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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 09   16-30 September 2009

Happiness and Lowered Expectations

By Eric Weiner

Mysterious are the ways of human happiness, as anyone who has surveyed the perplexing, often contradictory research findings can attest. But one nugget in particular truly boggles: Denmark is the happiest nation in the world. More than two-thirds of Danes report being “very satisfied with their lives,” according to the Eurobarometer Survey, a figure that has held steady for more than 30 years. True, Danes tend to be healthy, married and active — all contributing factors to happiness. But why, researchers wondered, are Danes happier than Finns and Swedes, who share many of these traits, not to mention a similar culture and climate?

The answer is, in a word, expectations. Danes have low expectations and so “year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find out that not everything is rotten in the state of Denmark,” says James W. Vaupel, a demographer who has investigated Danish bliss.

About once a year, some new study confirms Denmark’s status as a happiness superpower. Danes receive this news warily, with newspaper headlines that invariably read: “We’re the happiest lige nu.” Lige nu is a Danish phrase that means literally “just now” but strongly connotes a sense of “for the time being but probably not for long.” Danes, in other words, harbor low expectations about everything, including their own happiness. Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

The hedonic treadmill insinuates itself into our lives, in ways large and small. As a budding audiophile, I recently purchased a headphone amplifier — a tiny black box that attaches to my iPod. Wow, I thought, this sounds incredible. At least that’s what I thought for about one week. Then my ears grew accustomed to the enhanced fidelity and craved something better. Before long, I was back on line, credit card in hand. Intellectually, I knew that my next audio fix would be just as fleeting, but I couldn’t resist the seductive pull of the hedonic treadmill.

Runaway expectations explain a number of otherwise perplexing findings. One study, by the University of Chicago sociologist Yang Yang, found that we grow happier as we grow older. Why? Expectations, I think. Older people tend to have lower aspirations or, to put it in a more positive way, greater acceptance. Another study, conducted by the Wharton School economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, found that women are less happy today than they were in the 1970s, despite the great strides they’ve made in the workplace. Again, expectations are a likely culprit, especially if, as Stevenson and Wolfers posit, “the women’s movement raised women’s expectations faster than society was able to meet them.”

Sometimes, we do temper our expectations. That’s one reason why happiness levels don’t drop precipitously during a recession (though they do drop). We expect less during tough times. When the economy recovers, though, so do our expectations.

Yes, happiness is a function of our expectations — or, as it has been said: “Happiness equals reality minus expectations.” Given that neat formulation, there are two ways to attack the problem: boost our reality or lower our expectations. Most of us choose the former. We’d rather stew in our misery than trim our expectations. Lowering our sights smacks us as a cop out, un-American. Better a nation of morose overachievers, we reason, than a land of happy slackers.

Thankfully, we don’t have to choose. As Eastern faiths profess, it is possible to achieve greatness and happiness at the same time. Provided, that is, we don’t invest ourselves in that greatness. “Set thy heart upon thy work but never its reward,” counsels Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy text. It’s sound advice, now backed up by modern science. It’s worth noting, though, that Krishna never suggested, not for a moment, that such advice is easily followed.

Eric Weiner is author of “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.”

(Source: New York Times, July 19, 2009)

A Rejoinder

Professor A R Momin

There seems to be a positive correlation between happiness and a low threshold of expectations. Generally, people tend to harbour high expectations—in respect of their jobs, financial prospects, family and friends. When such expectations are met, it is understandably a great source of joy and happiness. However, our expectations are sometimes belied by the unpredictable twists and turns of circumstances beyond our control, by the capriciousness of human behaviour, and by our own failures. Consequently, we experience depression, anger and depression. One way of mitigating the potentially unpleasant outcome of situations is to lower our expectations, to be prepared that things may go wrong and to suspend our anticipated excitement and joy. If our expectations are within bounds and if things turn out to be according to our expectations, they will bring greater joy and happiness, because we did not begin with great expectations. And an unexpected joy is always greater than an expected one. On the other hand, if we do not attach great expectations with a given event or course of action, and if things turn out to be not so pleasant, we are much less likely to feel depressed or let down.

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