At the end of January, I had an epiphany.
Kim and I were sitting in the living room one evening, relaxed in our easy chairs, both reading books. All four of our beasts were nestled nearby. The house was quiet. For the first time in forever, I felt completely content.
For maybe twenty minutes, I paused what I was doing and simply savored the moment. I stopped. I looked around. I made time to be present in the Now.
Eventually, my mind began to wander. “When was the last time I was this happy?” I wondered. I thought back to the late 1990s when my ex-wife and I lived in similar circumstances. Kris and I would read together in the evening, each with a cat in our laps. Life was simpler. I felt no anxiety. I was happy.
Then too, I achieved a similar level of contentment as recently as 2013. Soon after Kris I got divorced, Kim and I began dating. I lived alone in an apartment. My life wasn’t filled with obligations and Stuff. Again, things were simpler. Simpler and saner and more filled with joy.
“But what really is the difference between those two periods of time and the last few years?” I thought. “Why have I been so anxious recently?”
The difference, I realized, has a lot to do with my expectations.
Last week, I had a three-hour coffee date with Kris. Although we got divorced almost nine years ago, she probably still knows me better than anyone. (After all, we were together for 23 years.) I asked her if she considered me an anxious person while we were married.
“No,” she said. “In fact, it used to be you were the opposite of anxious. You were care-free, happy go lucky. You didn’t pay enough attention to the future.”
The anxiety, I think, increased as my expectations of myself (and my life) increased.
The Fundamental Equation of Wellbeing
Our expectations play a profound role in our daily contentment.
In the book Engineering Happiness, economists Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin cite the fundamental equation of wellbeing: happiness equals reality minus expectations. I’m sure you’ve all heard this notion before.
- If you expect more from life than you currently have, you’ll be unhappy.
- Conversely, if your current experience exceeds your expectations, you’ll be happy.
So, just as you can increase your saving rate by improving income and/or lowering expenses, you can deliberately increase your happiness by improving your circumstances and/or lowering your expectations. But it’s usually easier to lower your expectations.
When I think about how my own expectations have influenced my happiness, I recall the early days of Get Rich Slowly. Back when I started GRS in 2006, I had a problem. I had high expectations for myself and this site.