Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."
In my last post, I introduced you to my springer spaniel, Sydney, who does four basic things in life and never at the same time: eat, play, poop, and sleep. You can’t ask for a more simplified life, one free from the temptations created by technology. But most of all she’s happy, as evidenced by the continuous side-to-side gyrations of her little tail.
As humans, we also want to be happy. Most of us believe it’s a basic human right. Unlike the simplified road to happiness taken by Sydney, we have a tendency to try and use whatever we have at our disposal to acquire it. Whether it’s through status, stuff, or other people, we have a desire to feel valuable in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.
The challenge is to know what it means to be happy. Although I know a number of people who think happiness is complicated and dependent upon a large number of factors, I tend to believe happiness is nothing more than a function of both expectation and reality––the relationship of two independent variables that ultimately affect our feelings of happiness. A mathematician, or any one of the dozen or so people in the world who aren’t afraid of math, might view it like this:
Happiness = f (Expectation, Reality)
As long as someone’s reality—perceived or otherwise—is above their level of expectation, they generally tend to be happy. However, when those pesky expectations start rising too high or even stay the same while our current state of reality declines, unhappiness typically sets in.
I believe that as average people we have the most control over, or can more directly impact, our levels of expectation. Life’s outcomes and subsequent realities are typically not in our direct control, since rewards and other positive changes are frequently at the behest of others.
So let’s focus on a few aspects in life today that can directly impact our expectations:
Hedonic Adaptation: “Hedonic adaptation” is a psychologist’s way of saying the novelty wears off. Eventually, that new house, car, or smart TV you had to have becomes just another thing you own, or the job you worked so hard to get becomes just part of your daily grind. Your lifestyle adapts, and you’re back to wanting more.1 I’ve now come to embrace that happiness related to “stuff” is a choice, and there’s nothing tangible that can “make” me happy in the long-term. No matter what we work toward or feel like we must have, typically the happiness attached to it is only short-term. Each time you receive that “must-have” thing, it only serves to raise the bar of expectation for the next must-have thing.
Social Media Image Crafting: We are always trying to put our best foot forward and want to look good to others. It’s human nature. With the advent of social media, you can take it to an entirely new level and present yourself any way you wish, and it’s usually positive. According to a piece on Whole9life.com (a health and quality of life website), “Our social media feeds read like a modern-day fairy tale, where every moment is wondrous, every interaction with our family is more precious than the last, and even the mundane (Coffee with the girls! Look at my lunch! Stuck in traffic!) is a magical experience.” 2 Social media image crafting tells everyone that a perfect life is not only attainable, it’s normal. So when everything about your social media “friends” seems perfect, it naturally raises the bar of expectation related to your own “imperfect” real life; thus, the gap between expectation and reality is potentially widened causing increased levels of unhappiness.
Technological Overdependence: Frequently, happiness is thought to be the natural result of success. Although an extremely subjective term, “success” for many of us often revolves around the feeling of being busy, as “busy-ness” implies productivity. Technology helps to provide this feeling of busy. And naturally, we expect our technology to always work the way in which it was designed. When it doesn’t, it causes stress and anxiety. I was once at a busy grocery store when their computer system suddenly went down. Check-out registers could no longer take credit cards. People had to use cash. Since most people today typically don’t carry much cash, there was a mad scramble to the ATM machine, which was quickly emptied (it was on its own, separate system). Chaos, anger, arguing, yelling, and frustration all ensued. Much unhappiness was present. By the way, I did happen to have cash, so I got to watch and be entertained—and a little scared—by it all.
Future-Focused: Too often, we overly set our sights on the future, and we can only see the present after it has become the past. Being goal-driven isn’t a bad thing, unless we are too future-focused, and then our expectations of future joy can blind us to the joys and value found in the now. We may frequently find ourselves absent from the moment as any one of a great number of distractions pulls our attention in a variety of directions, all with the intent of getting or achieving something else “down the road.” If getting older has taught me anything, it’s that time is finite. There’s never enough. I’m amazed at the growing frequency of what I call “time-lapse realizations” that occur the moment I accomplish some goal or objective. While I’m happy I achieved what I set out to do, a sudden realization often follows: getting there came at a great price. A feeling of emptiness often overtakes me, as if I had been transported into the future with little memory of the daily joys from the actual act of doing. I realize how fast time raced by, and because I was so goal-oriented, I was unable to fully enjoy the experiences related to the process.
Childhood Letdown: My good friend and author Adam Carroll frequently talks about how we as parents can sometimes actually love our children too much. It happens in a variety of ways: giving them things they should have had to work for, not helping them to understand the true value of something, or by setting high expectations for them that are impractical once they become self-sustaining adults. Sometimes, in our efforts to “encourage” or “inspire” them to become successful or achieve greatness, we provide motivational but unrealistic guidance. How many parents have told their children that they can be or do “anything” they want when they grow up? According to the Book of Odds, the probability of becoming the President of the United States is 10 million to one. The probability of becoming an astronaut is even greater (believe it or not) – 12.5 million to one.3 The unfortunate, negative side effect to all of this is the potential of setting children up for failure and disappointment because expectations were set too high. When I was a child, I was doing some pretty amazing things as compared to other kids my age. I was able to represent the United States in the International Science and Engineering fair and worked in the research and design department of a computer manufacturer, all while still in high school. Needless to say, many in my family were convinced I would become the family’s first multi-millionaire; a view they often shared with me. I’m now in my fifties and am still working on that millionaire thing. Not to say that I haven’t been successful in life, but those words still haunt me a bit today, making me question, “What could or should have been?” and “How have I possibly fallen short of my potential?”
Happiness is a state of mind impacted by where we set our expectations. While these and many other factors directly affect those expectations, we are ultimately in control of where they’re set in relationship to our current state of reality.
While “strategic” and long-term goals are definitely not bad in and of themselves, they will seldom ever be achieved if set at levels requiring too much time to realize. The gap between reality and expectation will be too great, and ultimately, results in unhappiness.
Think tiny. Ideally, our expectation bars should be set at short, attainable levels so both growth and happiness are incremental. Small, short-term accomplishments will not only serve as a motivator towards the future, they will help you maintain an achievable level of ongoing happiness. After all, isn’t that what everyone wants?
Practice Challenge: Think about what you want long-term…what you really want. Then, break that down into very tiny, incremental steps. Once done, while keeping in mind all of the aspects mentioned above, focus exclusively on achieving that first step, and only that first step. After you accomplish it, move on to the next. Not only does this keep your expectations at manageable levels, it keeps happiness within reach.
©2016 Anthony D. Paustian
For more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at www.adpaustian.com
1Is $50,000 Enough to Buy Happiness? What about $161,810? (April 2013) Retrieved January 11, 2016, from the Fast Company website: http://www.fastcompany.com/3006746/is-50000-enough-to-buy-happiness-what-about-161810
2The Dangers of Image Crafting. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from the Whole9 website: http://whole9life.com/2014/03/dangers-image-crafting
3 Shapiro, A. & Campbell, L. (2014). The Book of Odds: from Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, the Odds of Everyday Life. New York, NY: William Morrow, Inc.