Are Your Expectations Holding You Back?

If you, like me, grew up in America, there’s a good chance you prioritize your personal happiness above almost everything else. Guess where having millions of people all striving toward their personal — and probably deeply commercial — idea of happiness leads? No where good. That’s why the United States regularly fails to make the United Nation’s list of happiest countries in the world.

  1. Finland
  2. Denmark
  3. Norway
  4. Iceland
  5. The Netherlands
  6. Switzerland
  7. Sweden
  8. New Zealand
  9. Canada
  10. Austria

These countries have a lot in common. Relatively high incomes, great social safety nets–including socialized healthcare–and, for some of them, similar geographies. When Thrillist decided to talk to some Scandinavians about why they’re so darn happy all the time, they found “The No. 1 thing Scandinavians cite as the source of their happiness is their ferocious dedication to actually enjoying their lives. The time off work the government allows its citizens is absurd by American standards. It’s almost as if people’s well being doesn’t correlate with long hours at the office.”

Sound like anyone else you know? (Or, more specifically, any blogs you read?)

The Sacandinavians also have a love of the outdoors, a sense of community, and *gasp* a safety net that makes sure their basic needs like healthcare, childcare, and school is taken care of.

Of course, not everyone is deliriously happy in Scandinavia. According to The Guardian, “Among those in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland who do not say that life is good, some of the largest numbers are among the young – and particularly young women. While the reasons will vary from one individual and one country to another, it is thought that stress, loneliness and feeling under pressure to succeed may be playing a large part in their unhappiness.”

The article continues:

The reasons were guesswork, he said – although the Institute plans further research. “We have some evidence as to where the problem may lie. In Denmark the perfectionism culture is a huge topic.”

Young people feel they are expected to excel in exams – something referred to as “the 12th grade culture”, he said. “It is a huge debate in Denmark and not something we can ignore.”

I discovered all of this as I was combing the internet for an article I vaguely remembered from years ago that asserted the reason Denmark had cinsistently beat out other countries–even most other Scandinavian countries–on the happiness scale was the country’s collectively low expectations. I found it.

According to The New York Times, “But on surveys, Danes continually report lower expectations for the year to come, compared with most other nations.” In other words, the Danes are happy because they don’t expect much so things always turn out better than expected.

Shed Your Oppressive Expectations

On the surface, there’s something kind of sad about the idea that the only way to be happy is to have low expectations in the first place. But if you dig a little deeper, I think it seems obvious that expectations are often the source of distress. Heck, in their own way, Buddhists have been teaching this for centuries.

The Buddha said, “All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.” Suffering in his teaching does not necessarily mean grave physical pain, but rather the mental suffering we undergo when our tendency to hold onto pleasure encounters the fleeting nature of life, and our experiences become unsatisfying and ungovernable.

Lions Roar

How quickly have your expectations become unsatisfying and ungovernable?

When I talk about expectations, I also mean your desires, your wants, the things you think you need or deserve. If your expectation is to rise quickly up the corporate ladder and you fall short–even just a little bit–you can become dismayed. If your expectation is that your spouse or partner will be everything to you–your best friend, lover, confidante, emotional support system–then that person is likely to fall short. if your expectation is that your kid will have straight A’s on his or her report card, you’ll either find yourself disappointed, or you’ll stress out your kid with your demands.

If you desire more things, more money, bigger houses, newer cars, you’ll never be satisfied. There will always be something to strive for. And while having goals is important, it’s more important you’re working toward the right goals. I’m not the first person to figure this out. It’s a story as old as time.

Part of being happy, is being grateful for what you have. But if you want and expect to constantly be accumulating more–more signifiers of status, more toys to distract you–it’s hard to just be content.

Let’s talk about iPhones for a minute.

We’ve all seen videos of people sleeping on the sidewalk, waiting to buy the newest iPhone. This phenomenon mystifies me. I’m not a luddite. I’m typing this on my Mac, while listening to an audiobook on my iPhone. But when my phone starts to falter–as it inevitably does thanks to the scourge of planned obsolesence–I don’t head to a store, I start asking my tech-obsessed friends if they have an old phone laying around. (They almost always do.) The last time I got a new-to-me phone, I bought it from my aunt. She’d stumbled upon a BOGO deal and decided to upgrade her phone as well as my cousin’s–even though their phone worked just fine. So I gave my aunt $50 and a year or two later, the phone is still working just fine.

If I was a different kind of person, with different expectations, I’d be satisfied with nothing but the newest, shiniest technology. I’d dig into my savings to pay for an unnecessarily expensive device that mostly does the same things as the smartphone I already have, with a few new bells and whistles. How many hours would I have to work to pay for that new phone? What might I have to give up to work it into my budget?

The smartphone in your pocket is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. If you also expect to drive a car with a certain level of technology (personally, I think the more bells and whistles a car has, the more there is to go wrong), or buy a house in a neighborhood that presents a certain picture of who are, things start to spiral. But it’s not all on you.

The Danger of Societal Expectations

Learning to live with less is great, but we didn’t get to this state of frenzied consumerism on our own. More to the point, this isn’t just about stuff. (In fact, if you watch this documentary, I’d argue that some of these “minimalists” take this whole idea alarmingly far.) It’s about learning how your expectations–and those of the people around you and society at large–are holding you back.

We all know how disastrous it can be to try and conform to societal norms even when it means not being ourselves. Just ask any LGBTQ+ person who spent a portion of their life in the closet, hiding who they were to meet societal expectations. That’s an extreme but common example of a problem created by societal norms. But you don’t have to look far to see people living in their own version of the closet.

How many people do you know who do things just because it’s what’s expected of them? They go to college because their parents say they have to. They get a corporate job instead of traveling or joining an on-profit because that’s what expected. They get married because that’s what all their friends are doing. They have a kid because that’s what their partner wants. And before you know, they’ve built a life based on others’ expectations and given almost no thought to what they actually want.

(Hell, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an entire book–Eat Pray Love–about it.)

There isn’t much we can do about society’s expectations–at least not quickly enough to make an immediate difference. All we can do is think more deeply about how we’ve taken them on ourselves, and when we find that what we want doesn’t actually match up with what society (or your parents) says you should want, go your own way. And in time, the norms will change and we’ll all be a little bit more free to shape the lives we want.


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