“Scientists suggest the key to happiness is low expectations”, said the Daily Mail headline, and I laughed, not only because Daily Mail readers have presumably already spotted that themselves, nor because it sounds like the punchline to a rather feeble joke. No, because Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, philosopher and all round awesome genius pointed that out more than 2000 years ago.
In fact, he said “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength.” Which is basically the same idea, and a sight pithier than the Mail managed.
A personal example: here’s me, trying to get my book published, and as predicted, no one wants it. Well, I’ve no control at all over that: I can control only how sad/wretched/stabby I allow it to make me become. I’ve full control over how I feel about external events, and naff all else.
The thing that’s upsetting me is beyond my control, so I should decide to let go. And focus instead on efforts which lie within my control, like sending my book to another 50 agents, or writing better, or pursuing another hobby. Deciding the only way I can be happy is to be published means setting myself up to be miserable for the rest of my life, which seems particularly idiotic for an atheist, confident there’s no heavenly reward waiting beyond my last breath.
The flood of relief that accompanies no longer caring is possibly greater than that I’d get from getting my book published anyway, which is surely a fleeting, transient triumph at best. Often acquiring the thing one desires does nothing more than stimulate further desires and render us greedy. When will they publish my next book, why isn’t it on posters in bus shelters, reviewed in the Times, getting turned into a mini-series?
If instead we desire material things, we find often their acquisition gives us only a very temporary sense of well-being, until the glossy sheen of the new toy dulls and something more expensive is required for the next hit of dopamine.
Joy prefers to arrive quietly, unexpected and unannounced, when we cease to search for distractions and merely sit with ourselves. Or yes, lower our expectations, if you prefer.
Like holidays. The anticipation is cool. Flicking through virtual brochures, imagining white sand between your toes. Then the great day arrives with a 4am start, squabbling, queues, all before you make acquaintance with mosquito bites, the runs, sunburn, dreary sweaty excursions to bits of rock you don’t care about. The disappointment hits harder for making mockery of our fancies. Expect it to be rubbish and enjoy the odd moment it isn’t.
Like love. Another of our favourite means of distraction. If you believe there is one perfect partner for you and you’d die without them, you’re very likely to bring a lot of unpleasant neediness and jealousy into your relationship, which may, ironically, make it crumble. But, gentle reader, you will not die.
Sad though it may seem should your fella runs off with a teenager, after a period of readjustment you’d be perfectly tickety-boo. Probably quite enjoy the house being tidier and never seeing his ghastly friend again. There are always compensations.
You can’t choose how your lover might behave or how rubbish your holiday might be, but you can always choose how you respond to it. If the idea makes you anxious, sit with the anxiety; fighting it will only make you more anxious. You don’t have to fix the anxiety; it’s a feeling you have, it isn’t you.
Anyway, of course there’s no formula for happiness. The whole idea is a nonsense. Happiness is a fuzzy, unexpected beast, in a constant state of flux. I might find getting published makes me no happier than eating cold beans at 4am, cat on lap, watching Bullseye reruns.
If I don’t care either way I can’t be hurt. And if that sounds the recipe for a shallow, limited life, it shouldn’t; I’ve ceased only to care about the external, while still eager to engage with and transform that which lies within my power.