The power of low expectations
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. Very high expectations.
After the first few months of finding my feet, GRS experienced rapid growth. As the audience grew, I felt pressure to to provide as much quality information as possible. Get Rich Slowly shifted from a curious hobby to a near full-time endeavor.
As part of that, I set a publishing schedule. I told myself that I wanted to post two articles every weekday, plus one article each Saturday and Sunday. My aim was to produce twelve articles every week. That’s a lot of work for one guy, as I’m sure you can imagine. And more often than not, I failed to meet these expectations.
Instead of writing twelve articles per week, I usually managed to share ten. It drove me nuts.
Now, you and I both know now that ten articles per week is an amazing rate for one person to create content. Back then, though, I felt like a failure. Yes, I was producing ten articles per week, but I was falling short of my goal to produce twelve articles per week. I felt like I was letting people down. Worse, I felt like I was letting myself down.
After a few months of feeling miserable, I realized my expectations were too high. “What if,” I thought sometime in early 2008, “what if instead of expecting two articles every weekday, I only expected one article every weekday?” My aim would be seven blog posts per week instead of twelve.
Do you know what happened? Nothing changed except the stress level in my life.
I continued to churn out roughly ten articles every week. But now instead of being angry with myself because I’d fallen short of my goal, I felt pleased because I had exceeded my expectations. My production rate didn’t change one whit. My expectations changed. And with the lowered expectations came increased happiness.
An Ode to Low Expectations
I’ve been thinking a lot about how that one small change in expectations yielded an outsized increase in happiness. How can I apply this concept in other areas of my life?
Last week, I read a (very) short piece at The Atlantic that offered some insights. In “An Ode to Low Expectations” [possible paywall], James Parker writes:
Strive for excellence, by all means. My God, please strive for excellence. Excellence alone will haul us out of the hogwash. But lower the bar, and keep it low, when it comes to your personal attachment to the world. Gratification? Satisfaction? Having your needs met? Fool’s gold. If you can get a buzz of animal cheer from the rubbishy sandwich you’re eating, the daft movie you’re watching, the highly difficult person you’re talking to, you’re in business. And when trouble comes, you’ll be fitter for it.
Revise your expectations downward. Extend forgiveness to your idiot friends; extend forgiveness to your idiot self. Make it a practice. Come to rest in actuality.
This excerpt — which is literally half of the entire essay — struck home for me. “Come to rest in actuality,” Parker writes. Translation: Don’t allow your expectations to exceed reality.
Then, completely out of the blue, my cousin Duane (who is continuing to kick cancer’s ass, by the way!) sent me an article about Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett. The piece features some recent wisdom from Munger that directly relates to the fundamental equation of wellbeing:
A happy life is very simple. The first rule of a happy life is low expectations. That’s one you can easily arrange. And if you have unrealistic expectations, you’re going to be miserable all your life. I was good at having low expectations and that helped me. And also, when you [experience] reversals, if you just suck it in and cope, that helps if you don’t just stew yourself into a lot of misery.
Duane sent me this article (and this quote) because he knows me. He knows me well.
Not only do I tend to have high expectations — for life in general, but especially for myself — but I also tend to stew about my problems. Our house sucks! I forgot to pay my car loan last month! I have too much work to do! I fret and fret and fret about things. I stew myself into a lot of misery.
The Power of Low Expectations
I’m sure that by now you’re seeing the connection between expectations and various aspects of personal finance.
For one, managing expectations is directly related to lifestyle inflation and the hedonic treadmill. People naturally become accustomed to whatever it is they have. When your circumstances improve, you feel an initial burst of excitement because your new life is better than your old life. Your reality exceeds your expectations.
In time, though, your expectations adjust to the new reality. You grow accustomed to your improved circumstances. A seven-buck dinner at Dairy Queen used to be a treat. Now you barely enjoy a $70 dinner at the local Italian place. You’re not happy until the next time your circumstances experience a boost.
This is lifestyle inflation. This is the hedonic treadmill.
Expectations also play a role when it comes to making decisions. I frequently cite The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. In the book, Schwartz describes his research into two groups of people, Maximizers and Satisficers:
- Maximizers are those who only accept the best. Every time they make a purchase (or do anything else, for that matter), they need to be sure they’ve made the best decision possible. When shopping for shoes, for example, a Maximizer wants to look at all of the options. He wants to compare of the prices. And even after he’s made his purchase, he worries that maybe he missed a better shoe or a better price at another store.
- Satisficers, on the other hand, have learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, good enough often is. Satisficers have learned to settle for something other than the best. A Satisficer still has expectations and standards, but once she’s found something that meets those standards, she buys it. When shopping for shoes, a Satisficer makes do with a pair that meets her needs at a price she can afford.
As you might guess, Maximizers are not as happy as Satisficers. In his research, Schwartz has found that:
- Maximizers are more likely to regret their purchases despite the fact that they have (in theory, at least) come closer than Satisficers to making the best decision.
- On the flip side, Satisficers generally feel more positive about their purchases. They know they’ve made a choice that met (or exceeded) their expectations.
- Maximizers enjoy positive events less than Satisficers, and they don’t cope as well with negative events.
This concept is closely related to perfectionism, which I’ve begun to think of as “the curse of high expectations”.
When you expect the best, you’ll never be better than satisfied. If you do get the best, you’re getting only what you expected. There’s no way for anyone or anything to please you by exceeding expectations. And most of the time things won’t live up to your expectations, so you’ll be disappointed.
When you lower the bar, however, you’re less likely to be disappointed. Sure, sometimes people will fail to live up to your expectations, but because you don’t expect perfection, these failures will happen less frequently and cause you less woe. Most of the time, you’ll get exactly what you expect. And sometimes someone or something will exceed your expectations, and that will bring you joy.
Lowering My Expectations
I grew up in beat-up old trailer house. I grew up poor. I grew up in family with very low expectations. These low expectations served me well for many, many years. They made me adaptable and resilient. From the time I left for college in 1987 until the time Kris and I bought our second home in 2004, everything about my life constantly improved upon what had come before. There was nowhere to go but up!
But sometime soon after that (around the time I started Get Rich Slowly in 2006), my expectations began to shift. I experienced anxiety for the first time. I lost that “happy go lucky” spirit of my youth.
I want to reclaim that spirit.
My epiphany at the end of January has caused me to think deeply about the direction of my life. I’m asking myself some fundamental questions, most of which (but not all) are related to my expectations.
- Should Kim and I get married? It’s embarrassing to admit, but I realized I hadn’t fully committed to Kim. I’m not sure why, but part of me was holding out. I wanted her to be better. I wanted her to be perfect. Kim isn’t perfect. She’s human. I love Kim, and it’s unfair of me to not be wholly invested in this relationship. I’ve decided I’m ready to wholly invest.
- Should Kim and I move? Our house has caused me stress since the day we bought it. I’ve poured an enormous amount of time and money into improving the place, and there’s still more work to be done. It makes me anxious. It’s reached the point where I need to fully commit one way or the other. We either need to accept this place for what it is and adjust our expectations, or we need to move on. I need to stop stewing myself into a lot of misery, as Charlie Munger would say.
- How much work should I be doing? As in the early days of GRS, I find myself lately feeling pressured to write articles and/or record videos. I’m putting this pressure on myself. Somehow, I’ve shifted from perceiving myself as “retired” to perceiving myself as business owner. I don’t like it. I want to return to the retired mindset. I want my expectation to be that Get Rich Slowly is a fun pastime, a hobby, not a serious business.
- How can I spend more time with friends and family? I used to spend a lot of time with my friends. That’s no longer true, and it’s not simply because of the pandemic. When Kim and I returned from our year-long RV adventure, I did a shitty job of reconnecting with people. During the past month, I’ve deliberately made an effort to connect with people — even over the gasp! telephone.
To add to this introspection, I’ve been reading a lot about mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy.
In his book Waking Up, Sam Harris explains that “the Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha“. Dukkha is often translated as “suffering”, but Harris argues that “unsatisfactoriness” is a better equivalent.
“We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change,” Harris writes. “Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, realtionships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction.”
Quite clearly, Harris is writing about our expectations and how we manage them. He continues [emphasis mine]:
Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determine the quality of your life.
In other words, the Buddha was an ancient proponent of the fundamental equation of wellbeing: happiness equals reality minus expectations.
Managing expectations is working for me. February was probably my best month in years — since April 2016, at least. My anxiety subsided. My depression was dormant. I was active and engaged with life. I read. I wrote. I played. Most of the time, I was mindful and present in the moment.
I attribute all of this to my epiphany at the end of January, and to my lowered expectations for myself — and for everyone and everything else in my life.