Want to know the secret to happiness? Lower your expectations.

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There’s an epidemic in this day and age: discontentment.

So many people are discontent. They don’t like their jobs; they don’t like their age/stage of life/etc.; they don’t like themselves. They wish they had a partner or spouse, or they wish their partner or spouse would pay more attention to them. They wish they had a family, or they wish they had more time to themselves, or they wish they lived somewhere else, or were doing something else with their lives. They wish they had more money. They wish they could travel. They wish they weren’t wishing so much for more, or for something else, than what they have. It’s especially concentrated among people under age 45 or so, I believe, but no one is immune.

There is a simple remedy for discontentment.

Lower your expectations.

I don’t mean don’t have ambition or don’t have dreams and goals – but making those dreams and goals the end-all be-all, the things that you must achieve before you could ever even consider being content, can make you miserable in the interim. People these days think that reaching self-actualization is the only way to be happy, but that’s simply not true. Happiness is all, always, a state of mind. You can be happier far further down the pyramid.

I know because I used to make myself miserable wishing for something more. I wished I was someone else, I wished I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, I wished I was better or had different skills, I wished I had done something truly memorable. I was like that from about age twelve until just after I got married. Fortunately I married a man who is good at being content, at sustaining peace-of-mind. And that’s not to say he doesn’t have ambitions and goals – no one without ambitions and goals subjects himself to law school – but he works diligently and humbly while still being perfectly content with this phase of life. The fruits of his labor will pay off later and until then, he allows himself to be satisfied with his life (although probably you shouldn’t ask him how satisfied he is with his life right around final exams).

It’s funny because even just a generation ago, people didn’t necessarily have time to be discontent – to stare wistfully off into the distance wishing for some ivory-tower change in their lives. My father started his first business in fifth grade mowing lawns to put himself through college, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to go otherwise. I’m sure mowing lawns and loading trucks third-shift in high school to put himself through college wasn’t exactly his picture-perfect idea of his high school years, but he did what he had to do to get where he wanted to go with no complaints and no forlorn day-dreaming. He didn’t have time to pine after a life other than his own – he was on a mission.

And his parents before him, my grandparents, certainly didn’t have the time or energy to ponder the life that would ultimately fulfill them. My grandmother was in a displaced persons camp in Germany as a child, her mother stolen from her and placed in a Russian labor camp. Her escape to America, though brimming with possibility, also meant a long and difficult road ahead. She spent hours translating her homework from English to German so she could complete it in German before translating it back to English. Neither she nor my grandfather went to college, and my grandpa never finished high school either, so their dreams centered less upon themselves and more upon providing a better life for their children. And they achieved it – four kids that earned at least a bachelor’s if not a master’s degree and found success. You should hear the pride in their voices when they talk about their children. As for them, they stepped back for a breath after their children were grown and found that they too had accomplished much in life, the product of working hard to build something from the nothing they had when they first arrived in the United States.

And then there was my father-in-law starting up his law firm with his wife pregnant with his fifth child and a small sum in the bank. I’m sure he was thinking less about self-actualization than about providing for his growing family by practicing his craft the best he could. And practice his craft he did, realizing success along the way.

My point is this: I think oftentimes success and fulfillment come not when you’re desperately searching for it, yearning after the insubstantial vision of something grand and wonderful for your life, but when you’re working hard, not necessarily expecting anything beyond providing for yourself and the people you love, and being content along the way. That doesn’t mean you’re not striving to be CEO or to leave a lasting mark on the world or to get married or to have a family or to start your own company or to get your PhD…but it does mean that you don’t need those things to be happy. It also means you’re not expecting great things to happen to you, or feeling like you’re entitled to them.

It means you can be content with yourself, just as you are, which also means you can be confident in yourself to control what is in your power to control and let the rest go.

Excuse the cliche, but life is much too short to live it discontent. Lower your expectations. Work hard. Love yourself. Love the people around you. And one day you may find you’ve reached that utopic state of self-actualization in ways you never expected.

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