Lower your expectations, increase your happiness

by J.D. Roth

“Did you listen to Rick Steves this afternoon?” Kris asked me on Sunday. I shook my head. “That’s too bad,” she said. “It was about the relationship between money and happiness. I think you would have liked it — and so would your readers.”

“But I just wrote about happiness!” I said.

“J.D.,” she said. “You can never write too much about happiness.” And so I tracked down last weekend’s episode of Travel with Rick Steves and listened to his discussion with Eric Weiner about “the geography of bliss”. Kris was right. This is good stuff.

The Geography of Bliss

Weiner is a long-time correspondent for NPR. His new book, The Geography of Bliss, is about “how place — in every aspect of the word — shapes us, defines us.” It’s about finding the happiest places on Earth.

In Steves’ interview with Weiner, they compare and contrast “national happiness” in countries around the world. What makes some cultures happy and others less so? Is it wealth? Freedom? Or is it something else?

The show explores the relationship between democracy, consumerism, capitalism, envy, and happiness. There’s also a discussion about the role of religion and spirituality. And, of course, Steves and Weiner talk about the connection between money and happiness. Weiner says:

If we’re talking about the relationship between money and happiness, what really matters is how you feel about money. There have been studies that show that people are materialistic — irrespective of how much money they actually have — people who are materialistic tend to be less happy than people who are not. […]

Switzerland is a very wealthy country, but they don’t really show off their wealth. It’s not a “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” kind of society. It’s an “If you’ve got it, hide it” society because they don’t want to provoke envy in others. Americans are more individualistic and…flashier, I think.

Close relationships are a better predictor of happiness than monetary wealth. “Happiness is other people,” Weiner says. “Our happiness is determined in large part by our quality and quantity of relationships with others.

Expectations and Happiness

To me, the most interesting part of the conversation explored the connection between expectations and happiness. How does our sense of what we “deserve” affect how content we are? I liked this exchange so much that I’m going to quote a huge chunk of it:

I know it’s dangerous to make sweeping generalizations, but when you compare Europeans to Americans — we’re like the richest people on the planet, we’re all embracing democracy — but we’ve got some fundamental differences. What is it in Europe that makes them happy compared to us and vice versa?

That’s a good question. European countries — especially northern European countries: Switzerland, Denmark, et cetera — tend to be happier than we are in these surveys. (The Netherlands I would include in that as well.)

Let’s talk about Denmark, for instance, because Denmark ranks consistently in the top three for happiest countries in the world. The Danes have low expectations. In survey after survey, they’re asked about expectations, and they have relatively low expectations. We Americans have very very high expectations. And I think that partly explains the discrepancy.

I think if you have low or moderate expectations, you’re less likely to be disappointed. You’re more likely to be satisfied or content. You’re more likely to be happy.

I realize that rubs a lot of Americans the wrong way because we pride ourselves on living in a country where everything is possible. I just returned from a week’s vacation in Disney World. You go to the Magic Kingdom, and the refrain there is “dreams really do come true”. They sing it over and over again in the parade there and they talk about it. That is a very American idea.

It’s great if your dreams do come true, but it’s going to disappoint you and make you a little less happy if they don’t.

I think more modest expectations among Europeans might partly explain this.

Isn’t that interesting. I was just in a taxi in Chicago and there was some guy from Somalia or something driving the cab. It was a beat up old cab, and he was just happily drumming his steering wheel, saying, “America! You can win the lottery and be rich!” And I thought, well he’ll never be rich. But he was just living in this land where dreams can come true. Just to be close to it, he was happy.

I was just in Denmark, and it occurred to me there’s not a hint of a Big Gulp society there. They get little cups, and they sip it. They pay twice as much for a little cup as we pay for a big cup and they just sip it.

I’m intrigued by the notion that our happiness is related to our expectations.

I think that many Get Rich Slowly readers have found this to be true. I know that I have. I used to feel that I deserved to have nice things, that I was entitled to have a new car and a big house and the latest gadgets. I wanted to have what my parents had — but I wanted it when I was 30 instead of 50. Because my expectations were high, I spent to meet them.

My high expectations led to lifestyle inflation: As I earned more, I spent more. But I wasn’t any happier.

Once I learned to embrace frugality, I found that I could not only be happy with what I already had — I could be happy with less. Many others have reported this same experience. Frugality and thrift are about lowering our expectations, about learning to sip from a small cup — and enjoy it! — instead of inhaling a Big Gulp.

There’s a lot more from this program that I’d like to write about (including the role the media plays in creating happiness — or, more to the point, unhappiness), but if I go much further, I’ll have transcribed the entire interview. If you have 30 minutes to spare, I highly recommend this show. The interview takes up the first half of last weekend’s Travel with Rick Steves.

Updated: 22 July 2009

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