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.
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.
I 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.
My 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.
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?
Rarely 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.
I 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!