They are phrases we use often — “cause and effect” and “means and ends.” But the connections they imply are not always as simple as they seem. In this crazy, fast-paced world of ours, it can sometimes be very difficult to distinguish between means and ends, and between cause and effect, and sometimes we get both of them exactly backward.

We often behave as though the end was a bigger house, more money, and more recognizable career success. The means to get to this end are our time, our energy, the sacrifices made by our families, and the short-changing of our relationships.

And the media and the news that we read and watch seem to think that most causes are economic and that the effects are social. People are poor, therefore their families break up. Kids don’t have the financial support for school and from home so they leave their families, join gangs or sell drugs.

But what if we have these exactly backward? What if these ends are actually the means and the effects are really the causes? And what if the mix-up is robbing us of the real satisfactions and pleasures of life and giving us a hollow unhappiness instead?

What if adequate money and work success are the true means, and the true ends are our personal time and energy and fulfilling relationships within united, prioritized families?

And what if the breakdown of families is the real, root cause for the effects of poverty and the deteriorating economic conditions we find ourselves in?

Sometimes just keeping the true causes and their effects in our minds can influence how we prioritize, how we make decisions and how we live. And our lives can become both more joyful and more simple just by focusing on the fact that relationships and family are always the ends that everything else should be the means to those ends.

When we think about it, the definitions of the words themselves can help us get it right. “Means” is a word that is literally defined as our assets and our money, and the word “ends” suggests the things we want to use our means to obtain. Most of us, when we are thinking clearly, view those we love and the families we are building as the ends we value most.

Thinking this way helps us realize how foolish we are if we give up too much of the ends in order to have more of the means. If we have no time with our families because we are spending it all in pursuit of more material things, it is a bad trade-off and we have forgotten which one is the tool of the other.

And history through the ages teaches us that strong families are a powerful cause for positive societal effects, while weak or deteriorating families seem to inevitably bring cultures down. When trying to differentiate between cause and effect, one has to look to the smallest, most basic level to find the cause for the complex things that happen at the larger levels.

Tiny germs, for example, are the cause of the sore throat, fever and general malaise that affect the bigger body. Treating the symptoms will do little to cure the cause. We need to get antibodies or antibiotics inside to the source of the problem.

Similarly, in looking for the cause of the large and complex social problems of our society, we need to look to the most basic unit of society, which is the family. Trying to treat the larger economic or criminal or welfare symptoms will never fix the problem. We have to get to the inner, most basic, level and find ways to create the stronger families that will inevitably create a stronger society.

“Means and ends” and “cause and effect” are useful observational and analytical tools for looking at everything from our personal lives to the strength and stability of our society, but we need to be careful not to get either of them backward.

Richard and Linda are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Read Linda's blog and visit the Eyres anytime at