The secret to happiness? Lower your expectations, experts advise
It's impossible to be happy all the time. But here's how to be happy a little more.
By GAIL ROSENBLUM
Consciously find and embrace happiness where you can, therapists say.
The fisherman was kind enough to wait to set up his gear until I had finished my task. He didn’t ask, but I’m sure he wondered why I was throwing small pieces of bread into a lake when there were no ducks around.
The tradition is called tashlich, Hebrew for “cast off.” The ritual is a symbolic way to toss away sins, something we do during the observation of the Jewish New Year, which began Oct. 2 and ends on Oct. 12.
I love this 10-day period of introspection, which offers us a rich opportunity to make amends, forgive and ask forgiveness, and chart a more altruistic course, where we will be better and kinder to everyone around us, and happier in general.
And yet, there I was again, tossing carbs to the fishies, hoping for the same things. Maybe I needed to try something new to be better, kinder, happier.
Thanks to a British scientist, I think I found that thing.
I’m lowering my expectations.
The potential benefits of lowered — but not low — expectations, come from Robb Rutledge, a British neuroscientist who assured me that the secret to happiness is to stop being unreasonable about what we can expect of other people and of ourselves.
“Many people think that they would like to be happy all the time, and I think that’s probably not a great idea,” he said via e-mail.
It’s not a great idea because it’s impossible to be happy all the time.
For the most part, Rutledge said, our individual happiness quotients go up and down as we react to and reflect upon whatever is going on in our lives. Then we return “to some kind of baseline happiness level,” he said.
But what if we wanted to try to squeak out a little more from the happy upcycle?
“There is, indeed, some truth to the idea that lowered expectations lead to greater happiness,” Rutledge said.
In one happiness experiment, for example, his team of researchers tracked thousands of players of a particular smartphone game. When players expected a reward, he said, they were less happy when they received it than if they hadn’t expected any reward at all.
Similar happy feelings can spring forth when a potentially awful blind date is actually OK, or a family gathering ends without anybody shouting.
Sound advice, I’d say, as we plan for family-centric Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah.
Bill Myers, professor emeritus at St. Catherine University, spent 32 years teaching philosophy, so the topic of happy humans intrigues him, too. Myers views the happiness expectations dilemma through an ancient Greek lens.
“There’s a word, eudaimonia, which is always translated as ‘happiness,’ ” he said. “But it’s more accurately about lifelong flourishing as a human.”
In other words, counseled those wise Greeks, stop trying to be happy. Instead, live a virtuous and ethical life, with meaningful work and people to share your bounties and blows, and happiness will follow.
Consciously embracing happiness
Minneapolis therapist and life coach Tom Glaser also is interested in taming our great expectations around happiness. He just wrote a book on the subject, titled “Full Heart Living: Conversations With the Happiest People I Know.”
One of the happiest people he interviewed has struggled with divorce, bipolar disorder and financial hardships. Others he profiled have dealt with childhood trauma, family illness, loneliness or garden-variety rejection and disappointment.
What set them all apart, he said, was a conscious decision to find and embrace happiness where they could. Most of the time, that had nothing to do with money or more stuff, and certainly not with perfection.
“Happier people embrace the wholeness of life — the good, and the bad, the happy and the sad,” he contends. He learned from them.
“By knowing when I’m sad, and not avoiding it or squelching it, I’m far more able to appreciate the times when I’m not sad. I no longer expect to be happy every day.”
Glaser tells a funny story about his husband, whose method of loading the dishwasher “can send me over the edge. He always puts the bowls on top so there is no place for the glasses.”
Back and forth they went, until a very unhappy Glaser decided, “Who cares? I could perseverate or I could accept that this is something that’s not going to change.”
Glaser lovingly lowered his expectations. He let it go and chose, instead, to take a walk with his spouse on a gorgeous fall day.
And he was really happy.