Unrealistic expectations and focusing on the things that we believe are missing from our lives inevitably makes us miserable. The reverse is also true – having reasonable expectations and habitually acknowledging all the good things that we have makes us feel blessed.
I cried because I had no shoes. Until I met a man who had no feet.
In nearly every way, our lives are easier and more comfortable than for people of previous generations. Technological advances and increased affluence have given us material goods that our grandparents would not have dreamed about. We own houses, cars, televisions, mobile phones, iPods, computers, DVD players and swanky equipment for home entertainment. We take more holidays than people of previous generations, and we go overseas more often. We own devices that save us time and energy – washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens. Most of these things have made our lives easier and freed us from the tedious aspects of domestic life. We also have more opportunities than our predecessors – to study, travel, change careers, move house, develop our talents, indulge our passions and even to leave an unhappy marriage. With all of these new-found freedoms and creature comforts, you would think that life in the 21st century would be happier than in any previous period in history. And yet, paradoxically, the reverse is true. Depression is now the fourth leading cause of disability in the US, and is expected to rise to second place (after heart disease) by the year 2020. Drug abuse, loneliness, youth suicide and divorce are increasingly common symptoms of personal unhappiness and social alienation. While many social and demographic factors have contributed to these problems, an important and often unacknowledged cause is our changing expectations.
It was the ancient stoic philosopher Seneca who first pointed out the role that our expectations play in determining our level of happiness. In 50 AD Seneca observed that people who are dissatisfied with their lives often have unrealistic expectations about how things should be. Today, with the mass media promoting tantalising images of fame, success, beauty, romance, popularity and wealth, the perceived gap between our own lives and those of the people we compare ourselves with has never been greater. Consequently we are more likely to feel dissatisfied with our lot than ever before. We have so much, yet we expect so much more. Because we tend to compare our lives with those of other people, we are left with the impression that we are somehow missing out – that our lives are just not good enough the way they are.
People living in modern Western countries often have unrealistic expectations about how things should be. We want to retain our youthful looks for ever, and we become despondent and desperate as we discover that we have little control over the ageing process. We expect to have perfect friendships, and so we become easily disillusioned when friends and family members fail to live up to our expectations. We expect to have well-paid, stimulating and satisfying work, and so we feel frustrated and dissatisfied because we still have not found the perfect job. We expect to be married or in a committed relationship, and so we feel desolate and despairing because we have not found our ideal mate. We want to have perfect children and happy, harmonious families, and we feel disappointed when ours do not live up to our expectations. We want to own an attractive home with lots of material comforts, and we want to accomplish important things. In short, many of our expectations leave us feeling unsatisfied with what we have. Unrealistic expectations lead us to believe that we’re missing out – that the lives we are living are somehow not good enough.
As we move through the various stages of our lives, new circumstances constantly challenge us to modify our expectations. One of the greatest challenges is in relation to ageing. Over the course of our lives we will need to change our expectations in relation to our appearance, and our physical and mental abilities. Age brings with it a series of physical changes. Our skin starts to sag and wrinkles appear, our hair thins and goes grey, our thighs and tummy get bigger and a lot of flabby bits appear where they never used to be; our eyesight, hearing and memory deteriorate, and even our sense of smell and taste decline. None of this is in itself a problem, as long as we modify our expectations along the way. With the passage of time we also need to adjust to the changing stages of life: from childhood to adolescence, adulthood, parenthood, working life, retirement and old age. With each new stage come new challenges, responsibilities and rewards. Recognising that life is composed of a series of stages, and adjusting our expectations as each new stage unfolds, helps us to make smooth transitions over the course of our lives. Unrealistic expectations or failing to modify our expectations over time can leave us feeling frightened, angry or depressed.
A good example to illustrate how our expectations affect our perceptions is the changing price of petrol. When petrol first went up to $1 a litre in 2001, the Australian public was horrified – we had been used to paying around 80 cents, so the new price felt exorbitant. However, as the price climbed to over $1.40 in 2005, $1 a litre suddenly sounded incredibly cheap. If by some good fortune we managed to find petrol at $1 a litre, it felt like we had snared a bargain. What would have previously seemed outrageously expensive now seemed cheap. It’s not the price that we pay, but our expectations of what the price should be that determines whether we are happy with what we pay or believe we are being fleeced.
A Chinese peasant celebrates because the abundant rice crop harvested this year will be sufficient to feed his family over the coming winter. In another part of the world, an Australian businessman contemplates suicide after the net worth of his assets has fallen from $27 million to just £7 million. He will be depressed for years.
Happiness is not a place to arrive at – it is a manner of travelling.
Many of us believe that we could be happy if only we could overcome a particular obstacle to our happiness – a rotten job, an obstinate child, an unpaid mortgage or an unhappy marriage. So we focus on our difficulties and postpone our happiness, assuming that one day, when our problems have been resolved or we have achieved some important goal, we will be able to sit back and feel happy:
When I finish my studies, life will be so much easier.
When I find the right job, I’ll feel much more satisfied.
When I move out of home, I’ll feel much happier.
When I’m earning enough to feel financially secure, I’ll be able to relax.
When I meet the right man, then I’ll be happy.
When I have children, I’ll be happy (it’s hard to be happy when your biological needs aren’t met).
When the children leave home, I’ll be able to relax at last.
Waiting for things to fall into place before we can be happy is a precarious strategy for two reasons. First, we miss the opportunity to fully experience and enjoy the present moment – to feel good now. And that is a pity, because today is the only chance we will ever get to experience today. Remember the saying: “This is not a dress rehearsal – it’s the real thing”? Postponing our happiness to some future time means that we miss out on today.
And once today has passed, it’s gone, and we don’t get another chance to live it again. Secondly, when we make our happiness conditional on solving our problems, we may never be happy, as problems will always be with us. As some are resolved, new ones emerge – that is the nature of things. The challenge is not to expect that all of our problems should disappear, but to fix what is fixable, accept what we cannot change and focus on all the many good things that we already have.
It’s what we focus on
Unrealistic expectations and focusing on the things that we believe are missing from our lives inevitably makes us miserable. The reverse is also true – having reasonable expectations and habitually acknowledging all the good things that we have makes us feel blessed. All of us have both positive and negative experiences in their lives – achievements and failures, pleasures and disappointments, losses and gains, illnesses and recoveries. The secret is to focus a little more on all the good things that we have – we take so much for granted! There is much to celebrate, if only we open our eyes.
Make a conscious effort to redirect your focus from thoughts that make you miserable to those that make you feel good.
One way to stay mindful of all the good things we have is to write a daily gratitude list. This involves taking five minutes each morning or evening to think of all the things that we can feel grateful for. Gratitude has long been the domain of prayer – most religions urge followers to express gratitude for the things that they have, including good health, a roof over one’s head and food on the table. Gratitude does not need to focus exclusively on big-ticket items. We can learn to appreciate every positive aspect of our lives, no matter how small: an outstanding task finally accomplished, an invitation to dinner, a fascinating programme on TV, the affections of our pet, the sunshine beaming through our window, the sweet, curious questions of a child. Keeping a daily gratitude list need only take up a few minutes a day, and can make a huge difference to the way we feel. For example, this is the gratitude list I wrote down this evening:
I feel grateful for:
- The laughter I shared with Sue on the phone this evening.
- The pleasure of reading today’s newspaper.
- The revived energy and sense of well-being that I felt after my morning walk.
- The gradual healing of a wound – a problem that has troubled me is fading.
- Mum is feeling better.
- That phone call that I had been putting off and that has now been made.
- The peace of mind I am experiencing right now.
- My ability to think and write today.
- The progress that I’ve made towards completing my outstanding jobs.
- Living in a T-shirt – Sydney’s great weather.
Don’t ignore the small pleasures. When you add them together, they are the things that make life fantastic!
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