I went swing dancing in Minneapolis one night nearly a decade ago. While paying for my entrance fee at the front, I asked the attendant what sort of movies he enjoyed. He replied: “I prefer not to live vicariously through movie stars, but to live a real life for myself.” Wow. Totally unprepared for his response, I gave him a dazed compliment for such an insight. I then entered the dance hall knowing that I would have to reflect upon this at length later. I felt as though while fishing for minnows, I had landed a whale. The answer has gnawed at me ever since.

But I think we have all been haunted somewhat by the truth contained in this response.  Nowhere is this more so than in the world of dating.

It has become so apparent that the media (advertising especially) prey upon something that I would call our “dream life.” I am not referring to those fleeting thoughts that pass through our heads while sleeping. Rather, I speak of our hopes, desires and wishes vis-à-vis an envisioned future life or better tomorrow. Our “dream life” encompasses how we would like to be perceived, the lifestyle we intend to embody, the things we envision owning, the goals we have, the great things we intend to do with our lives. We believe that pursuing and attaining our “dream life” will bring us happiness.

This “dream life” of ours is very important. It gives us things to strive for. It motivates us. It assists us in setting goals. When dreams for the future are taken away from us, we lose hope. We give up. When dreams are left unachieved, we live lives of regret. In many ways, our dreams define us.

Our dreams come from somewhere. They are picked up from friends, in books, on television, in movies and via song. The culture and lifestyle around us as well as physical space – landscape and architecture – all influences our dreams.

We also form dreams about dating and marriage. We receive our information for these dreams in the normal fashion. We set our standards of beauty, handsomeness, wittiness and charm according to our dream sources (Both for ourselves and others). But what happens when the influence of those media which leave extremely strong impressions upon the mind, upon our dreams (movies, television and song) become so powerful that they begin to trump the influence of our natural surroundings and even the normal conclusions of our intellect (the real world)? What if our dream sources give us completely unrealistic or unachievable standards? What if our “dream standards” of beauty, handsomeness, wittiness and charm are set by the latest “hot” actor or actress on the scene? And what if this actor or actress – even further improved by digital enhancement – is simply reading clever scripts written by clever scriptwriters far removed from reality? (Think Hollywood)

In her book What I Saw at the Revolution, Peggy Noonan details a profound, far-reaching phenomenon. She explains that until the 1980s, the mass media served as a type of commentary on reality (the real world around us). For a variety of reasons, by the end of the 1980s, the popular media had become reality in the minds of the American population. When a Hollywood version of reality has been substituted for the real world in the American mind, the train has left the tracks. Our most basic reference points regarding “what is” are shaken. What sort of impact has this had upon our “dream life?” What sort of impact has this had upon our dream sources?

Our dating standards, our dating dreams consequently become unrealistic and unachievable. No one measures up. Moreover, we have the unnerving sensation that we do not measure up either. The reality of our own condition and the potential for improvement to the point of our desired “dream standard” is a looooooong stretch. Still, we somehow attempt the stretch, adopting the attitudes, fashions and even personas of our favorite characters on screen to the neglect of our real selves.

Ultimately, many of us convey a virtual “dream persona” of ourselves to the world – at least to a certain degree. We are able to create a social media lookalike image of ourselves – even further improved by digital enhancement – scrubbed of all the wrinkles, krinkles and the dirt that comes along with real life. This person is witty, happy, and forever laughing out loud (“lol!”). For a few moments at least, we too can occasionally bask in the false glory of our chosen standard-setters. We too can share in their “digitally enhanced awesomeness.”

Having become accustomed to living vicariously through a digitally enhanced “dream persona” online, it is a short step to increased vicarious living via a favorite star or starlet on television, in the movies or behind the microphone (think karaoke). The average person (let’s call him “Joe”) increasingly lives a detached Avatar life via this vicarious lifestyle. It is an exciting world without the normal boundaries. In many ways, it is a better world – like the Matrix. And Joe becomes accustomed to acting, accustomed to playing the part. He knows all of the right lines to say. Of course he does, his “dream standards” are all Hollywood creations and he often lives more fully in that Hollywood world than he does in his own. A “dream life” was once a motivator for a future concrete reality toward which Joe worked. But the new technologies now allow – indeed encourage – Joe to wallow in his dreams, distracting him from taking those “real” steps to achieve “dream goals” in the real world. Thank you smartphones, search engines, cookies, streaming videos and social media!

Now what happens when Joe meets a real, unscrubbed person of the opposite sex with no digital enhancement? She is not very witty or charming or terribly attractive by his dream standards. But something repressed deep down inside him still finds this person attractive. She is not quite measuring up to Joe’s impossible dream standards? She is not quite saying the right lines or giving the super cool responses expected of potential dating material. But the real Joe is still interested somehow. Gradually, Joe realizes that he is not quite giving the right lines either. Sometimes, Joe even says what he really thinks or truly feels in a shameful, unscrubbed fashion. And Joe’s girlfriend is deviating from her own script as well at times, her true self sometimes breaking through the dream production. Often the breakthroughs occur at times of intense emotion or stress after they have been together for awhile and begin to forget their lines.

Joe starts to wonder who he really is. And who is the person that he is dating – deep down underneath? Why can’t they act and speak out of their authentic selves? Why do they have such unrealistic expectations, goals and dreams? Why are they ultimately so insecure in our own skin? Why is their relationship so difficult?

The goal in becoming a person with whom someone else would want to fall in love is to become the very “best version of yourself” (Matthew Kelly). To do this, we need to find and embrace our true selves. While we can never totally disengage from the influence of the media, how can we minimize the damage? Minimizing our media intake can assist us in reconnecting with ourselves, others and the real world. Living lives with minimal media/technological enhancement combined with real human contact can help us to slowly recalibrate our dream standards. In this manner, we can live deeply/authentically in the real world and not in a world of dreams. In other words, the next time you’re tempted to turn on a reality television show that reflects impossibly perfect standards of love and friendship, phone a friend or go on that date! Authentic happiness in life and relationships is to be found by connecting in a real way with real people in the real world.