Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Great Expectations

Recently, I read a book by Eric Weiner titled, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Weiner, aptly pronounced “whiner,” measures levels of happiness in a wide variety places such as Iceland and India, Africa and America, Britain and Bhutan.

His list of happiest places is somewhat surprising. You'd think that warm places with nice beaches would be happiest. However, Iceland is number two on the list despite its cold climate and moderate standard of living. Denmark, another cold place, is also high on the list.

One reviewer observed that Weiner found that “a myriad of factors contribute to happiness: society, culture, community, relationships, belonging, trust, openness, creativity, action, flexibility, unpredictability, altruism, a healthy balance of comparative feelings, hedonism, but not too much, and money, but just a bit. And, yes, place--if it allows these things.”

Where did the United States rank? Somewhere in the middle of the list. We’re happier than residents of Moldova (the least happy place), but we’re not nearly as happy as those in Bhutan.

Why doesn’t the U.S. rank higher in happiness? One of the main factors in happiness is expectations. And that’s where the U.S. falters. Weiner found that we have the highest expectations of any culture in the world in terms of success, wealth, and opportunity. In fact, we have set the expectation bar so high, very few can clear it.

Much of our unhappiness can be laid at the feet of unfulfilled expectations. We want more out of life—and expect more—but we’re not getting it. High expectations taken to their extreme creates a kind of perfectionism. Perfectionists try their best to make life perfect and become frustrated and even enraged when they discover that life can’t be perfect.

One of the best pieces of advice I received about raising teenagers was: “Lower your expectations and raise your tolerance.” That advice could apply to other areas of life as well. If we had more realistic expectations of ourselves, of each other, and of Life itself, we would be happier.

Perhaps a healthy dose of gratitude and humility is what we need to reset our expectations. Being grateful for what we have and not always craving more leads to greater happiness. Being humble and honest about our gifts and abilities also lowers our expectations to the level of reality.

The spiritual path paved by Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse and others is one of gratitude and humility. I don’t know if there are really happy places, but I do believe we can find happiness in whatever place we are living. It all depends on how much (or how little) we expect.

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