Not so great expectations

The other day there was a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about happiness and expectations. It argues that the reason Danish people continually rate as the happiest people in the world is due to lowered expectations. As I was reading it, it occurred to me that this argument was rife for a bit of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, and lo and behold, the author did too.

Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

It’s a natural fit, as a central idea of Buddhism is that suffering/dissatisfaction/unhappiness occurs because we desire or expect one thing to happen, but reality often serves us up something different. We live our lives waiting for something in the future that will make us happy, and thus wallow in unhappiness now. We miss out on enjoying the here and now (which, is all there actually is) in the promise of something better tomorrow. But inevitably when this thing comes, its not good enough, and we wait for more. And more..and more.

This was excellently put by Alan Watts, and captured brilliantly in the “Music and Life” short film:

Or as Eric Weiner in the New York Times put it:

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

I was thinking about all this last week as I had my breakfast. It was a typical Irish summer morning – grey, over cast and bucketing rain. I scanned some social networks and saw the inevitable dawn chorus – “Feckin’ rain!” etc, with people pretty pissed off and down about our weather. We have high expectations for the weather – its Summer, it should be warm and sunny. And when we wake up the Universe has a different plan. When this split between expectation and reality occurs, we get upset.

Within an hour, the sun was out, the sky was blue and people were merrily skipping about town in short sleeves, and people were happy. The day had finally lived up to their expectations.

The next morning? Rain and gloom. If we lowered our expectations about the weather – the rain wouldn’t seem so bad. And the sunshine would be a pleasant surprise, but one that we would expect to pass and so would not mourn its passing.