If you’ve been struggling to understand why you aren’t happy even thought there may be a
number of things in your life you are grateful for, happy about and have worked hard for, then perhaps you need to examine and explore what you expected from life.
Most people I have worked with as well as many friends and family are often feeling unsatisfied and unhappy with their lives yet they are living lives that most people on the planet would be truly envious of. In fact, our worst day may be the best day the majority of the globe’s population may ever hope for. While comparisons of this nature may transport you back to a time when mum told you that the starving children in Africa would kill to have what you have (begin eye rolling here) – she may have been onto something -even though mum was probably only intending to evoke guilt or shame and manipulate us into doing what she wanted.
Evil motives aside, these comparisons can evoke guilt or they can assist us in developing a profound sense of gratitude and abundance. It can also quickly discount some of the worry and anxiety we may be experiencing over things, situations or circumstances, that in the scheme of things, ain’t really that big a deal. We kind of all know that many of our struggles come from 1st world concerns, and yet many of us can’t seem to shift this knowledge into a feeling of prosperity and happiness.
The answer to this problem is that your expectations will define and shape how you feel and evaluate your current life. Expectations are the ‘bar’ the mind sets that defines pass and fail. When our reality matches our expectations, we receive a pass and we feel satisfied, happy, good. When reality exceeds our expectations, we feel extremely satisfied and abundant.
When our reality fails to meet our expectations, we feel a sense of failure, dissatisfaction and sadness. Humans have evolved a drive to succeed, master and accomplish. Therefore, when we perceive that we have failed at something we are likely to become fixated on this issue – we may pour all our energy into resolving the situation, changing our reality or we can become quite angry, believing that it is unfair that we haven’t been able to achieve this or we can become quite depressed and despondent.
Despite what many books will try to convince you of, reality isn’t really something you have a lot of control over. Take Joe and Steve for example, both Joe and Steve decide to do a business course in order to open up their own business in the next year. They both study hard and do equally well. Using the same knowledge and skill, they do their research and open up a business each, having used the same criteria and methodology as to the what, where, when of their business and they both have equal skill and intellect. In a year, Joe’s business is doing so well there are plans for another store to open vey soon, and Steve is close to bankruptcy. Joe did nothing better or greater than Steve and yet he is successful… he is very happy, because not only did his business do well (reality = expectations) it is doing better than he expected and he feels very happy and fortunate (reality > expectations). We all can imagine how poor Steve must be feeling… This is just a quick example to illustrate that there are so many things in life that are not predicted by our effort, planning, wisdom, hard work or any other personal factor you can think of. While we have a lot of power, we don’t have complete power or control.
So if my reality (which is not 100% up to me) is responsible for my happiness, then this means that I have very little control over my happiness. And, if this is true, then what the hell are all those people shutting out about “being happy”, and thinking “happy” and creating your own happiness and the whole “you are responsible for your own happiness”, on about? Well we cannot change our reality and our influence over our circumstances is not guaranteed, the only option for us to be able to influence our happiness is by addressing our expectations.
Expectations are not just a list that we give ourselves. Many of the patients I work with will often say they don’t really believe they have any expectations about happiness and life. They say they may have goals, but they tend to believe that it may be ok if they do not reach them. The expectations that are guiding how we evaluate life, may need to be uncovered with quite a bit of work. Often, it takes feeling disappointed to become really in tune with our expectations. It would be impossible to feel disappointed, unless your expectations were not matched. So, for example, when a mother returns to her session complaining that the discipline techniques I had given her did not work, I typically am told that while she sent her chid to time out 3 times that day, her child still misbehaved the next. My response is usually a look of dumbfoundedness and a response of : “and….”. Clearly her expectation that a discipline technique or any other parental strategy would be effective enough to eliminate all misbehaviour and unruliness in the child completely is an unrealistic expectation, and one that will not only create frustration and unhappiness in her, but also may interfere with her role as a mother and her relationship with her child. Similarly, expecting that a happy life means not getting frustrated, upset, sad, sick, anxious, lonely, or any other unpleasant emotion, is also setting the bar too high and setting you up for a ‘fail’.
Expectations we have about other people and our relationships are also often avery common source of distress and pain. All too often, we have failed to match our expectations of others with the reality of who these others are; what we know of them, our past dealings with them and the circumstances surround them, etc. Instead, we have expectations of these people based on philosophical notions, ideals or other standards, which are clearly not in line with the reality of those individuals. An example of this is when our expectations of our intimate partner are based on beliefs/notions/sociocultural depictions we have about what people in love act like, we are likely to become very disappointed with the reality of his behaviour. It is not wrong, entitled, spoilt or any other such thing to want or need certain behaviours from your partner. In fact feeling loved and cherished is an integral and meaningful human experience. What is important is that you develop realistic expectations based on his past behaviour and his character and everything you know about him, and if you are to continue to be in a relationship with this person, then you’ expectations should be entirely formed by the reality of who he is, rather than base on an ideal.
Take the next 7 days noticing our disappointment, noticing what we are worrying about, the consequences we are trying to avoid or control for, and take a moment to reflect on what expectations about life and living are underpinning these disappointments. Gently ask yourself, in the big picture, taking in the whole world, how realistic are these expectations? Do you really want this one thing to make or break your ability to feel content, at peace, happy? If it feel that this execration is realistic, ask yourself, if a hundred years ago this was realistic to most people? Is it something most people on this planet can expect today? Then release yourself from continuing to place conditions on reality and accept that life is what it is, in this very moment, and in this very moment I can be at peace and I can be happy if I no longer need my reality to be different (even if it is painful right now, I can accept this pain, because I acknowledge that pain and suffering and misfortunate and hardship can all be part of a happy and full life).