Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Secret to Happiness and Compassion: Low Expectations

But happiness and compassion aren’t everything

A new MRI study from University College of London indicates that the secret to happiness is low expectations. Author and neuroscientist Robb Rutledge says, “Happiness depends not on how well things are going but whether things are going better or worse than expected.”

This rings very true in my experience. I once expected to make it big, and when I didn’t, I eventually got over that expectation, and have been much happier ever since. Every little success these days is a surprise and delight. 

It makes me wonder about optimists. Are they so cheerful because they have high expectations or low ones?   

The joke goes that a child was so optimistic that, to test the extent of his optimism, his parents gave him a pile of horse manure. The kid's eyes open wide with delight. He dives into the pile and starts digging. 

“What are you doing?” his parents ask.

The kid replies, “With this much manure, I'm betting there’s a pony in here!”

Imagine his disappointment when there wasn’t. 

Maybe the true optimist would say “Horse manure! That’s so much better than what I expected!  I thought you were going to give me anthrax for my birthday!” 

Even manure is a happy gift when your expectations are low enough.

I recently lowered my expectations for what I get from a friend who used to annoy me. Immediately, my annoyance vanished and I felt greater compassion for him. 

So I posed a question to friends on my Facebook wall: "I begin to suspect that all acts of empathy and compassion entail lowering our expectations or standards for what to expect from others. What do you think?”

I got a stern replies, “Lowered expectations or standards? No way!”  But I have way too many New Age Spiritual friends (vestiges of my past lives), people who reason primarily by positive and negative connotation. In effect they said, “compassion sounds good; lowered expectations or lowered standards sound bad, so they can’t be related.”

By now I'm convinced that like happiness, compassion is always a function of lowered expectations or standards. We’re happier to accept other people’s difficult behaviors when we expect less from them.

So there you have it. If happiness and compassion are your sole goals, lower your expectations.

Through the floor. Expect no good things to come to you,from you, from circumstances or from others and you’ll be eternally delighted, grateful for any good things that happen.

No expectation of a pony means no risk of disappointment. Assume you’re destined to spend eternity in hell and you will experience nothing but heaven. Expect people to be as bad for you as anthrax and you’ll be appreciative of whatever you get from them, even horse manure behavior.

My point being that happiness and compassion must not be the only virtues.

Another virtue is improvement, for which high expectations are crucial, even if they're disappointed, or they make us less compassionate -- sadder when we don’t meet our higher expectations; less compassionate when others don't meet our expectations. 

It reminds me of the caterpillar sitting on the mushroom in Alice in Wonderland. You’ll remember, Alice can’t tell whether she wants to be bigger or smaller and catarpillar tells her to nibble one side of the mushroom to get taller and the other side to get smaller. In other words: 

Have higher expectations if you want improvement, and lower expectations if you want contentment.

If you want to get bigger and encourage others to get bigger, cultivate high expectations even if it means being disappointed or sounding uncompassionate, and if you want to feel big enough already and satisfied with what others deliver, lower your expectations.

It’s all about managing the “aspirational gap,” the gap between what is and what could be, what you have and what you expect. It’s all about expectation management.

Jeremy Sherman, 2014

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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