The power of low expectations

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.

For instance:

  • 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.

More about...Psychology

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Adam @ Minafi
Adam @ Minafi
1 month ago

This is all oddly familiar to my own personal journey lately – but I hadn’t looked at it through the lens of expectations. That completely makes sense though! Switching from a maximizer to a satisfiser is such a great mindset shift. I lean towards being a maximizer for large purchases or things that will stick around, but chances are I’d be happier if some of those decisions moved over to the other column. Could also be part of why it took me 11 years with my then-girlfriend to come around to marriage. Another way I’ve been thinking about this same… Read more »

Adam
Adam
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam @ Minafi

This hits so close to home, even up to the part where my wife and I dated from 2000-2011 before getting married. For so long I failed to realize that EVERYTHING DIDN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT before we could make a marriage or a house happen. I was lucky to eventually understand that — as with so many other things in this weird amazing future — “good enough” was actually pretty fantastic. It freed up time and space to be appreciative and consciously pursue happiness.

Ivan
Ivan
1 month ago

I do see some things in common. At a certain degree… Also, I agree with some of the content you shared. It is full of wisdom. Let me share the following: “The secret to be continously happy is to accept you are yourself. Nothing more and nothing less can you expect to be. You will grow each day, and will be presented with challenges and decisions. If you accept that whatever the outcome you will be happy, accepting the results. And start again from that new point in your life. Embrace whatever comes your way next. With all your background,… Read more »

zzzzzz
zzzzzz
1 month ago

I think the very last phrase in this post is quite important. It’s not just yourself, it’s important to not have too high expectations of others. Nobody’s perfect, everybody has flaws, and the better able we are to accept our loved ones, flaws and all, the better our relationships will be and the more happy we’ll be.

J. Money
J. Money
1 month ago

Beautiful, man! Congrats!! So much good stuff here to marinate on…

Joe
Joe
1 month ago

I hope you can keep feeling this well. It’s hard to stay at this level.
Good luck!

Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Dave @ Accidental FIRE
1 month ago

Congrats on a great February, especially after all the crap you’ve dealt with in the ice storm and the fires before that. This is an awesome post, you know how I love and I’m fascinated by the behavioral stuff that goes behind personal finance. To me it’s everything, and the most complex puzzle to try to figure out. “But it is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determine the quality of your life.” That’s right out of Victor Frankl 101. I reread Mans Search For Meaning late last year and I think in the future I will need… Read more »

Gwen @ Fiery Millennials
Gwen @ Fiery Millennials
1 month ago

Feel free to call me anytime JD! You know how much I’m a weird millennial and love talking on the phone. There’s a lot of food for thought in this article I need to think about. Around this time last year, my therapist helped me adjust my expectations when it came to my then-new boyfriend. I was trying hard not to get upset when he didn’t text good morning. But I had never laid out that expectation to him so it wasn’t fair for me to get upset. We talked it over, I realized he’d never remember to text me… Read more »

Nate St. Pierre
Nate St. Pierre
1 month ago

This may be the first GRS article I’ve ever commented on – that’s because it struck home on so many levels. It would seem that we have similar developmental backgrounds, thought processes, mid-life experiences, and current contemplations . . . thanks for putting a lot of it to words, and I love the excerpt from Parker!

freddy smidlap
freddy smidlap
1 month ago

there is so much beauty in a low bar. i grew up very simply somewhat like you in an “unsophisticated” rural family. being half-bright i wound up in one of those elite east coast liberal arts colleges in the late 80’s. i was a chemistry major and really felt for the sons and daughters of overachieving doctors and lawyers. there was so much pressure on those poor bastards to live up to a certain standards. it seemed hard for many of them to enjoy the experience. i was just happy to be there beyond where most people from my little… Read more »

Tom Murin
Tom Murin
1 month ago

This is a very profound post. I’m fortunate to be a satisficer by nature – so I don’t believe I have to change anything. Simple things make me content/happy.
In any event, I recently saved this quote which I believe sums things up nicely:
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.” – William James

Andrea
Andrea
1 month ago

Great article JD! I’ve always felt a bit lucky that I can be happy with not a lot of things, so I’ve never had quite as much financial stress like my friends & family. I never quite thought about it in these terms though. I guess it does really have to do with lowering expectations, which allows us to be happier with where we’re at and what we already have. As I’ve gotten to a place where I have more & more financial stability, I think I’m constantly trying to lower my expectations at the same time and find myself… Read more »

Accidentally Retired
Accidentally Retired
1 month ago

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

So gotta lower those expectations. 100%

Robert Moss
Robert Moss
1 month ago

What a post! Great read and so thoughtful. Probably the reality piece of the equation is improving too: putting that awful election cycle behind us, the pandemic receding, and the coming of Spring.

Another quote on expectations worth sharing:

“Two men looked out through prison bars. One saw dirt and the other saw stars.”

Last edited 1 month ago by Robert Moss
Mrt
Mrt
1 month ago

This post is golden. Thank you.

Chris@TTL
1 month ago

Woo, this was a whirlwind of a post, J.D.! Really enjoyed it, you managed to thread together a lot of different topics with a consistent theme of managing expectations. When it comes to the hedonic treadmill and spending in the context of managing expectations, I like to employ a strategy I call “avoiding the Connoisseur Effect”. That’s not letting yourself get sucked into high-class taste that makes enjoying the basics more difficult. A classic example would be getting into all the details of fine wine, the tastes and notes, which then make it too difficult to find two-buck chuck enjoyable.… Read more »

NZ Muse
NZ Muse
1 month ago

Sounds rather Stoic!

For me, I’ve got some big goals at the moment, and I think this resonates in the sense that I need to let go of expectations around timelines, and how it’s going to happen specifically. That stuff drives me crazy and gets in my own way.

HeadedWest
HeadedWest
1 month ago

I’m often stewing over the cluttered, small, old home in Seattle.I find myself admiring the way your home looks in the photos and videos because it doesn’t need new trim and paint as much as ours does. So why are you stewing about your home? Must be all in your head?

HeadedWest
HeadedWest
1 month ago
Reply to  HeadedWest

😉

Girt
Girt
1 month ago
Reply to  HeadedWest

I am someone who found a big house overwhelming and it did depress me. Particularly since it wasn’t in a walkable neighborhood. It turns out that I need people around so I can enjoy retreating from them 🙂
For my mental health it was really great to move a bit further in to a smaller home (but still a house with a garden) in an established not-fancy suburb 13 miles out of the city. Not amazingly walkable but still plenty of interesting places within a couple of miles.

Last edited 1 month ago by Girt
Impersonal Finances
Impersonal Finances
1 month ago

Happiness equals reality minus expectations… dang! There is a balance somewhere in there of having a high standard but not putting too much pressure on yourself. Glad to hear you’re finding happiness.

Dreyson
Dreyson
1 month ago

I like that equation ?

Dreyson
Dreyson
1 month ago

the part about The Paradox of Choice reminds me about Homer’s Enemy, an episode in The Simpsons where it compares Homer Simpson’s enemy who’s this perfect (Maximizer) guy who works had versus Homer this relaxed (Satisficers). In the end, Homer’s enemy had a horrible life despite technically being better off, especially compared to Homer.

Dave @ Minimalism and Your Money
Dave @ Minimalism and Your Money
1 month ago

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first read the title of this post, but I couldn’t agree more with what you said. Sometimes being content with what we have is the hardest thing to do. It sounds like you have already made some big lifestyle changes and you may have a few more with Kim and your house. I’m glad February was such a great month for you!

Andy
Andy
1 month ago

From the Book of Life (aka. the Bible) “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…” Matthew 6:25-34. This book has everything I need in life.

Jen
Jen
1 month ago

I think the trait of anxiety and being a maximizer are linked. I picked a not very lucrative career path and thus was on a tight budget for about 15 years. My anxiety about that translated into endless comparison shopping any time I needed to make a purchase. Now I am financially secure (thanks in part to your writing JD!) but I am still a maximizer at heart. It doesn’t serve me well but at least I recognize it now and can think about better ways to make decisions.

Jennifer
Jennifer
1 month ago

The quote “extend forgiveness to your idiot friends” and “idiot self” almost had me in tears. Like you I have lowered my expectations to cope with anxiety. My anxiety is about goals that are not well-defined and life changes that are swirling around me that I need to react and compensate for, but do not control directly. Things are a bit messy at the moment, and I have to give myself grace to be who and where I am right now and not handle things perfectly. I won’t go into details, but a lot of fundamental assumptions about my future… Read more »

Anne
Anne
1 month ago

Boy, did you hit the nail smack, bang on the head. My husband and I are retired and doing really well financially. My/our grief is that we have three middle aged sons who don’t contact us from one year to the next and we did a great deal to give them nice childhoods and a leg up in adult life. The past ten years have been especially grief filled for me. It was not what I pictured that our family life would be.
Is this going to change? Hell no! I really need to work on accepting this.

Star
Star
1 month ago

This one has been rolling around in my head for a couple of days. I really struggle with finding the line between lowering expectations being better for happiness and where do they let society/the man/our system off the hook? Some expectations are obviously necessary and good. Am I on a hedonic treadmill or is the system bunk? Or is it a little bit of both?

Mapleton Reader
Mapleton Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

May I suggest a possible viewpoint shift that may help. Swap the term “lowering expectations” to “being grateful”. Trying to recast Buddha’s equation with this replacement is “happiness = reality + gratefulness”, with gratefulness being a more positive view on the world than than our level of expectation of it. I believe it is possible to be grateful for at least something in our current “reality” and yet still “strive for excellence”, which in turn changes our future reality.

David @ Filled With Money
David @ Filled With Money
1 month ago

The best spot to be in is to surprise on the upside. Always better to underpromise and overdeliver than to overpromise and underdeliver. The best place to be at is to overpromise and overdeliver but that’s way too hard.
When people don’t expect things of you, the pressure is off. Not having any pressure or stress is the best feeling in the world.

Katie
Katie
1 month ago

I feel you about not expecting too much. Especially during the pandemic when everything is bleh. I’d be interested how that interacts with perfectionism and imposter syndrome for you. If you ever do circle back to blog goals maybe consider posting spare change links as something similar to writing an article? (E.g. post 4 content sets a month. One set could be an article OR 2 spare change links.) I really enjoy your curation of the web and I’m happy to stop by and see what sparked your interest. It might give you another way to feel productive, but from a… Read more »

DocToDisco
DocToDisco
28 days ago

JD,
Love this!  “Happiness equals reality minus expectations”.
Yup, I’m done with my future stealing my present.
My new mantra in life for the last two years is now “I have enough and I have enough”.

ray miller
ray miller
22 days ago

Somehow I figured this out at an early age, but I think it is a journey because the trait is not binary.

Suzie
Suzie
20 days ago

Great post, love it, bookmarked it! Reminded me of something my uncle said once over 50 years ago. “Blessed is he who expects nothing for he shall not be disappointed.”

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