Expectations are the Root of all Unhappiness

I reckon this one’s almost too simple to be true:  Expectations are the root of all unhappiness.  I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, and I’ve yet to come up with a counter-example.  The only time we’re ever unhappy is when we had an expectation that our lives would go a certain way, and that expectation wasn’t met.
Conversely, of course, whenever we’re happy it’s because one of our expectations was exceeded.
Another way of saying this is that every unhappiness you’re feeling today can be traced back to an expectation you had some time in the past – an expectation that wasn’t met – and that if something’s making you happy today, it’s because you didn’t expect that thing (event, person, object, relationship, etc) to turn out as well as it did.

The Buddhists almost have it right.  They reckon that desire is the root of all unhappiness.  Rid yourself of desire, they say, and you’ll never be unhappy.  I don’t believe that’s entirely true.  There are a lot of things I desire, but I don’t necessarily feel unhappy that I don’t have them.  Replace the word "desire" with "expectation", and they’d be spot on.
We all have our expectations of Life.  There are people out there in the world who would be happy – happy to the point of praising God for their good fortune – if they managed to get one plate of warm, healthy food per day for a month.  Most of the people reading this, if they were restricted to one plate of food per day for a month, would curse whomever was responsible.  I know I would.  And of course there are many rich people out there that would feel desperately unhappy if they were forced to live like I do today.  And yet I feel completely happy with my standard of living.  It revolves around our expectations.
I think it’s probably fairly clear that happiness has nothing to do with how much stuff (money, possessions, etc) you have.  I would expand on this and say that it also has nothing to do with how easy your life has been.  There are people that have been blessed with "good fortune" their whole lives – who have never had to live through any significant tragedy or difficulty.  Interestingly, these people don’t seem any happier than you or me.  On the other side of the coin, there are people that have lived through Hell, and yet today are some of the happiest people in the world.  What can account for this?
There are many ways we come by our expectations.  Our parents are responsible for a great many, and we collect a great deal from media and advertising.  All those movies, TV shows and ads we see, populated by nothing but beautiful people whose lives always turn out perfectly at the end of the episode – what sort of message is that sending to our collective unconsciousnesses?  When everyone on our television is gorgeous and perfect, and then we look at our own lives and see that the people in it are often far from gorgeous or perfect, we end up thinking there’s something wrong with us.  The U.S. Constitution virtually guarantees that we should expect wonderful lives.  U.S. citizens have, after all, inalienable rights to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."  Is it any wonder that the States are full of 300 million people all desperately trying to be somebody?  If you’re not somebody in the States, there’s something wrong with you!  How mysterious this must seem to a resident of Japan or India, countries where it’s perfectly fine to be exactly the same as everyone else.  How definitely un-mysterious that Americans are amongst the unhappiest people in the world.
I have some things for you to think about…

  1. Have a think about the last time you were unhappy, hurt, pissed off or disappointed.  Can you identify the expectation that was missed?  Can you do the same for your last moment of happiness, delight or joy?
  2. Of course, the number one expectation that humans carry is "that Life will continue into the future the way it is today".  Have a think about that one.  Are you guilty of that?  Most of us are.  What is that expectation you’re carrying today doing to your chances of future happiness?
  3. Can you free yourself of expectation?  That would be to live totally in the moment, not thinking of the future, approaching Life with utter spontaneity.  I’m saying that such a life would be truly happy.  Interesting to note that’s exactly how many very young children live…
  4. Can you come up with any counter-examples to my theory?  I’d love to hear about them.  Please let me know (using the comments system below).

4 Responses to “Expectations are the Root of all Unhappiness”

  1. Dom Says:

    Visit Dom

    I just wanted to say that I couldn’t agree more and have had this same belief now since it was pointed out to me by my boss some 12 or so years ago.

  2. Roger Elliott Says:

    Visit Roger Elliott

    I came across this while searching for a Sufi quote that goes something like “I know the source of all human unhappiness and it is unmet expectations”. Looks like you’ve come to the same conclusion. Nice description, thanks.

  3. David Says:

    Visit David

    Hi Mark, I came to this exact realisation myself a few years back and wrote it down at the time. Here’s what i wrote

    Happiness largely depends on how closely one’s life mirrors one’s expectations. People give very little thought on what those expectations should be.

    I also haven’t been able to find a counter example. Enjoyed your post, thanks for posting 🙂


    Rushcutters Bay, Sydney

  4. Patrick Says:

    Visit Patrick

    Expectations are truly the roots of most unhappiness. From experience, I’ve come to discover that the accompanied emotion holds the key to our dissatisfactions. its OK to have expectations but what gives it energy are the emotions. so if we can just be happy and satisfied in the here and now, our hearts will truly be thrilled with satisfaction whether or not our expectations are met.

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