In autumn 1994 Florida resident Diane Duyser had a religious experience with her lunch.

You are likely familiar with the story, because the image of the Virgin Mary burned into her grilled cheese sandwich became part of pop culture. It is a convincing representation of a woman’s face in white bread, and it prompted much media coverage along with spin-offs such as sandwich-grilling devices that promised to burn a similar visage into your toasted cheese meal. Profiteers also sold T-shirts and ornamental plates, and relevant domain names popped up.

Rather than eat it, Diane sealed the sandwich in a plastic box as a keepsake.

Whether one believes the grilled cheese is an example of divine intervention or frying pan thermodynamics gone awry is of little moment. The sandwich brought some people happiness in a way that simple melted cheese cannot. For a brief time, it was a harmless distraction for those who are so inclined to embrace the idea that the mother of Jesus put an appearance on a Florida woman’s toasted bread.

Where a problem could arise is if you were to decide to opt out of modern medical treatments and instead elected to rub the sandwich across your chest in an effort to cure your breast cancer. If you are inclined to believe that a mystical grilled cheese can shrink tumors, you’re gonna have a bad time.

My father imagines that aliens will one day pay a visit to his rural home. He has his towel ready and is all set to hitchhike across the galaxy. But when it came to treating his prostate cancer he chose to have radioactive pellets injected into an uncomfortable place. It wasn’t pleasant, but it cured him.

Even the most hardened skeptic engages in delusional thinking; it’s a natural part of the human condition to be wired to believe weird things. Some beliefs are harmless or even fun to adopt, whereas others interfere with health, success, love and happiness. The trick is to know the difference and embrace harsh realities where it counts most, and not worry so much about that other stuff.

Speaking of other stuff, ten years after Ms. Duyser’s lordly lunchable appeared, she sold it on eBay to Internet casino for $28,000.1

It’s a miracle.

The Full Belly Effect
“I sleep warm, dry, and with a full belly every night. What more do I need?”

My father, one of the happiest people I know, spoke these words to my daughter as we sat inside his small house in the Cheslatta River Valley of northern British Columbia. It was New Year’s Eve and the cribbage board was out, the frigid Canadian winter kept at bay by the wood heater on “full honk,” as Dad described it. The cut card was a 6, my hand held pairs of 7s, and 8s. The 24-point hand placed my father in danger of being skunked, eliciting from him ironic proclamations regarding my parentage as I pegged.

All water to the house needed to be hauled via 5-gallon jerry cans. Illumination came from propane-burning lights. Two-and-a-half channels could be accessed on the television only by firing up the Honda generator located near the outhouse. If one needed to poop, it’s just a little ways past the generator. Dress warm.

My wife, son, daughter, father and I had spent the day sledding down the hill just outside the front door. Dad takes pride in sculpting a toboggan run that would turn Tony Hawk’s innards to water, and it helped the kids forget about the fact that their mobile devices lacked service.

The run had high walls built up like a bobsled track, but it can occasionally be made perilous by Buddy, a large chocolate lab and a slobbering mess who loves everyone. He will occasionally chase those on the toboggan, and perhaps get in the way. In addition to being warm and dry and having a belly full of food, a nice dog is the only other thing my dad seems to need to be happy.

Buddy worships my father, but that dog would totally eat him if he died.

When it comes to canine eats corpse, size of dog doesn’t matter.

Lulu is a rental dog, an apricot-colored toy poodle with a pronounced under bite from the subspecies canis lupus rodentia. She’s a tiny thing barely bigger than a New York City subway rat, although slightly more intelligent.

My friend Margaret travels regularly and we often take charge of Lulu. Recently I made a prime rib roast for dinner, and gave one of the bones to her to take into the back yard. I like my beef on the rare side, and she came back inside two hours later, having gnawed the bone for every scrap of protein it contained, a tinge of pink on her orange muzzle.

“Was that yummy, Lulu?” I said, my voice two octaves above its normal register. It’s a fact that when you’re in communication with a toy poodle named Lulu it is impossible to speak in anything but a high voice. “Did you like that? Are you a little carnivore? Yes, you are. You are a sweet little carnivore, aren’t you? You like ripping dead cow flesh off its bones, don’t you?”

I’m surprised she didn’t barf up the beef.

The next day I found what was left of the bone in the back yard, Lulu’s teeth marks marring the surface, and it occurred to me it could be my radius or my ulna if the situation warranted. If we were both inside, and no one was coming to visit, and I choked to death by turning two double stuff Oreos into a quadruple stuff, then not long after the kibble bowl was empty Lulu would start eyeing my corpse hungrily.

She’s a sweet little thing that will jump into my lap on a whim. She loves belly rubs and gets a look of despair on her little toy poodle face if you whisper a harsh word. If she’s in your lap and you fart, she’ll bolt in terror, then slink back with a look of guilt on her face, wondering what she did wrong to cause that earthquake in your pants.

Lulu is a nice dog, but nothing is more powerful than hunger.

The dog lacks thumbs. She can’t call 911. She can’t open the door. She can’t order a pizza or pry the fridge open.

If I were the only available food, she would eat me.

Cajun Food
Craig is a paramedic and my best friend going on a quarter century. When Hurricane Katrina hit and the levee broke, he traveled to Louisiana to volunteer. When the levee broke, people were forced to evacuate quickly. When the levee broke, some people were too infirm to make it out, and they died inside their homes.

And left inside many of those houses were the family pets, and those pets got hungry.

“I saw three separate instances where the dog had eaten the owner,” Craig said. Most of the people who died were elderly. They’d been trapped inside with no electricity or running water. I asked him if there were any cases where there was a dead body in the home and their pets hadn’t eaten it. “Nope,” he said.

But surely little Fifi would never do that to you. She loves you.

Sure. She loves you now, because you’re alive and can get her food, but if the situation changes and you’re the only meal around, Fifi will love you in a different, more digestive way.

In 2011 a couple in the small town of Springside, Saskatchewan died inside their home and the seven dogs survived for more than a week on the owners’ remains before they were rescued. Saskatoon SPCA spokesperson Tiffiny Koback said of the case, “They’re simply doing what it takes to survive, given the circumstances.”2 What’s more, there is a lack of evidence to show that a dog would treat their master’s dead body any differently than the corpse of a stranger,3 no matter how many bacon treats or belly rubs you gave him while you were alive.

But they may wait a bit. They’re not usually just waiting for you to kick so they can dig into some nice, tasty human. In a 2007 case report published in Forensic Science International with the telling title of “Canine scavenging of human remains in an indoor setting,” the authors examined a case of a woman who had died in her home and remained undiscovered for an entire month. Her two dogs ate pretty much her entire body, but they ripped open a couple of bags of dog food too and ate all that was there.4

It’s presumed the dogs went for the dog food first, and eating “Mommy” was a last resort, but homo sapiens do not always come last on the hungry doggie menu, as the same study found examples of where there were food alternatives and the dogs still feasted on man flesh like a hungry Orc in a Lord of the Rings movie.

When you don’t wake up, and Benji needs to pee, then he’ll try to rouse you because peeing on the carpet is a bad dog thing to do and he doesn’t want his nose rubbed in it; so he licks your face.

Lick, lick, lick. Come on, wake up! I gotta pee! Lick, lick, lick. Okay, I’m seriously getting freaked out now. Why won’t you wake up? Lick, lick, nip. Please wake—is that blood? Nips again. Yep. Definitely blood. Oh, screw it … Hmmm … tastes like chicken.

When licking doesn’t work it is hypothesized that the dog becomes more agitated and they’ll start to nip and bite, which can draw blood, which then initiates a scavenging instinct.

Then you’re puppy chow.

Belly Rubs
Don’t start giving Fido the side-eye and thinking you need to take him out before he does it to you. Dogs are awesome, and they love people more as masters than as snacks. The snack thing is rare. Just keep that kibble bowl full and you’ll be fine.

And give that dog a belly rub. He’s a good dog.

The purpose of the bite-you-in-the-ass metaphor is to serve as a life lesson about the world we live in. The world is not some fairy tale. You can go through life believing your quadrupedal companion would never dream of feasting on your digestive tract, choosing rather to guard your corpse and howl in misery until he succumbed to starvation, or you can … actually it’s okay to believe that.

Just like getting a warm feeling from a female image on a grilled cheese sandwich is okay, the consequences of being delusional in regards to your dog’s appetite are anything but dire, unless Xenu demands your corpse be pristine in order to be born again as Tom Cruise, or something.

But sit back, rub that dog’s belly, and let me do some ‘splainin’, Lucy, because there are myriad other ways in which we bipeds delude ourselves that are harmful to our health, and to our quest for happiness.

How Do Happy Thoughts Hinder Health and Real Happiness?
Those who believe in certain types of fairytales often get bitten in the ass: by life, not their dog.

They have great expectations, they believe tall tales that they will get rich quick, be famous, marry a prom queen nymphomaniac soul mate, pop a pill to lose weight fast, live forever, get their dream job, have a kid who plays in the big league, change the world.

Believing stuff is fun.

Believing stuff feels good, for a moment. It’s a dopamine rush, a form of instant gratification that makes us feel good about our quest for health, love, and accomplishment. But what happens when those beliefs interfere with the quest?

If you are among the millions who believe Dr. Oz’s latest weight loss miracle, you’re not going to lose weight. Just like the previous 16 Dr. Oz endorsed miracles didn’t work, the next one won’t either. And yet, it will be you feeling like the failure, rather than the doctor’s ethical failure of him spewing so much epic bullpoopery on his show.

But it doesn’t have to be a Land of Oz miracle pill you swallow; many fall prey to fad diets that are equally useless, like the caveman blood type diet, or detoxing by putting butter in your gluten-free juice cleanse.

And while most would consider the grilled sandwich technique a silly idea as a cancer cure, many opt for alternative medical treatments that, despite numerous anecdotal proclamations to the contrary, have cured precisely zero cancers. Things like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are no picnic, but cannabis oil won’t cut it. The cancer treatment landscape is marred with the gravestones of those who need not have died because they opted for quacktacular alternatives with no hope of working instead of embracing science-based medicine that can and often does save lives.

Taking steps back in time, it’s often a lack of realism that leads one to a junction where it’s necessary to seek a medical intervention, miraculous or no, as approximately 80% of diseases are preventable through proper lifestyle choices. It’s rarely bad luck of the draw that puts a person’s health in peril.

That is a major harsh reality right there: 80% of disease is preventable via lifestyle choice.

It is important to note that the happiness-realism continuum goes beyond health and weight loss. If you think the latest multi-level marketing scam is the secret to riches, you’ll only lose money. If you’re waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Soul Mate™, you may miss out of the love you could find in this lifetime. Beyond the basic needs of sleeping warm, dry and with a full belly each night, if you spend too much time worrying about and questing for a tomorrow that may or may not come, you’ll miss the precious moments that happen each day, and life satisfaction suffers. This isn’t hippy granola “be present” thinking. There is actual scientific research to support the concept of stopping to smell the occasional flower in your path, or letting a dog lick your face.

What is a Harsh Reality?
What I’m talking about is embracing the realities that matter, and not worrying over the ones that don’t. It’s not sweating the small stuff, just like we’ve been told, and instead saving our mental and physical energy to perspire over the very not small stuff that optimizes your foundation for better living today and tomorrow.

A harsh reality is the important stuff. For example:

  • Not Important: The milk in your latte came from a cow raised on genetically modified feed.
  • Important: That latte contains 500 calories.
  • Not Important: Your dog will snack on your corpse.
  • Important: Walking your dog is good exercise, which enhances quality and quantity of life for you both.
  • Not Important: You don’t look like a magazine cover model.
  • Important: Neither does 99.9% of the population.
  • Not Important: The grass is greener over there.
  • Important: Playing in the grass.
  • Not Important: What happens after you die.
  • Important: What happens before you die.

I don’t concern myself over whether or not that really is the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese. Far more important to me is that my son thinks I make awesome grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sweating the important stuff positively affects the big three: health, relationships and personal success, which are what form your foundation for happiness. There is that word “foundation” again. Plenty possess healthy bodies, are in love and have numerous accomplishments, and yet happiness eludes.

The Myth of the Curmudgeonly Realist
Do you have great expectations? Pip did, look where that lead him.

Actually, things turned out okay for old Pip in the end, the main character in the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations. In the book, Pip is a young orphan in 19th century England who, through a chance meeting, is given the opportunity to improve his station in life. During his journey from lower towards upper class, the book explores how Pip becomes an idealist bent on self-improvement. He’s always looking to the future and what he can obtain from it in terms of moral, social and educational advancement so he can transform from ignorant country boy into gentleman of the upper class.

It kind of has something to do with this rich girl he wants to sleep with.

Great Expectations is a subtle satirization of the upper class. Pip’s life as a gentleman is no more satisfying or moral than when he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. In the end, he discovers that conscience and affection are more valuable to his sense of life satisfaction than social standing. You know, as long as you have the warm-dry-fully belly thing too.

Does this mean one should stay a blacksmith and not quest to improve? Definitely not. Self-improvement and ambition are worthy, and can be useful tools in the quest for happiness. But the quest can become perilous for those taking an unrealistic approach.

The peril of self-improvement is two-fold: unrealistic (or even delusional) expectations, and a consuming mindset that is continuously focused on the future. This creates a recipe for a psychological crash and burn. Today suffers for a tomorrow that never comes.

How does one pursue life ambitions and enjoy the moments in each day? It’s a good question, and the short answer is that ignorance is not always bliss. Some things require worry. Realistic expectations combined with rational action on that which matters can secure a better today and an improved future. Small stuff can remain un-sweated.

The uplifting message is that cautious optimism intermixed with smart work can achieve great things. Reality is not always harsh. The system can be gamed to your advantage.

Speaking of being optimistic, don’t fret over Fifi. In the aforementioned example of the two dogs who literally lived off their owner for a month, the pair of canines were described as being found “in good health.”

My father would gladly give up his earthly remains if it meant his dog would live to be rescued. He won’t need his body any longer; the Vulcans will be taking his soul on a cruise to Alpha Centauri.

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James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.