Advice vs. Understanding

These questions are from an advice column. While I don’t like giving advice, I found the answers given left a lot of room for greater understanding. That being the case, I present some alternate ‘answers.’

Hi Carolyn: There has been talk here of “happiness = reality – expectations.” Where is the line between plans and expectations? Having a concrete plan makes it seem reasonable to expect that it will happen. And because there was a concrete plan, I may be even more disappointed when it doesn’t. I know the reality is that not every plan will come to fruition, so should I go into every plan without an expectation of its actually happening? Or is it that concrete plans are just different because expectations usually go unspoken?

— Overthinking!

In short, ‘yes,’ you are better to move forward without the expectation that your plan will happen. This does not mean it will not likely happen. It simply means that instead of living with ‘expectation’ you are living with ‘anticipation.’

Anticipation has actually been studied and it’s been proven to be more rewarding to the pleasure centres of our brains than an actual reward itself! It shows that our meaningful reality is not the tangible one; it is our mental projection of our judgments about whatever ‘is.’

Fortunately, ‘anticipation’ is much more general than ‘expectation’ so, it has a built in escape route. If we have some general event that is likely to happen in our future, then that can add a pleasant hue to whatever we are experiencing in any given moment in the present.

But using anticipation means that we do not fill in any details or tell ourselves stories about how happy will be if, or how we’ll be happy when. With anticipation our future knowledge is generally optimistic but it has no detail.

That way, if the event does not happen, life is not ‘going wrong.’ Without us adding our thought-based ‘attachments,’ life is simply going where it’s going and we can stay present with whatever really does happen. We still have the capacity to make whatever that is, into the most positive or rewarding event we can.

But, if we chose to build castles in the sky, then finding out we can’t live there means ‘losing’ all that we ‘dreamed’ we’d gain. Of course only our thoughts were dashed, not our reality. Reality still allows us to feel good about wherever we are, even if it isn’t were we thought we’d be.

To suffer over events that did not happen is to live in the past. That is all thought-based egocentric living. We are saved from that the moment we become present and begin mining it for rewards.

On top of all of this, it is critical to remember that if we look at our lives objectively, we can easily see that many of the things we have wished for have turned out to be disasters. Likewise, many things we wished wouldn’t happen will have evolved into valued experiences.

Ultimately, our expectations are poor indicators of where our rewards will be found. There is never really any ‘losing’ in life. There is only thinking about loss based on expectation. But in reality we are always where and when we are. And true happiness can always found there and then.

Dear Carolyn: I’m single mom, three kids. I’m freaking out that my handling of the pandemic crises will fully shape their adult lives, and I erfed it up by not listening enough or too much or … well, the list goes on. Is there a way to help them be healthy future adults who can cope with stuff?

— Mom

If there is one thing most parents can be consistently counted on to do it’s that they’ll underestimate their own parenting. But you can relax. Weirdly, even when we ‘fail’ we pass on the seeds for success.

It’s important to remember that all of the to-ing and fro-ing you’re describing is happening inside your head. The kids had the pandemic they had. The hard parts will build resilience, the easy parts will be fondly remembered. Either way the kids win.

In my work, in general, people are more stressed the younger they get. In many cases, each generation has had an easier and easier life, and most younger people willingly attribute their lack of resilience and confidence to that ease. And those kids are wise. Because the simple fact is, adversity builds strength. Maybe not right away. It can buffet us and knock us off course for a time. But long term, adversity builds strength and resilience.

This means The Greatest Generation, the one that survived The Great Depression and WWII, often test as being the healthiest, mentally. Everything seems pretty easy relative to WWII, so their expectation needles are set low. Meaning any day with no gunshots or bombs is a good one. That’s a good recipe for a good life.

Of course it’s possible for us to obsess about our worst days. Then we can take adversity and beat up our lives with our thoughts about how it should have been different. (Says who?) But none of that steals away our ability to be present, or to create a rewarding life –Now.

Every life will be visited by many tragedies. This pandemic was a worldwide experience shared by all. There is no question it had many ugly parts. But much like veterans of WWII, we can choose to be bitter we experienced it. And we can account for all we ‘lost.’ And that will hurt.

Alternatively, we can invest more of our lives in being genuinely grateful we survived it all, and that we were not among those who suffered even more than we did. Which one we do is up to you and your children at all times, regardless of what life events have happened in your past.

Whether our trauma makes the evening news or not, traumas are a normal part of a full human life. So we should not over-inflate their ability to dictate our futures. Every single new moment offers every single person the opportunity to change their minds, and their experience of life.

What happened to your kids will not be as important as how they choose to think about those events going forward. And within the potential of that future space-time, your children will always have enormous freedom, and the ability to create their own happiness. So focus on today. Focus on gratitude. Because that is the universal antidote to any challenging past.

Have a great summer.

peace. s