Revisited – Recipe for happiness: squash the expectations

*I’m working hard on my new book and finding myself with little time for new blog posts. I decided to bring back some older posts, that you might have missed… Hope you enjoy!

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This is apparently the mathematical breakdown of what it means to be happy.
I totally agree, don’t you?

Actually, my idea of happiness doesn’t ever include exponents, but what this equation means is totally fantastic.

There was recently an article in The Atlantic that offers this equation and says that happiness doesn’t depend on how things are going. It depends on whether things are going better or worse than you thought they would.

Happiness is all about expectations. 

This is entirely true in my experience. My life used to go like this:

  • I get crazy excited about something (starting a Facebook page to share my blog)
  • it starts off the way I hoped it would (I post stuff, I have 9,000 people following the page)
  • then, that’s not enough, I change my expectations and emotionally crash because I don’t have the upgraded version of that exciting thing (why do I not have 90,000 people following the page?)

And when things don’t go at all as I expected? If someone doesn’t respond the way I want them to respond, or I work really hard on something and it flops – suddenly I’m curled up on the couch claiming I’m eternally destined to be a dismal failure. It’s a screwed-up roller coaster of emotional angst.

And it’s the nature of the human condition.

It seems we’ve always been that way, and that’s why 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said that life is suffering. (He used the Pali word dukkha, which could be less dramatically translated as “unsatisfactory” or “stressful.”) We suffer because we are constantly clinging to something that is slipping away. Everything is slipping away because everything is impermanent and nothing lasts forever.

Which seems kind of dark and horrifically depressing, until you realize this is just the reality of the world and there is an answer for dealing with it:

    • The Buddha called it equanimity
    • The coach from the UVA men’s basketball team told his guys to not get “too high on themselves or too low”
    • The Gin Blossoms said, “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”

It’s all about managing expectations. Of course there are things we want. That’s good. But when we tie our self-worth and inner peace to whether or not we get them, that’s when the trouble starts.

I want to do well in life.

I want everyone to like me.

I want to have a nice glass of scotch without it giving me a massive headache.

I can’t always have all the things I want. But I want them anyway. And sometimes, I expect them. Which, if I look at that another way, can seem like I’m saying that I am entitled to have those things. And an attitude of entitlement is gross.

So, is the answer to never want anything? Or to wander around like Eeyore expecting life to generally suck? No. It’s finding that beautiful middle ground. It’s about living in a place of contentment, where what you have is enough, and your expectations are humble – so you are pleased when things are going well and only slightly ruffled when they are not. It’s riding that wave of life with gratitude, rather than fighting with the tides because you’d prefer if the ocean was a puddle.

Let’s stop thinking the world owes us something, let’s work hard but let go of the emotional attachment to the outcome, let’s be kind without looking to get something in return. Suddenly, 99% of what happens is a joyful surprise.

And that is a really happy thing.

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17 thoughts on “Revisited – Recipe for happiness: squash the expectations

  1. This great story of expectations and reality calls to mind a lyric in the song “Beautiful Boy” on the Double Fantasy album by the late great John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. It just points out that the bread and butter of life is what we really experience, or what really happens, as opposed to what we expect or plan to happen.

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I just read something similar in a book called “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. He writes about the neurochemical effects of positive and negative expectations on the brain. Fascinating stuff.

    Hope the writing of your latest book is going well! Will I see you at Hippocamp again this year?

    • Thanks! The new book is called Not Just Me. It’s all about anxiety, depression and panic attacks. It’s my story, but also the stories of many other people struggling with mood disorders. I also look at the science behind what’s going on with the brain, and what is helpful to make life a little easier. 🙂

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