Compared to 500 years ago, before the exponential explosion of science, technology, wealth, inventions, and access to resources granted us near mastery over our environment, enabled us to meet all our survival needs, and allowed us to enjoy a level of personal comfort and safety unprecedented in human history. Are we any happier?
The Science of Happiness
Over the last several years, a new field of research has gained popularity, the science of happiness. Legitimate researches are dabbling and have published countless studies, books and articles on the topic. My curiosity on the subject has led me to dive deep into the literature on this new state of being. Some scientists conclude that happiness comes from our environment. Some claim that it’s determined by behavior. Some believe it is an evolutionary phenomenon and others are certain that the key to understanding happiness lies in our genetic profile and our biology. No matter what they call it and regardless of their point of view, they all attempt to answer the following question. Compared to 500 years ago, before the exponential explosion of science, technology, wealth, inventions and access to resources granted us near mastery over our environment. It enabled us to meet all our survival needs and allowed us to enjoy a level of personal comfort and safety unprecedented in human history. Are we any happier? There’s no way to summarize all the disparate and contradictory threads on research in one episode.
I’ll share what I’ve discovered about happiness as it relates to the evaluation process we had been going through. All these quality studies in the world mean nothing unless you find a way to connect them to personal experience. A lot of my research into happiness felt abstract until I stumbled upon the golden nugget of insight that makes a huge difference in nearly every facet of my life. This pearl of wisdom informs how I approach wants, desires, relationships, material possessions and important decisions. Here’s the common thread that runs through all the research. Happiness depends on the correlation between your objective conditions and your subjective expectations. Happiness doesn’t depend solely on factors you might expect like wealth, health, community, environment or happiness. Happiness doesn’t depend on your bank balance or whether you live in Hawaii or India. It doesn’t matter if you had a happy childhood or you’re battling cancer. Those things are part of the picture but they’re not as critical as most of us believe. Here is my takeaway from all of that.
The pearl of wisdom and this is how I frame all of it in my mind. Expectations are like disappointments in disguise. Expectation management. You might expect a used Dodge minivan. If I get a used Dodge minivan, then I’m content. If I want a brand new Porsche and I get a Dodge minivan, I’m far from content. I’m unhappy. I feel deprived, but not because of the presence of the minivan or the absence of a sports car. I feel deprived because I miscalculated. I failed to calibrate the instrument of my happiness, my expectations from my subjective conditions, reality. You might expect my partner to provide the support I need after a crappy day and the dog gets more love than I do, I’m unhappy. You might expect my boss to respect my work but got nothing but a grunt and a new impossible deadline when I turned in a big project, I’m unhappy.
To put it simply, it’s all about calibrating our calculations and managing your expectations. Most of us aren’t aware of the scores of expectations we have swirling around in our head every day from little things to big things. Expectation management is huge, but expectation mismanagement can break our backs. When reality hits, whether we wake up to realize we’re out of coffee or we don’t get an amazing job we applied for, we wonder why we feel crappy. The reason we feel crappy is the distance and the dissonance between what we expected to get and what we thought. Hence my conclusion that expectations are merely disappointments in disguise. I discovered early in life I was an anxious person. It had to do with being autistic. My life was not about being happy. It was feeling safe and calm. When I knew what I had to do and I could predict what will happen next, it means I could relax and enjoy the moment. I found people illogical and unpredictable. A lot of my time was tied up working out with someone who would do next if it was relevant to me. If not, I did not bother.
After a while, I realized that if I set my goals and expectations to be functional, I minimize disappointment and being frustrated, angry or disappointed. The only person who had to rise to the occasion was me because I could control and manage me and the rest were outside of my control. The clearer I became about my expectation and the tyranny of shoulds and musts and so on and the more aware I became, the more relaxed I got. I’ve covered the tyranny of shoulds and musts in previous episodes. I’m not saying that all of this happened overnight. What did happen is I got a handle on this once the world became less and less unsafe and more and more unpredictable. I started enjoying my life more. People noticed how much calmer I became. Hitting the jackpot, two things happen to lottery winners over time. They spend irresponsibility and go broke. They go back to the same level of happiness or unhappiness they had before. Life improved for the lottery winners. Their objective conditions changed significantly, but something else changes through their expectations.
Despite the dramatic improvement in their condition, the lottery winner still managed to feel miserable. This happens because of the entire frame of reference shifts. After the honeymoon period of wealth is over, they return to the default mode of mismanaging expectations even though they have more money than they had before. Similarly, when things deteriorate, they go broke and slide back to the pre-jackpot financial situation. The expectations shrivel up and they return to where they started. On the flip side, expectations are closely associated with anticipation, wanting and the desire for achieving great things. In that way, the fireworks of anticipation are one of the coolest aspects of being human. We imagine, we plan, we work, we accomplish. We set foot on the moon and we cure diseases that not long ago killed millions and that’s all because we expect more. As far as we know, we are the only species gifted with such incredible quality.
Sure, my wife’s best friends, cats and dogs expect things but the expectations are different. They are thinking about a tasty treat or anticipating the mistress’s imminent return home. The cat is not planning or expecting to cure cancer or send her kittens to Mars. We humans are crazy enough to expect and plan for both of these things. I find it amusing that we have created an entire industry dedicated to finding out what makes us happy. It’s amusing because prophets have been telling us for thousands of years that being satisfied with what we have are far more important than getting more. It’s how all this talk of happiness relates to decluttering. Mismatched expectations creep into the gap between what we want in the world in which we live. Declutter a space that should be simple and clear. Rather than accept the moment, expectations create illusions that have nothing to do with reality.
My personal solution and guiding philosophy around all this is to appreciate, love, and enjoy what I have while balancing it all with the knowledge that’s more out there. This is the skill I’ve had to develop and practice over time. Managing the balance is like an acrobatic team on the tight rope managing the walk across the wire. They maintain constant, dynamic, mindful and vigilant attention to the process. You can believe they didn’t wake up one day doing the art. They had to practice the skill just like I practiced gratitude and work by managing my expectations every day. One last thing I found in my research on the topic is money won’t buy you happiness, but it might buy you a ship to sail and rise up to it.
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