Edward Hopper – Automat
In their book Engineering Happiness Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucell introduced us to the equation “happiness equals reality minus expectation”. A few years ago we had the ‘holiday of a lifetime’ with our family in Botswana and our wonderful guide Errol kept reminding us of this when we were excited about seeing a [insert favourite wild animal here], for example. He didn’t want us to be disappointed and I guess he was teaching us mindfulness.
It’s easy being in the moment on a fabulous holiday though—whether you see a giraffe or lion or whatever, or not. What about everyday life? And what about our life as a whole, scary thought. Joni Mitchell said in her song The Circle Game: “.. his dreams have lost a lot of grandeur coming true”. I remember this moving me to adolescent distraction when I first heard it, when I had many dreams, and they all seemed perfectly possible. It was a good warning to have!
So how are we to unpack this thing we call disappointment? Are we disappointed in this particular moment? Maybe? Maybe not. But in this particular moment? It’s just a moment.. and it’s gone. How can we be disappointed in that? We are breathing, we are alive. It’s only when we extend it to take the broader view- of a day, a week, a lifetime that it starts to bear down on us: we didn’t get that job, didn’t get that partner, that house. Life didn’t turn out quite the way I had thought it would. 2020 didn’t turn out the way I thought it would!
When we raise expectations beyond reality's capacity to meet them, unhappiness follows.. but if we didn’t have expectations, day-dreams, hopes, life would be pretty colourless wouldn’t it? And what if the expectation is a bad/fearful one? Very often things do not turn out as badly as we had feared. Do we then take a moment to reflect on that and put it on the scales to weigh against all the ‘disappointments’? Studies suggest you can make people happier by delivering bad news, and then withdrawing it. It doesn’t just have a neutral effect; they were happier than they were even before the news was given. Can we apply this when we tell ourselves to expect bad news and then things don’t turn out to be nearly as bad?
And how can happiness be influenced by things we don't have, were never going to have and wouldn't have missed, if the thought hadn't occurred to us? The Guardian’s happiness guru Oliver Burkeman tells the story of being offered veggie pasta on a plane, in addition to the usual chicken or beef. He was really looking forward to the pasta and when he was told it had run out he was less happy than before he even knew the pasta option was available. You don’t miss what you’ve never had, as my mother used to say, and it’s about time she got another mention in this blog! Another cliché, but no less true, is ‘it is better to journey hopefully than to arrive’. Remember when we went on journeys? It’s the distraction of the journey, there is just one thing you have to do—get from A to B – and everything else is secondary. When you arrive at your destination, well then you have to deal with all the stuff, is it what you were hoping for/paid for, and all the problems, expected or unexpected, that were waiting for you. When we were on the road everything still seemed possible. Travelling hopefully through life may be something we can work with too, after all, what is our ‘destination’ anyway?
A favourite teacher of ours, Ty Powers, once told me to ‘embrace disappointment’, or words to that effect. Not just as an objective thing, being disappointed by something (get over it), but learn to be disappointing, to others but also to myself. Years later I am still pondering this remark, but I think there is a wonderful and liberating truth embedded in there. I’ll let you know when I’ve fully figured it out.
Meanwhile, if this post has been disappointing, I’m fine with it!