Happiness: Why we should lower our expectations

Redditch England: 'detatched homes and horses' photo by A Howse
Redditch England: 'detatched homes and horses' photo by A Howse

The concept of lowering expectations

This month Bridgid Delaney of the Guardian writes about our need at this uncertain time to be “striving for a state of tranquillity, rather than gratification’. Delaney is inspired by Hellenic philosophy and a concept the Ancient Greek’s call ataraxia. (1)

Ataraxia or the “absence of perturbation” exists when we are free of going after the highs experienced by external diversions such as money, objects, parties, holidays, exciting social events and attending musical and artistic entertainments.

Finding an equilibrium within our stable emotional centre is terribly hard for many people all over the world this year. We have had unexpected lockdowns, restrictions and everyone’s social life, work life, education and travel plans have been disrupted, cancelled and generally turned upside down.

Why now is a time to consider lowering our expectations

During this health crisis millions of people worldwide have tragically lost someone close to them after they contracted the harmful coronavirus. Others have been prevented from seeing elderly relatives and grandchildren at important times for their families. Many public service employees have bravely struggled through hardship, carrying on their roles as key workers as the world has been turned upside down by the pandemic. It is no secret that Brexit and the effects of Covid-19 have disproportionally affected those who are already financially vulnerable. It is no wonder a lot of people are feeling ‘rather low’ or a ‘bit all over the place’ this summer.

The future family plans for thousands (just in the UK) of couples and single people have been cancelled, put on hold or postponed until life and the economy gets back to the ‘new normal’. Sadly, this will be too late for hundreds of would-be mothers and fathers who have waited until they have all their responsible life stage ‘ducks in a row’ before committing to each other and embarking on parenthood. Job instability has meant saving for a new home purchase or moving to a ‘better place’ has been prohibitively difficult for householders of all ages.

A wonderful friend who was raised in a Mormon household in America once told me how “if you don’t have any expectations, you won’t be disappointed.” In common with other fairly ‘Alpha’ type woman and men I know who have frequently made myself borderline physically exhausted by giving energy, we never knew we had to give to gaining a top degree. This drive and focus and an almost Herculean exertion have in the past also been directed into getting promoted, delivering projects, organising events, living abroad and gaining sporting skills and certificates, and so on. Therefore I was truly shocked to hear  my talented friend’s modest outlook on her destiny. I had never considered this life plan (or lack thereof) as a viable option to approaching the future. Initially I actually thought she was joking. However, as I have got a little older and perhaps a tiny bit wiser, I can see how serious and thought provoking the point she was making actually is.

My Danish partner was also advised by his mother that “if you don’t have any expectations, you won’t be disappointed.” This is something different for me to hear. The Danes have a culture of ‘Jante Law’ which a popular Danish website explains as a concept “created by the author Axel Sandlemose n his 1933 novel ‘A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks’. It states that everyone is equal, no one is special and everyone should be treated as such.” This idea has helped to create a tolerant, broad minded and supportive society with a generous benefits system. According to FYI Denmark.com the Queen of Denmark still urges Danes to “excel in everything they do”.  (2)

Should we lower our expectations?

As privileged children in England in the 1980’s we were brought up with the concept of working hard to achieve bigger and better things. Making some sacrifices to the amount of quality time spent with our close family and friends, is deemed to be worthwhile if important career progress can be made, for example. The trend is that it is all worthwhile if we can ‘get on’ or ‘move up’ ‘the ladder’ quicker. Weddings become more lavish and expensive, three car families are a common sight and multiple trips abroad each year become the norm for millions of Brits.

The runaway success of companies such as Apple and Microsoft originate from the rise of expensive home computing. Mobile phones have developed into vital consumer products that most citizens crave and are prepared to spend up to one thousand pounds or more on, for owning the latest gadget. All this might be good for the UK economy, which needs all the help it can get post Brexit. However, is this digital rat-race good for our wellbeing?

Our capitalist environment influences our daily lives massively still in 2021. These digital images and videos pop up in our down time, as we receive updates from Instagram and Facebook and other media channels. Television and streaming services show us adverts for luxury goods such as designer fashion, perfume, aftershave and beauty products we don’t really need to ‘invest in’. Our films contain product placement. Our entertainment shows often feature lifestyles that the average person, who is trying to get their ‘act together’ post pandemic, could only dream of.

What should we lower our expectations to?

Realistically however, having some level of expectation is generally a good idea for most folk. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology which has 5 tiers to represent the levels containing elements of importance in our lives and what we need to be happy and fulfilled.  We all need a secure and safe home with food, water warmth and rest.

The Living wage in the UK is currently £9.50 and £10.85 in London. Over 7000 employers agree and pay this rate to their employees. Of course, it is not that simple as that even in the relatively well-off Great Britain as part time work, self-employment contracts and zero hours contracts mean millions of working men and women still struggle to make ends meet. (3) The pension age is rising to 68 over the coming years.

The full basic state pension is £137.60 per week. We all need to cover ’the basic bills’ at every age in order to be able to enjoy the finer things in life such as meeting friends and enjoying our hobbies. (4)

The ten rules of ‘ikigai’ a Japanese philosophy of life include connecting with nature, keeping active and taking it slow, whilst living in the moment. These Japanese principles are not about acquiring money or accruing assets or fame.

It is no surprise that musical instruments, art supplies, cooking equipment, bicycles, books and even puppies and kittens have been in demand over the last eighteen months. We have embraced simpler times and picked up traditional pastimes, old books and new crafts with fresh enthusiasm for a homely diversion. Walking and gardening have been rediscovered by nearly everyone who can and ‘cottage core’ even became a fashion trend, thanks to the social media influencers at home in their lockdown frocks framed by their preloved vintage ‘The Good Life’ interiors.

All this focus on ‘staying in’ and enjoying our immediate locality has contributed to house prices continuing to rise in England. Therefore, a bigger budget is needed to find an adequate home and this pattern of growth doesn’t look like it is levelling off anytime soon. Locals in some areas like Cornwall have now been priced out of the market, due to the amount of former city living homeowners and tenants looking for a better ‘remote working’ life balance.

Despite hundreds of thousands of new homes being built across the country, we often hear ‘twenty somethings’ say “I don’t expect to ever own my own home” something which would be unthinkable in the 1970’s of my parents’ generation. Not very many citizens would think this situation is progress. Home ownership is not a pre-requisite to contentment but a decent residence with the option to stay long term is important to being able to reach a state of tranquillity.

Action orientated and what could often be considered violent computer games have also surged in popularity over the last year or two. The graphics that are now possible on home computers make the gaming a powerful experience. Experts say that these games that are often played by dozens of people at a time located all over the world don’t actually lead to more crime in real life. In fact, the opposite is true, as gamers get rid of their frustration and negative feelings, through channelling their aggression via their on-screen characters.

Staying ‘in our village’ and managing to find easy ways vent any extra stress in positive ways has been key for all ages throughout this strange time. No wonder a ‘good run’ or a ‘good bike ride’ has become an essential part of the week for millions of healthy adults and their children.

‘Caution’ is the new buzzword in Westminster after an underwhelming Freedom Day earlier this month. Simultaneously a new conservatism has entered into our high streets with ‘locally grown’ and ‘shopping local’ being new mantras for those who can afford it. Independent boutiques are re-emerging as the places to go if we are able. Most residents in England are giving regular trips to our major cities ‘a miss’ in favour of heading into our nearest decent town. The British have converted to a mostly ‘gently does it’ and ’ slowly getting out and about again’ type of lifestyle.

As small business owners, company directors and entrepreneurs we balance the desire to run a brilliant and profitable enterprise with the risks and pitfalls of over expanding and over investing our resources all the time. We have seen an unprecedented number of retails shops close over recent months. Big international clothing companies like Gap have ‘pulled the plug’ on bricks and mortar stores and ‘gone totally online’ resulting in scary numbers of job losses nationally. They didn’t set out to be mediocre, all those in the ‘top team’ had a strategy to gain the meatiest share of their respective markets possible.

Under Tony Blairs government nearly every college student was expected to be able to receive a place at university. Now the jobs market is more uncertain then ever it takes a wealthy family or a very confident student to want to take on the loans that come with now being a graduate. The cost of attending a three year or four year degree, with all the associated complexities of committing to privately rented living accommodation, can be scary. Add into that equation that lecture attendance may be possible, or it may not, depending on the latest government guidance and getting used to the new ‘hybrid’ home working and studying landscape.

Uplifting unexpected surprises

We all know the exciting feeling of receiving an unexpected present or a surprise and how it can momentarily or permanently lift the spirits. Taking an ‘if it happens it is a bonus’ approach to life can leave some mental room for us to truly delight in the positive results we were not counting on. Allowing things in all aspects of our lives to ‘under promise and overdeliver’ may just be the answer for some, to keeping calm and carrying on, during these unpredictable times.

(1) ‘The secret to happiness in uncertain times? Give up pursuing it’ Bridgid Delaney 17 July 2021 The secret to happiness in uncertain times? Give up pursuing it’ Bridgid Delaney

(2) ‘Danish Culture in Denmark’ FYIDenmark.com, 30 July 2021 ‘Danish Culture in Denmark’ FYIDenmark.com

(3) ‘What is the Living Wage?’ Living Wage.org.uk 30 July 2021 (3) ‘What is the Living Wage?’ Living Wage.org.uk

(4) ‘The Basic State Pension’ UK, Gov.UK, 30 July 2021 ‘The Basic State Pension’ UK, Gov.UK

(5) ‘Where the money goes’ the National Lottery, 30 June 2021 ‘Where the money goes’ the National Lottery

(6) ‘Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage’ the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, September 2007 ‘Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage’ the Joseph Rowntree Foundation