Friday Musings: Great Expectations May Prevent Happiness

“Trade your expectations for appreciation and your whole world changes in an instant.” –Tony Robbins

Humanity has an amazing capacity to normalize our own experience and create new set points. Think about your phone. You can hear the voice of someone across the world- in real time! From Texas, I can call my mother and immediately hear her voice in Seattle. As if that was not magical enough, I can click a button and see her. With a modest investment, I could use this very phone to purchase a plane ticket and FLY. Yes me, the human, Shane Trotter, will fly in the air to be with her in less than 5 hours. In that plane, I will have air conditioning and access to food that is comprised of ingredients assembled from across the world. Our lives are inconceivably magical and, yet, entirely, dully normal to us.

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We will always be looking for more. This quirk once ensured our survival and now, in our incomprehensibly comfortable lives, requires intentional self-reflection. Striving towards worthwhile purpose is the essence of fulfillment. Yet, expecting endless comfort and abundance is at the essence of dissatisfaction. Contrary to popular opinion, attaining evermore luxury and opulence will not create happiness. Unchecked hedonistic consumption is a recipe for depression. This is an essential realization given our biology’s inclination to chase comfort and pleasure. It is not that pleasure and luxury are always bad, it is that as primary directives they are deeply unfulfilling. More often than not, the more we expect the less happy we will be. This is the curse of entitlement.

The gap between expectations and reality often costs us fulfillment and happiness. If you come home from work and expect your spouse to have pacified the fussy baby, prepared dinner, and transformed your 4-year-old twins from messy fighters to prodigious pianists you are likely to be unhappy. The baby will cry, the twins will wrestle, and some nights the sweet potatoes just won’t come out right. If you expect the world to go according to your perfect plans and for everyone to acquiesce to your "needs," you’ll be disappointed every day. This is part of the reason it can be powerful to habitually practice gratitude training where you learn to perceive and vividly note the many positives we’re constantly overlooking amid ridiculous expectations. It is why Stoics like Seneca recommended monthly periods of denial where you learned to do with less. Additionally, this expectations gap explains why spoiling children and creating entitlement can be detrimental to their ability to find happiness and appreciation in their futures.

Unfortunately, our Standard Model of parenting is governed by misguided beliefs like: “I need to get my kid what they want as quickly as possible and provide as much as I can to make their life easier than mine was.”

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For the child who gets a brand new Audi upon turning 16, what message is sent? How could she not have an inflated sense of self-importance driving a car that nearly every adult she encounters could never purchase? Human nature is to strive for more. Where does she go from here? She learns to believe she needs such luxury to be content. When she has joined the workforce and needs a new car, she’ll consider herself a failure if her means require a downgrade. Perhaps she’ll get into a very expensive lease that leaves her pinching pennies each month. Maybe this keeps her dependent on her parents and entitled to their money long after leaving the home. Perhaps money will rank too high among the considerations for a future mate. The need for things might preclude transformational experiences that would change the course of her life. She’ll chase money to afford the things she “needs” rather than experiences that change her perception and point her towards greater purpose.

This is not to say that all gifts are bad, or that this young lady couldn’t grow up well adjusted. We can always overcome entitlement. But why put this on our children?

Unrealistic expectations create unhappiness. Despite the highest standard of living in human history, anxiety, depression, drug overdoses, and suicides are each at an all-time high. You see, modern unhappiness does not stem from lack of luxury. Having problems doesn’t cause unhappiness. It is that we expect not to have problems, or inconveniences, that causes unhappiness. The age of entitlement is the age of narcissism and sickeningly unrealistic expectations.

Compare the 21st-century American life to that of 99.9% of human history and you quickly realize we’ve all hit the lottery. In my last Friday Musing, I revealed the IHD Core Values. These then lead to the IHD Core Habits- the consistent actions that best prompt the self-discovery and self-mastery which pulls us towards greater passion and purpose. One of those habits is Meditation/Gratitude/Journaling. It is a broad habit that leaves a lot of room for individualization. Justin is a building a course on this topic, so I’ll not go into too much depth.

Today I just want to suggest you consider a daily gratitude practice. It could be the family says what they are grateful for at dinner each night, or a journal where you write down a gratitude each morning and evening. For those interested, I really enjoyed the 5-Minute Journal. Whatever your method, be consistent and be vivid.

“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.”

-Tim Ferriss

When I ask many students to take 5 minutes to write 3 things they are really grateful for, the majority will put their pen down within a minute. They’ve invariably noted the same, boring clichés with little impact: “I’m grateful for my family and my friends and that I have my health.” To these responses I might prompt: “What about your family are you grateful for?” To which I’d likely here the uninspiring: “They love me and take care of me and always try to cheer me up when I’m in a bad mood.”  If we were to do this exercise every day for a month, they’d give me 3 or 4 variations of the same responses every day and benefit little from the exercise.

We get so much more from digging- allowing ourselves to struggle to think of something original and vivid. Allow me to demonstrate a gratitude I wrote this week: “I am grateful for my father’s passion for learning and the willpower that he conveyed to me through evening trivia sessions and a spirit of play in all our family work projects. I’m so grateful for the memory of him cracking jokes and making fools of us all as we volunteered at the concession stand for my brother’s football team. I am grateful for the shared interests we still have that bond us and allow us such interesting phone conversations, like this past weekend when we discussed the books Tribe and Sapiens. I’m grateful for the time he invested proofing my high-school papers to push me towards better writing so that I felt confident and empowered to do the thing I love most. I’m grateful for him modeling the ability to let go of work and appreciate the simple things from time to time.

It is all very stream of consciousness, but it is only for you. “Trade your expectations for appreciation and your whole world changes in an instant.”