The Key To Happiness: Lose Your Expectations

I’ve always been a planner. I feel the most comfortable when things are in order, and I feel like I know what’s coming. I’ve also always had very clear goals, and done my best to ensure I’m headed towards achieving them. I know this comes from some control issues, and fear of the unknown. When I have everything planned out, I feel like I know where I’m headed, and I feel secure. The problem is, of course, that it’s bullshit. I’m merely creating an illusion of control, while avoiding acknowledgment that The future is one big scary unknown that can’t be controlled. While this illusion might make me feel comfortable temporarily, it also sets me up for devastation. There have been instances in my life where I thought everything was in place and I was headed exactly where I wanted to be going… and then something happens that sweeps it all away. This can be a ground-shaking experience for a planner. Not only are you back to square one, you’re back to being completely uncertain if you’ll end up where you planned. These experiences have been some of my scariest moments, but also times of monumental self-growth. Each of these experiences has pushed me further along in my journey to being comfortable with the unknown, and understanding that happiness does not depend on life turning out the way you expected it to.

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I used to have such a clear image of the future I wanted. I’m realizing now that there are so many things that I can’t control, or even predict, that could get in the way of that future. It’s starting to seem too risky to put so much emotional weight on everything turning out the way I planned. Furthermore, I’m realizing that the image I had of my future, might not even make me any happier than another future. Ten years ago I thought that by the time I was 25, I would already be settled down and starting a family in the town I grew up in. This was all I wanted in my life, and really couldn’t imagine being happy with any other set of circumstances. Never in a million years would I have predicted that I would be living in a studio apartment by myself, in Philadelphia, pursuing a doctorate degree in psychology… much less that I would be very happy about it! I was a very different person at 15 than I am now, and wanted very different things. I hope that in 10 years I’ll have grown enough to be a different person than I am now. Even though I still become distracted by how I think my life ought to unfold, I really have no idea what I’ll want for myself 10 years down the road.

af268ba0cead9930e8052c5c7bc24787I also don’t want to miss out on amazing opportunities for my future, simply because they don’t seem to fit into my preconceived blue print for my life. Sometimes I have to laugh at my own audacity for assuming (despite limitless possibilities, none of which I have any experience of) that I know exactly what will make me happiest. I want to believe that my future might hold something even better than I could have predicted for myself. The insecure control freak in me still fears the unknown, but the optimistic free spirit inside me thinks that life turning out just as I had planned actually sounds quite boring.

SometimesDreamMy mother is a great testament that you can’t always predict what will make you happy in the future. By the time she was my age, my mother was already married with children, just as she had wanted. Unfortunately her marriage didn’t work out, she went through a difficult divorce, had to start a completely new career, and her middle child developed schizophrenia. Many years later my mother met the love of her life, a woman named Kathy. After being together for 10 years, they had a beautiful wedding last summer. They now have a cabin in upstate New York where they love to garden, and my mother is pursuing a third career as a novelist. Could she have ever predicted the path her life would take? Certainly not. Is she happy? It certainly seems so.

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So why do we have these expectations for ourselves and our future, when we know so few people’s lives turn out exactly as they expected? We hold onto these expectations because we assume those are the circumstances that will make us most happy. Often these assumptions are forced upon us from childhood. Our families, the media, and general social norms paint an image for us of how a happy life looks. But how much time and thought do we really put towards making our own conscious judgments about what would make us happy? For example, little girls are given the message over and over again from family members, society, Disney movies, etc.… that the biggest achievement in life will be meeting prince charming and getting married. Not much attention is put towards what comes after the wedding day. In fact, usually the story ends immediately after finding the prince… because, after all, what else could there be?

images-1Rarely is our best capacity for logic able to combat decades of being inundated with the message that falling in love and getting married is the key to happiness, so we passively accept it. We all know of women who have looked forward to getting married all their life, finally have their big day, and then feel completely let down afterwards. The big day comes and goes in a flash, and no one has prepared them for what comes after. No one prepared them for the fact that marriage isn’t a fairytale, and it’s not the answer to all of life’s problems. In fact, marriage will likely bring many more problems and stress into life. Clearly marriage can also be a source of great joy, but if you were not feeling fulfilled before, you probably won’t feel fulfilled after the wedding. Similarly we try to organize numerous other circumstances in hopes that it will bring happiness: “If I could just land this job”, “If I move to my dream house”, “If I can just lose 15 pounds… then things will be different”. But that’s rarely the case.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In fact, rather than leading us to happiness, our expectations often decrease our happiness. We measure our current circumstances against our expectations, and when there are discrepancies, we find fault with our lives and feel unsatisfied. Therefore the expectations that were supposed to bring us happiness mostly serve to make us less happy.

BQcDAAAAAwoDanBnAAAABC5vdXQKFkNEQVItM3VpU3hxa1g4aTIxOHNfbHcAAAACaWQKAXgAAAAEc2l6ZQI don’t mean to suggest that it’s a bad idea to have expectations. Having goals for our self is necessary because it gives our life meaning and makes our actions purposeful. However, I’m beginning to appreciate the idea of a healthy detachment from my expectations. I know that I would like to achieve certain things, but my happiness doesn’t need to depend on achieving these things. In fact, research tells us that changing our circumstances probably isn’t going to change our level of happiness anyway.

Studies have found that people who have won the lottery experienced a short period of heightened happiness before returning to their previous level of happiness, and people who have recently become paralyzed experience a period of lowered happiness before also returning to their baseline level of happiness (Brickman et al., 1978). Another study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2012 found that genuine and stable happiness was associated with a person’s internal state, and less dependent on circumstances. The findings suggested that simply trying to increase pleasure and ward off displeasure resulted in fluctuating phases of happiness and unhappiness. However, those who are more selflessly inclined and psychologically prepared for whatever life brings, experience a more durable sense of inner peace (Dambrun, et al.). Yet another study by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found that positive changes in circumstances produced only short term increases in happiness, whereas long term changes in happiness were produced by intentional activity. So what does all this tell us?

Happiness is a state of mind, not a set of circumstances.

If you want to change your level of happiness you need to focus more on changing your perspective than your circumstances. We put so much time and effort into achieving the circumstances that we think will bring us happiness. I’ve now spent 23 years educating myself so that I can obtain the job I think I’ll enjoy. I’ve spent years in relationships, and gone on countless dates trying to find the relationship I think will make me happy. I’ve worked crappy jobs to earn money so I can buy things I think will make me happy. The relative amount of time I’ve invested in developing my inner self, my attitude, and general perspective of life, is shameful.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.”

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Though it’s still a struggle for me, I’m beginning the journey of letting go of my expectations and focusing on happiness from the inside out. I still have things I would like to achieve, but I can also imagine being happy without those things. If I end up achieving my goals, it’ll be a cherry on top of the cake, but it doesn’t have to be the whole cake. My new life goals: To grow as a person and to help others. Let me know what you think!

Success and the Fundamental Need for Love

I was watching a Conan O’Brien interview with Jud Apatow (writer/director/producer connected to pretty much every huge comedy blockbuster of the last 10 years) and they were discussing the “neediness” behind their talent. Conan mentioned that when he was young he realized that making people laugh was one thing he had going for him to get people to like him, so from then on he put all his effort and energy into developing that skill. To this day he says his self esteem hangs on every joke, and when he doesn’t feel like he did well, he goes to a “very very dark place”. Jud Apatow related to Conan’s experience of desperately needing to be able to make people laugh and the underlying anxiety that no one would give a shit. And then Conan posed a great question – Would you change it, if it could make you happier?

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I believe behind Conan’s question is the assumption that, while his insecurity and desperation often torture him, it’s also given him the motivation needed to acquire his level of success. Conan was referring to this conflict specifically with comedians, but I think that it’s so much farther reaching. In fact, I might argue that anyone who has found great success in one area or another, got there by trying to compensate for some insecurity. I think at the core of us all is a fundamental need for love and connection, and along with that comes a fundamental fear/insecurity we all share – the fear of not being loved and accepted.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow came to a similar conclusion after studying some of the most accomplished people in history in an attempt to understand human motivation. From his research, Maslow developed his famous hierarchy of needs which includes physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

According to Maslow, the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be met before a person can move on to feel motivated in meeting higher level needs. While I agree with Maslow’s hierarchy, I think that the need to love and be loved might have a particular dominance in human psychology. After all, there are many examples of people who sacrifice their basic needs for love, and research has shown that deprivation from loving connection leads to an unmatched level of psychological disturbance. In fact it was  Maslow’s colleague, psychologist Harry Harlow, who conducted the famous studies on the effects of isolation on monkeys. He found that when monkeys were raised without connection to other monkeys, they exhibited severe disturbances in basically every area of functioning.

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Similarly, studies of over crowded and understaffed orphanages found that infants who were deprived of loving connection early in life were also prone to serious social dysfunction. Now over 50 years later, neurobiology is validating that healthy development of the brain is literally dependent upon loving connection with others (for more on this look into the work of Daniel J. Siegel).

I believe that because our need to love/be loved is so vital to our happiness and healthy development, that we also have a deep fundamental fear of not being loved and accepted. I think our desire to fill this need and our fear of being deprived from it might be the single most motivating factor in people’s lives (whether conscious or unconscious). From this core need/fear springs all of our strengths and our weaknesses. Just as Conan realized that being funny might be his ticket to love/acceptance, someone else might think it’s their ability to earn money, their looks, their athleticism, or their intellectual ability.

It’s easy to believe that the more successful a person is, the more sure of themselves and confident they must be, but I think there’s often a positive correlation between a person’s success and their insecurities. The more insecure they are, the more motivated they are to protect themselves from that feeling of being unloved. However, I think that these insecurities can simultaneously be someones biggest ally and biggest enemy. On the one hand they are propelling us forward, and motivating us to do our absolute best. On the other hand, they are also always getting in the way, paralyzing us in some ways, and holding us back -because we’re operating from a place of fear.

Take Conan for example: His strong need for acceptance motivated him to work on his comedic skill to an extent that propelled him to great success. But if his self-esteem still hangs on every joke, how can he perform his best with that much anxiety involved? If he could let go of the fear, I would imagine he would gain the confidence, freedom, and courage to take risks comedically that might bring his performance to the next level. Hence Maslow making love/belonging and self esteem necessary steps towards self-actualization.

While fear is an excellent motivator, I don’t think anyone can reach their fullest potential when operating from a place of fear. I think that when we are motivated by warding off this fear of being unloved/ not accepted, we sometimes go so far that we forget what we really wanted in the first place. I would imagine that if Conan desperately needs to make people laugh in order to feel loved and accepted, he might be one of those people that’s “on” all the time (and from some of the stories they were sharing in the interview that seems accurate). However, that type of personality can quickly exhaust people and soon turn them off. So even though the original purpose of developing the skill of making people laugh was to gain love and acceptance, too much focus on the skill can come at the cost of the original purpose. Another example would be someone who is motivated to develop financial success because they think money will be their key to securing love and acceptance, but then they get so caught up in earning money that they neglect their personal relationships and drive people away.

The fact that Conan even has to ask the question “Would you blank, if it would make you happier?” is interesting to me. Shouldn’t it be obvious? Isn’t happiness the whole point? Is there any thing else that trumps happiness? And yet I know the answer doesn’t feel that simple. Why is that?

I guess the take home point is that we all share an important need to feel loved and accepted, and with that comes natural fear and insecurity. True self-actualization and true success requires conquering this fear, but I think very few actually achieve this. I wish I had the secret for overcoming this fear myself… but unfortunately I do not. Maybe it has to do with spirituality, realizing a higher purpose, becoming more altruistic and less self-involved, etc.
Maybe that’s another post for another day 🙂

Communication: The Best Defense is No Defense

I’m extremely interested in what makes communication effective vs. ineffective. As I’m working towards becoming a psychotherapist, I think it’s crucial that I have a deep understanding of communication so that I can 1) reach my clients through my own communication, 2) recognize problem areas in my clients’ communication, and 3) help coach them to better express themselves. For personal and professional reasons, I am particularly interested in communication within intimate relationships. It’s no novel idea that good communication can be a couple’s secret to a lifetime of happiness and harmony, while poor communication can make relationships toxic and tear them apart. So what are the keys to good communication in relationships, and what are the traps of bad communication?

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It seems to me that defensiveness is a vital issue in communication between partners. When unmanaged, defensiveness can start a spiral of communication that escalates from a loaded comment to a full blown argument. In fact, while an argument might seem like two people attacking each other, I would suggest that arguments almost always consist of two people defending themselves. Unfortunately we often feel like the best defense is a good offense. However, if you can resist getting defensive when your partner is upset, you are much more likely to be able to resolve the issue and become even closer to your partner.

So why is it so hard to keep down our defenses if we know it would probably make life a lot easier? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious – Keeping down our defenses makes us feel really fucking vulnerable.  Vulnerability is a very scary and uncomfortable feeling that we want to avoid, and so we try to deflect away from our flaws and mistakes. Instead of taking a moment to try to understand what our partner needs, we push back, turn the light on their flaws and mistakes, and invalidate their experience. Staying calm and opening ourselves up when we feel like we’re being attacked goes against our very nature, but it is the key to stopping an argument before it begins.

Our natural reaction to a threatening situation is fight or flight, and in the context of a relationship this often manifests as arguing or shutting down. Though this is a protective mechanism, in relationships it only serves to  hurt us more. We end up hurting the person we love and damaging the relationship, when our relationship is one of our best means of fulfillment. When your partner is hurt, it never helps the situation to go on the defense, even if you have a reasonable defense. When you get defensive, you are focusing on what you need instead of what your partner needs. Your partner needs to feel heard, understood, and loved… it’s very unlikely that any defense you throw up is going to make the other person feel better or give them what they need. When they don’t feel they are getting what they need, they will likely either come back with a stronger attack (since their first attempt wasn’t successful at making you understand how hurt they were) or they will shut down. In either case they end up not feeling like they can trust you to nurture them. The whole situation could have been circumvented if you had the strength to take a breath before reacting and think about what your partner is really trying to communicate, and what they really need.

This isn’t easy. Our brains a literally wired to mirror the energy of those around us, so when you’re facing a furious spouse, your brain says that you should also be furious. It also goes against our natural fight or flight reaction. It takes a real conscious effort to be able to move towards the very thing that you feel is attacking you. However, if you can achieve this, what would have been a relationship damaging argument can become an opportunity to build trust and intimacy with your partner. This is actually the more self defensive thing to do as well, because the faster you let your defenses down, the faster your partner can return to loving position towards you.

So how do you stop yourself from getting defensive? Well I think it takes a lot of self-awareness, because the first step is recognizing when you are starting to feel defensive. This is a challenge, because in these situations our brain is usually too focused on reacting to the threat to allow for self-reflection. With practice however, you can start to recognize the process of  becoming defensive. For me, my heart speeds up, I stop listening to what the person is saying and instead start planning my attack. My muscles tense and my eyes narrow.

Once you recognize the sensation of becoming defensive, it helps to notice external elements that might be contributing to your reaction. For example, is you brain just mirroring the energy of the person you’re with? In which case, can you bring their energy down by managing your own? Is there a lot of other stimulation in the area (lights, loud sounds, etc.) that might be overwhelming your senses and putting you in a heightened state of alertness? Are there other unrelated issues that already had you agitated and left you quick tempered?

Now that you realize you’re getting defensive, how do you return to a loving position toward your partner? You must make yourself empathize with them. Remember that even though you feel like you’re being attacked by your partner in some way, they’re coming to you because they need something from you. The way they’re communicating it might be shitty, but they are actually trying to reach out to you. Try to listen past the complaints, yelling, jabs, etc. and hear what they’re actually trying to convey. Maybe it’s “I’m scared”, “I need help”, or “I miss you”. It’s very hard to get defensive when we’re really making an effort to understand another person’s perspective, especially someone we love.

Here’re some tips:

  • Study self-awareness. This is a life tip because building your self awareness will help you in every area of life (there’ll probably be more on self awareness to follow in another post at some point). Try meditation, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, etc.
  • I know it’s cliche and easier said than done – but take a deep breathe and count to five. This forces your heart to slow down and stops you from slipping into the spiral of defensiveness. This can also be an anchor for you to enter into a more self aware state.
  • Remember that the more angry or upset a person comes across, the more vulnerable they feel. Try to think about what would be making them feel vulnerable.
  • Notice your body language. If your arms/legs are crossed, uncross them. If your making fists, relax your hands.
  • If you’re confident you can do so in a loving way, make some physical contact with your partner. A hand on their knee, or their hand, or even a hug can do wonders for calming another person down and returning them to a loving position towards you.

I know these strategies seem simple and probably common sense, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Keep practicing and keep trying though, and I promise this is a skill that will make a huge difference in your life!