of the day, or a recent event that’s outside of their control, it might just be that they understand the new information and can see the (part of the) elephant that you’re pointing to and choose not to focus on it but rather to look at what matters to them. And that is the very definition of “seeing what you want to see”, and there’s nothing wrong with it if they’re not hurting anyone and it makes them happy and gets them through life.
Everyone has to make choices every day about what they focus on, how they spend their time, money, and energy, and what they let affect them emotionally. You do, too. So, most of the time, give yourself permission to see what you want to see to make you happy. Focus on what matters to you as long as it doesn’t hurt someone or neglect your responsibilities to yourself, others, or society. You’ll live a much happier life, and maybe—just maybe—you’ll judge others a little less for doing what they have to do to make it through life instead of caring what you care about, wanting what you want, and believing what you believe.