There’s a saying that our serenity is inversely proportional to our expectations. In other words, the extent of our entitlement or need for things to look a certain way determines the extent of our unhappiness. This makes sense for the simple fact that when we focus on what we don’t have, we feel distraught and disappointed.
Like all sayings, this one can lose its meaning over time. It becomes just a saying. And next to other sayings like “Dream Big” and “Anything is Possible,” the idea of limiting expectations can seem like it’s putting a lid on our dreams. Releasing expectations can feel like we are giving up, that we are “settling” and can simultaneously ignite all sorts of feelings associated with not getting what we want and the stories we tell ourselves about why that’s the case.
But, letting go of expectations doesn’t mean giving up on life or our big dreams. These two notions are not mutually exclusive. We can have a calling and passion but also remember that achievement isn’t the secret to happiness. Clinging to a future version of our lives as a measure of our happiness is a losing proposition. And in my opinion, most of the time we don’t really know what’s best for ourselves. So, even our “big dreams” aren’t tailored to the sort of growth and development that will bring us real satisfaction in the long run. And this is just talking about how expectations impact our future. When we cling to what we think we know is best down the road, we lose out on what we are experiencing right now.
When we are busy writing the end of the story before it’s finished, we can’t really see what is happening in the present. But when we loosen our grip and look around at our lives, we can start to see and experience what we already have. We can see that there is much to be grateful for. And it’s not a made up storyline—it’s reality. And it’s actually the only thing that we have—this present moment and the goodness that lies within it.
So, if you are like me, you have some pretty big ideas about what the future should hold and are probably doing everything you can to make those things happen. This post is my friendly reminder to look around your life today to see how much of what you want already exists. Look for the good and you will surely find some.
If you want to be an artist: look at what you are creating right now. Feel grateful for the inspiration that pours through you, even if it’s only for you and your best friend. Create something today. Use that gift and enjoy the impact it has on your life. Celebrate your artistry in this moment.
If you want to find love: look at the love you already have in your life. It may not come in the package you were hoping for, but that doesn’t mean that love has passed you by. See not only where you are receiving love, but also how you can give it. Show up for the people you love today. Let them know how much they mean to you. Put a smile on their face (and see how it grows the love you feel).
If you want more money: feel appreciation for the resources that you currently possess. Notice every dime that you spend today. Amplify your gratitude for having that dime to put in the meter. So much of our spending is mindless, and we wonder why we don’t feel the abundance we already have. Actively place your attention on what you have, and you will likely feel very rich.
I’m not suggesting that we do these things as a gimmick so that we eventually get everything our hearts desire. It’s simply a matter of accepting life on life’s terms and appreciating the many gifts that we’ve already received. And that's the secret to serenity.
Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.
Copyright by Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., 2012. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on Psychology Today.