Your Life By Design
The Science of Happiness
January 25, 2019
Compared to 500 years ago, before the exponential explosion of science, technology, wealth, inventions, and access to resources granted us near mastery over our environment, enabled us to meet all our survival needs, and allowed us to enjoy a level of personal comfort and safety unprecedented in human history – are we any happier?
Over the last several years, a new field of research has gained popularity: the Science of Happiness. Legitimate researchers and dabbling dilettantes alike have published countless studies, books, and articles on the topic. My own curiosity on the subject has led me to dive into the literature on this elusive state of being. 
Some scientists conclude happiness comes from our environment, some claim it’s determined by our behaviour, some believe it’s an evolutionary phenomenon, and still others are certain the key to understanding happiness lies in our genetic profile and our biology. 
No matter what they call it, and regardless of their point of view, they all attempt to answer the following question:  
Compared to 500 years ago, before the exponential explosion of science, technology, wealth, inventions, and access to resources granted us near mastery over our environment, enabled us to meet all our survival needs, and allowed us to enjoy a level of personal comfort and safety unprecedented in human history – are we any happier? 
There’s no way to summarise all the disparate and contradictory threads of research in one podcast so I’ll share what I’ve discovered about happiness as it relates to the evaluation process we’ve been going through together. 
All the scholarly studies in the world mean nothing unless you can find a way to connect them to personal experience, and all my research into happiness felt abstract until I stumbled upon a golden nugget of insight that’s made a huge difference in nearly every facet of my life. This pearl of wisdom now informs how I approach wants, desires, relationships, material possessions, and important decisions. 
Here’s the common thread that runs through all the research: 
Happiness depends on the correlation between your objective conditions and subjective expectations. 
Happiness doesn’t depend solely on factors you might expect, like wealth, health, community, environment, or family. Happiness doesn’t depend on your bank balance or whether you live in Hawaii or India. It doesn’t matter if you had a happy childhood or if you’re battling cancer. Those things are part of the picture, but they’re not as critical as most of us believe. 
Here’s my takeaway from all that – the pearl of wisdom I mention above. This is how I frame all of it in my mind:  
Expectations are like disappointments in disguise. 
Expectation Management 
If I expect a used Dodge mini-van and get a used Dodge mini-van, then I’m content. But If I want a brand-new Porsche and get a Dodge mini-van, I’m far from content. I’m unhappy. I feel deprived. But not because of the presence of the minivan or the absence of the sports car. I feel deprived because I miscalculated. I failed to calibrate the instrument of my happiness – my expectations – to my objective conditions, i.e. reality. 
If I expect my partner to provide the kind of support I need after a crappy day, and the dog gets more love than I do, I’m unhappy. If I expect my boss to respect my work, but get nothing but a grunt and a new impossible deadline when I turn in a big project, I’m unhappy. 
To put it simply, it’s all about calibrating your calculations and managing your expectations. Most of us aren’t aware of the scores of expectations we have swirling around in our head every day. From little things to big things, expectation management is huge, but expectation mismanagement can break our backs. 
When reality hits – whether we wake up to realise we’re out of coffee or we don’t get an amazing job we applied for – we wonder why we feel so crappy. The reason we feel crappy is the distance and dissonance between what we expected to get and what we got. 
Hence my conclusion that expectations are really disappointments in disguise. 
I discovered early in life that I was an anxious person. It had to do with being an autistic. My life was not about being happy. It was feeling safe and calm. If I knew what I had to do and I could predict what would happen next I could relax and enjoy the moment.
Of course I found people illogical and unpredictable. So a lot of my time was tied up, working out what someone would do next, if it was relevant to me. If not I did not bother. 
After a while I realized that if I set my goals and expectations to be functional, I minimised disappointment and being frustrated, angry or disappointed. The only person who had to rise to the occasion was me. Because I could control and manage me. The rest were outside my control. 
The clearer I became about my expectations and the tyranny of should’s and musts and so on and the more aware I became, the more relaxed I got. I am not saying this happened overnight.
What did happen as I got a handle on this was that the world became less and less unsafe, more and more predictable. I started enjoying my life more. People noticed how much calmer I became.      
Hitting the Jackpot 
Two things typically happen to lottery winners over time: 
  1. They spend irresponsibly and go broke.
  2. They go back to the same level of happiness they had before.
Of course, life improves for lottery winners. Their objective conditions change significantly, but something else changes, too: their expectations. Despite the dramatic improvements in their conditions, lottery winners still manage to feel miserable. 
This happens because their entire frame of reference shifts, and after the honeymoon period of wealth is over, they return to their default mode of mismanaging expectations, even though they have more money than they had before. Similarly, when things deteriorate, they go broke, and slide back to their pre-jackpot financial situation, their expectations shrivel up and they return to where they started. 
On the flip side, expectations are closely associated with anticipation, wanting, and the desire for achieving great things. In that way, the fireworks of anticipation are one of the coolest aspects of being human. We imagine, we plan, we work, we accomplish. 
We set foot on the moon and we cure diseases that not long ago killed millions – and that’s all because we expect more. As far as we know, we’re the only species gifted with such an incredible quality. Sure, my wife's best friend's cat and dog expect things, but her expectations are different. She is thinking about a tasty treat or the anticipating her mistress's imminent return home. 
She is not planning – or expecting – to cure cancer or send their kittens to Mars. We humans are crazy enough to expect and plan for both of those things. 
I find it amusing that we’ve created an entire industry dedicated to finding out what makes us happy. It’s amusing because prophets have been telling us for thousands of years that being satisfied with what we have is far more important than getting more of what of we want. 
That’s how all this talk of happiness relates to decluttering: mismatched expectations creep into the gap between what we want and the world in which we live. They clutter a space that should be simple and clear. Rather than accept the moment, expectations create illusions that have nothing do with reality. 
My personal solution and guiding philosophy around all this is to appreciate, love, and enjoy what I have while balancing it all with the knowledge there’s more out there. It’s a skill I’ve had to develop and practice over time. 
Managing the balance is like the way an acrobatic team on a tightrope manages the walk across the wire: they maintain constant, dynamic, mindful, and vigilant attention to the process. You can believe they didn’t wake up one day doing their act. They had to practice their skills, just like I practice gratitude and work on managing my expectations every day. 
One last thing I found in my research on the topic: money won’t buy you happiness, but it might buy you a ship to sail right up to it!  
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Feel free to reach out to me to ask your questions at Your life is a gift. Design it. Do what matters and join me each week as we get closer to designing the life of your dreams.  I am Dr Sun. Join me next week on Your Life by Design.