During a long night drive with my family, my teenage boys and I were having a conversation, and somehow the topic of happiness came up.
I asked, “Boys, do you want to know the secret to eternal happiness?”
“What is it?”, they asked.
“There are only 2 rules to happiness,” I said. “Expect Nothing, and be Grateful for Everything”.
Yes, it’s that simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy.
Expectations create Frustration and Anger
Do you realize that almost every time you feel frustrated or angry about something or someone, it’s because you have expectations that are not being met?
You’re expecting a promotion or pay raise from your boss but didn’t get it. You’re frustrated.
You started a business and expect to make a profit but it’s losing money instead. You’re frustrated.
You wish your teenager would just pick up his clothes, but despite constant reminders, he doesn’t. You’re frustrated and angry.
You’ve had a bruising day at work and expect to get quality rest when you come home, but instead, you’re faced with a barrage of complaints from your spouse regarding the children. You’re frustrated and angry.
You’re driving through gridlock and expect other drivers to observe etiquette and be polite, but someone cuts into your lane. You’re angry.
You’ve uploaded what you think is your greatest YouTube video ever, expecting plenty of likes. Instead, you get tonnes of hate comments. You’re angry.
You got married and expect your spouse to love you forever, but after 2 decades you’ve just become housemates living separate lives bound together by shared responsibilities (like children). You’re frustrated.
By now, I think you get the picture, but I can also hear the objections going off in your head.
“What do you mean expectations are bad?”
“What’s wrong with having expectations?”
“Without high expectations, how can we improve our lives?”
Well, I didn’t say expectations are wrong. I’m just saying, to be happy, learn to expect nothing or expect very little. Let me explain.
There is nothing wrong with having expectations. In fact, a world without expectations is impossible to live in. We expect the sun to rise tomorrow morning. We expect a car to turn right if we turn the steering wheel clockwise. We expect our phones to work properly when we make a call.
The problem comes when a huge gap exists between what you expect and what is realistically within your control.
For example, many young people nowadays want to become millionaires by becoming YouTubers, singers or influencers. They set very high expectations in terms of results (e.g. number of followers, likes, income etc). But how much of it is within their control?
When those expectations aren’t met quickly, they devolve and become frustrated, and in the process, less resourceful. Instead of staying calm and figuring out how to improve, they get frustrated and either give up or complain to their friends.
Goals, Targets and Standards are not Expectations
The problem, in this case, is not about wanting to become a millionaire or that the dreams are unrealistic.
Becoming a millionaire and retiring young is a common aspiration for young people (myself included when I was young) and a worthy goal.
The problem comes when you expect your goal to materialize by a certain time, and it doesn’t happen.
A goal or a target is not the same as an expectation. If you can’t distinguish between the two, you’ll be in for a frustrating time, especially if you are ambitious. The higher the expectations, the greater the frustration.
Yes, setting an ambitious goal is the first key to success. But most of the factors that determine your success aren’t within your control.
For example, you may have full control over the quality and quantity of the videos you produce, but do you have control over other people liking them?
Therefore, setting expectations based on a specific outcome that is 50% or more determined by other people or factors outside your control is a formula for constant frustration and unhappiness.
Instead of setting expectations based on specific outcomes, what you can do is set expectations based on your inputs.
What quality do you expect from your videos? How many videos do you want to post a week? Since you have almost full control over these inputs, there is less room for frustration. You are not subject to the whims and fancies of other people.
Let’s use another example. Say you want to bulk up and have your body look a certain way. That is your goal. You want to achieve that within the next 12 months. That is your target.
You start off strong, going to the gym 3x a week. But after 2 months, you hardly see any results, and you start getting frustrated as it seems increasingly likely that you’re going to miss your target and your goal. This demoralizes you, and you struggle to go to the gym even 2x a week, then 1x, and eventually give up altogether.
Let’s look at another approach. The goal remains unchanged, you still want your body to look a certain way. But this time, you don’t set a long-term target. Instead, you set a weekly target of visiting the gym 3x a week. And each visit you will do a certain set of exercises, and increase the intensity by 5% each week.
Now, these are targets that you can reasonably expect to hit, correct? And each time you go to the gym, you feel good, because you’ve met your daily/weekly target and your brain gives you a dopamine shot as a reward. You feel more motivated than ever. You keep hitting the gym and eventually attain the body that you want.
Does it still matter whether the goal was achieved within 12 months? Not really. But does it matter that you hit your weekly and daily goals? Absolutely!!
Expectations in Relationships
I want to touch on this because relationships are probably the most important part of many people’s lives, yet I see many relationships being damaged by unrealistic expectations that it’s sad. It’s particularly distressing to me when I see marriages not working out, and when parent-child relationships are stormy.
In the earlier marriage example I used, shouldn’t you expect your spouse to love you forever after getting married?
In my personal opinion, yes and no.
Marriage is not something that lasts automatically just because you expect it to last. You and your spouse both need to work at it. If either one or both of the spouses gets lazy, then you can’t expect it to last.
You see, the word “love” is both a noun and a verb. Love, the noun, is a feeling you have towards a person. Love, the verb, is an action you do that creates love, the noun.
I feel that many people have the idea that love is only a noun. It’s either you feel love for a person or you don’t. It’s either there, or it’s not.
What they don’t realize is that by loving a person more, you also generate more love for the person. In other words, love, the verb creates love, the noun!
Love, the verb, can be small actions like hugging or kissing your partner daily. Going on the occasional dates, buying small gifts and doing nice things for each other. And there’s a reason why making love is called “making” love.
If both spouses do the same things they did when they fell in love for the rest of their lives, I’m sure the marriage will have a good chance of lasting a lifetime.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that the marriage will still work even if one spouse has tried everything. It takes both hands to clap.
One spouse takes all the love actions and in the process generates love for the other spouse.
But the other spouse just takes it for granted and doesn’t reciprocate in kind.
Many years later, surprise, surprise, that other spouse finds that he or she doesn’t love his or her wife or husband any more.
But at least, one spouse doing something still has a better chance of saving a marriage than both spouses doing nothing, while expecting the other to do something.
So back to the question, if you marry someone, shouldn’t you expect that person to love you forever?
I would say yes if you have put in the work and done all you can to love (the verb) your spouse. But if you haven’t done the work, then is it fair for you to expect that your spouse continues to love you?
When was the last time you did something nice for your spouse?
No, I’m not talking about taking care of the kids, cooking the meals and keeping the house clean. I’m not talking about bringing home the bacon and making more money so that you can afford a bigger house.
I’m talking about “we time”, just you and your spouse, without the children. Listening to each other’s troubles and being present and supportive. If you want your marriage to work, you both need to work on the “we”.
Parent-child relationships are another area that is prone to strain caused by failed expectations. Particularly in Singapore, where many parents pressure their children about academic achievements and get angry when their expectations are not met.
Sometimes, the children put stress on themselves, often in part due to the constant pressure from their parents and the brainwashing from the people around them (including parents) that if they don’t do well in school, they’re destined to do low-paying, menial jobs for the rest of their lives.
In Singapore, we often hear the refrain that “if you don’t study hard and get good grades, you’re going to end up being a road-sweeper or toilet cleaner!”
This brings to mind one of my favourite teacher recruitment commercials from the Singapore Ministry of Education (yea … my eyes still tear up when I watch this again).
In the commercial, a student, Shirley scores just 10/100 on a Geography test and is demoralized. Her teacher Mdm Pua talks to and encourages her. Mdm Pua also starts to give Shirley one-on-one tuition. Over time Shirley becomes more confident and expects to score at least a C on the next test.
However, she scores only 40/100 and fails the paper. Yet the teacher writes “Well Done!” in the remark. Curious, Shirley queries Mdm Pua and asks what she means by “Well Done” even though she failed the test.
Mdm Pua replies, “You’ve worked hard and made a big improvement. Isn’t that more important?”
The commercial ends with an update that Shirley is doing well in her career and still keeps in touch with Mdm Pua to this day.
The moral of the story is, don’t expect good results. While you can and should set good results as the goal, expecting to achieve them doesn’t do you any good, because it just opens up room for demoralization.
Instead, expect yourself to work hard, which is the one thing you can control. As long as there is constant improvement, you will reach your goal someday.
Now, since children and teenagers lack maturity, it is up to us as parents to inculcate these values in our children. The sad thing is most parents that I’ve met don’t even subscribe to this philosophy.
To them, lowering expectations is the same as lowering standards. But expectations are not the same as standards. It is possible to lower your expectations without lowering the standards.
You can and should set high standards regarding the inputs. For example, homework should be done every day without procrastination and reminders. Students should focus 100% when studying, instead of being distracted by their mobile phones.
However, expecting children to meet certain academic standards measured by test scores is not going to help them. How can they focus on their studies if they feel demoralized and beat themselves up over their test results? Isn’t an improvement in test scores more important and motivating than the absolute score?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe that expecting only that the child does his or her best, regardless of results, will produce better results. Children learn better when they are relaxed, and expectations just add to their stress and inhibit their learning.
Gratitude – The Ultimate Feel-Good Drug
Just managing expectations and setting them in a manner that is highly controllable can already create dramatic improvements in your emotional well-being. It eliminates and/or reduces situations where your expectations aren’t met, creating stress.
However, removing stress simply makes a person less unhappy; it doesn’t necessarily make one happier. This is where gratitude comes in.
If possible, please try this emotional experiment. Close your eyes and try to recall a situation that made you very sad, angry or frustrated. An intense outburst of negative emotions. The worst day of your life. Try to get yourself into the same negative emotional state as you did that day.
Now, switch focus, and think of things or people that you feel intensely grateful for. Your cute children and their adorable behaviours. A partner who loves you, or friends that support you even on your worst day.
Even if you feel there’s nothing to be grateful for, force yourself to find something.
At the very least, you’re still breathing.
The fact that you have internet access and can read this when millions of people in poor countries have none.
You might be sitting in an air-conditioned room instead of sweltering outdoors.
You might live in a peaceful country while millions of others from war-torn countries have already died, are fighting for survival, or have become refugees.
Do you feel the negative emotions you had earlier melting away?
This is normal. It means you are human.
Negative emotions release cortisol, the “stress” hormone. But when you feel gratitude, “happy” hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin are released.
These hormones flush out cortisol and immediately put you into a stable, relaxed emotional state.
You’re no longer in the “fight or flight” mode. This frees up your mental capacity to be more creative and you can use the extra energy to handle adversities better.
I think the Christians (I’m a freethinker, by the way) figured out the correlation between gratitude and performance early on.
Before every meal, they say grace and thank their Lord for blessing them with food. Thus, Christians are ingrained from a young age to develop a habit that makes them feel gratitude 3 times a day. Happy people are more productive, and a happier community creates a stronger economy.
But I feel this can be expanded to include more than food, which many people in wealthy countries already take for granted.
If you just take a minute or two each day to think about all the people you love, and those who love you, and feel grateful that you have them in your life, you will find that despite all its challenges, life is still very good.
You will have an inner peace that puts you in a powerful, resourceful emotional state, capable of tackling any problem life throws at you.
Let me share with you a personal example.
The one thing I am most grateful for in life is my youngest daughter. My wife and I had 3 boys in a row and had planned to stop at 3.
But my 4th child came along by accident, and she happened to be the daughter that we tried for but never got.
Since it was an unplanned pregnancy, I can’t take credit for it. She must be a gift from upstairs, and therefore I feel grateful for her, always.
I’m an entrepreneur and many business owners around the world were badly affected by COVID-19 lockdowns, myself included. 2020 was one of the darkest years in my life.
But at the end of each day, after a terrible day at work (i.e. no sales), I come home to a cheerful toddler who’s absolutely delighted to see me. Each time I see her, I feel grateful to have her in my life.
Once, after a really bad day at work, I told her, “It’s OK if Daddy’s business is gone, as long as I still have you.” I almost burst into tears as I said it.
She didn’t understand a single word, but I meant what I said, nonetheless. At that moment, my feeling of gratitude was so powerful that like a tsunami, it swept away all my fears and anxieties about my business.
Many people have written many rules about happiness, some too many to remember (42 rules to happiness?? Are you serious?? It’s stressful to even try and remember all of them!).
But quantity isn’t the same as effectiveness. These are the two rules I choose to use daily because they’re powerful and easy to remember.
Managing Expectations based on what I can control, such as inputs rather than specific outcomes, such as results reduces my stress and actually produces better results.
I can set my expectations high and expect a high quantity and quality of input from myself, which is fine since these are firmly within my control.
But to set high expectations based on results which depend very much on other people and factors beyond my control is disempowering and not very useful.
However, managing expectations simply reduces the number of stressors in modern urban life. There are some negative emotions that cannot be handled by managing expectations, such as illness or the passing of a loved one.
Gratitude is thus another useful tool which releases powerful feel-good hormones that can sweep away all negative emotions and make me feel better.
This strategy has worked well for me for many years. I hope it will work the same for you.