Monday, October 13, 2014

Power of Perspective

Here comes a report of another “new study” that tells us what most of us already know, that happiness depends on expectations.  It was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.”  The researchers wondered what influenced happiness and how a person’s happiness was influenced by life events.  In a similar way many people wondered how Robin Williams could have been depressed enough to commit suicide given that he was rich and famous and seemed to have everything anyone could want.

In a brief summary NBC reported:  “In a new study, researchers found that it didn't matter so much whether things were going well. It mattered whether they were going better than expected.”  The conclusion is very defensible, with excellent experimental design, based on MRI scans of 26 people and replicated in a smartphone survey of over 18,000 subjects.  The primary focus of the research was a better understanding and treatment of mood disorders rather than assessing happiness, but the implications of these findings are very interesting.

Although most of us already know this, it’s more on a subconscious level.  We seem to be obsessed with building high expectations for ourselves and being disappointed when we are let down by reality.  The two most overused words today are awesome and amazing.  Everything is described as awesome or amazing.  We hear it in advertising, news reports and casual conversation.  As one linguist pointed out in a discussion of changes to the English language, “Awesome used to describe the Taj Mahal; now it’s free parking downtown on Thursday nights.”  Do you see how we kid each other and ourselves by overbuilding expectations? 

Hype keeps growing in our society to the point that you don’t have to wait for a politician or adman to come along.  Just look to your friends, your kids, your Facebook contacts.  We act like brides before the big day – everything has to be perfect.  We act like kids at Christmas, tearing open presents and soon setting them aside to tear open the next.  Our world of toys, games, gadgets, special effects, gets more and more sophisticated, technical and intricate, but we can’t wait for the next iPhone or other product that will be even better.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that high expectations are always bad, but they must be realistic.  (And don't confuse high expectations with high standards.)  Sometimes what we already have is OK, often it’s better than OK but we are too busy looking ahead to the next big thing to appreciate it.  Every experience for our whole life is not guaranteed to be awesome or amazing.  When we unconsciously make such demands, we are bound to be less happy than we could be.

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