“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.

87 Replies to “Lower your expectations, increase your happiness”

  1. Catherine says:

    “Expectations” per se, are probably not the real problem. I have very high expectations for my own performance, for instance. If someone is paying me for my time and expects a certain activity, they should have high expectations for how I will perform that activity. They have a right to that, as they are paying for it. I have always been raised with high expectations for my own effort, and it has helped me to develop an excellent work ethic.

    What we need to ditch is entitlement. That’s actually what you are talking about in your own history. You thought that you deserved certain things. My family has a saying that we use especially when difficulties arise: “Deserve’s got nuttin’ to do with it.”

    High personal expectations are one of the many things that drive this great country. We expect that we will succeed militarily, for instance, and we are beyond challenge in that category, thankfully. We need to expect more and better out of ourselves, but forget the idea that we are entitled to anything at all.

  2. Bajan Queen says:

    This post was right on. When I immigrated to America 15 years ago, I was taken aback by the very how very unhappy people seemed to be even though America was (in my mind) so rich with resources. In my mind minor things were received as major disappointments to the people I encountered. I realized quickly that it was because of the level of expectations that Americans possess. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t have high expectations, however those expectation must be realistic or you are setting yourself up for disappointment if those expectations aren’t met. I hope this post prompts some introspection.

  3. Adam Hange says:

    I love Rick Steves. And I love GRS. I love this article. My wife and I lived in Japan for two years, and we thought a lot about money and happiness while we were there. Neither of us would describe Japan as a “happy” country, but we did see the obvious difference from America’s “Big Gulp” mentality. While we were there the movie “Wall-E” came out, and that, too highlighted the differences in attitudes towards money. I don’t think it’s just Europe and America…I think it’s America. We are the anomaly. We need to reset the norm here. I think GRS is one normalizing force.

  4. EscapeVelocity says:

    One of the things that used to amuse my German boyfriend on visits to the states was bicycles. In Germany, they were a mode of transportation, and were accessorized with lights, a bell, and a basket. In the US, they were sporting equipment, name brand, very expensive, and required special clothing and a helmet. Even the joggers would be dressed from head to toe in clothing that was specially made only for jogging. I really can’t think of much of anything that Americans do that they don’t feel compelled to buy special equipment for. Knowing which equipment to buy is about half of demonstrating that you know what you’re doing.

  5. ObliviousInvestor says:

    I was recently reading John Bogle’s Enough, and in it he quoted an article from American Psychologist.

    The article claimed that there are 3 primary determinants in people’s happiness:
    1) Autonomy — the ability to “do our own thing”
    2) Close relationships with friends/family
    3) Exercising Competence (putting your talents to use)

    …seemed pretty on target to me. Also noteworthy that money & possessions aren’t on the list at all (though money of course relates somewhat to your ability to have each of the 3).

  6. Neal@Wealth Pilgrim says:

    This article gave me an “ah ha” moment – big time.

    I have always thought the spending less was a great way to decrease stress – i.e. reduce a negative force in my life and the lives of others.

    I never considered the idea that frugality is tied to happiness – i.e. a way to increase a positive force in my life.

    It’s subtle – yet to me, really really inspiring.

    Thanks J.D.

  7. Wise Money Matters says:

    I was just listening to the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast and they were talking about whether stupid people are happier or not. They go into all sorts of various studies about happiness and make some great points. The biggest is that happiness is a subjective feeling that is based off of many different factors. for instance, if some country just won some big soccer game, and then immediately took a survey to judge their happiness, they would be more likely to say they are happy while the opposing team’s country would be more likely to say they are not happy.

    It’s a weird subject in general to cover. I’m not discounting anything in this post but there definitely isn’t a “One Solution to Mankind’s Happiness” sort of answer.

  8. Chett says:

    I watched Eric over a year and a half ago on an ABC News broadcast. http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=4230541&affil=wabc

    I agree with the premise, but it is very hard to “de-program” expectations and how far do you go to remove ambition to promote happiness? Desire and ambition isn’t an emotion that can be shut off like a spigot, these emotions feed on themselves, creating an almost unquenchable feeling in most people. It reminds me of the pursuit of “More” in Dominguez’s Your Money Your Life Book

    As a teacher should I tell kids to settle for whatever life gives them, accept their lot and they will be happiest? Or, should I use the Horatio Alger method of teaching, telling kids to, “Pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” This isn’t an individual issue, it’s a society issue. Our history promotes big ideas and the pursuit of your desires at all cost, and then we put the stories in our history books. Maybe if we, like many of the countries in Europe that are happy, are conquered a few times by foreign invaders, have our national identity stolen from us and finally resign to just accepting whatever comes along. I don’t know if I want to be *that* happy.

  9. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    JD–This post took guts! This is almost a heresay in our hyper competitive culture, especially in the PF corner of the web.

    Ultimately, the purpose of money and posessions should be to support the life we live, and not an end in themselves. In American culture it seems we lost that connection some time ago and it’s causing all sorts of distortions.

    Another issue we have is that we tend to be future oriented–we fully expect a bright(er)future, and we’re discombobulated at any hint that it may be otherwise. Future orientation is good at some level, but it does have the potential to reduce the experience of living in the moment.

    Plus, while we may be future oriented, our actions aren’t consistent with that objective–just look at our current debt issues. We talk a good game on the future, but we very much live for today.

    We’re happy with our stuff and our PLANS, but deep inside we know something isn’t quite right. It’s like a self-induced Purgatory. Getting out of it is a revolutionary act!

  10. Beth says:

    I totally agree, and I appreciate this post because I’ve been struggling with this issue lately.

    I don’t want a big house, fancy car or a lot of “stuff”, but what really gets my back up is that people who have a lot of money think they’re better than everyone else and more entitled to “stuff” because they have money. In my experience, money doesn’t make people happier, nicer, kinder or more caring than anyone else. Those are the things that are important to me.

    Sometimes I need a reminder, though 😉

  11. Tyler@FrugallyGreen says:

    I love Rick Steves because he is so much more than just a travel writer.

    It seems like most people so far agree that there’s some sort of balance that must be struck between striving for more in terms of personal achievement, but desiring less material items in order to find true happiness.

    This seems to be a basic tenet of frugality – using less to achieve more – but as it’s been noted, gets lost quite often because we’re a culture that has conditioned ourselves to want more now. Fighting against the stream can sometimes be quite a challenge. I wrote an article awhile back discussing this that might be worthwhile to the conversation:


  12. Chris says:

    Once having been a Futures Trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, we now find ourselves without a job, laid off and meeting our basic survival needs, ie shelter, food, and especially Health.

    It’s really quite easy and we have found a Wealth of experiences through our Library, volunteering in local Community and walking meeting neighbors and shopping locally(we sold our Car).

    Our needs are quite simple and we enjoy PBS and NPR instead of Cable-TV (not necessary and a time waster).

    By locating in an area of a Tourist Town -pop 225,000, where we can live as if in a Village creates a sense of Community.

    Shopping at neat small Thrift Shops- got a couple of kitchenware items still new with tags, outdoor Farmer’s Markets, enjoying Civic Center Mall events are all a walk away.

    So shed a Car, cut the Cable, find out who your neighbors are and Support your local small businesses. Stop the Walmart habit.
    Take a deep breath and see and enjoy your Day!

  13. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Tyler (11)–Good point about fighting against the stream! I think that’s mostly a problem when you first start doing it. Once you’ve been going against the grain for a while–and you find that you CAN survive, even quite nicely–it’s actually quite liberating! You start to think ‘I’m OK, and I don’t need to do what everyone else is’.

    We’re not all round pegs–some of us are square, some rectangular, some have jagged edges–and we’re all OK. The problems, stresses and disconnects creep in when all of us ‘oddballs’–probably the majority of us–try to act like round pegs. At that point we’re playing someone elses game and we’re bound to lose at that. Unfortunately, the powerful influence of TV tends to feed the round peg obsession.

    In our culture, being frugal is being different. I think that’s why it tends to be a happier state. It’s like stepping out of the plane and finding you’re still flying.

  14. JerichoHill says:

    Are we clearly delineating what are good expectations and what are bad expectations? At first glance the article reads like low expectations are better for us mentally, and that’s a supposition I disagree with wholeheartedly.

    I’m not sure a feeling of “I deserve this” equates to an expectation, at least not in the sense that I understand expectations. Clearly, ridding ourselves of a sense of “I must have (consumption good X) to be happy” or “I make Y, therefore I deserve and must have Z to be happy.”

    When I give my intro PF talk at the local coffeehouses, I talk alot about lifestyle inflation and how if we were so happy in college while we are broke, why are we unhappy and richer now?

  15. Andrea says:

    I know many people who think the only answer to being happy is to earn a lot of money and keep earning it and spending it as fast as they get it -but they still aren’t happy. I have seen some of those people complain(long after they could retire) about getting up and going to work, some died shortly after retirement and some “find” happiness in shopping most days of the week(at least here at my office). I am retiring soon and people can’t believe it. But I was thinking how much happier I will be when I don’t have my commute here to my office-or the hours spent here and was thinking this morning about the pleasures of walking with and playing with shelter dogs(not my only volunteer work but it would be inappropriate to be kissed by the “clients” at the other kinds of places). Like Chris said, there are lots of simple free or inexpensive pleasures- walking in our park, reading library books(or thrift shop books), watching movies, taking the time to cook a complicated meal or bake bread(w/o a bread maker) on a week day, seeing art, making art and time for the more expensive things that I didn’t have time to do like spending a month in Italy or Vermont.

  16. HollyP says:

    Chett, it seems to me that what you call ambition can easily live alongside happiness, if you consider ambition “doing a good job to make something better.” Making a better mousetrip, if you will.

    My husband is the perfect example of this. He works hard, does a great job, and tries to move up the ladder so he can have more influence to help make things work right. He enjoys the satisfaction of making a positive difference in his workplace, and for his employees & customers.

  17. Carmen says:

    I think during these times of pulling back and acquiring less have been some of the happiest times of my life. I think the post is very on point.

  18. Lisa says:

    When I had a troubled relationship years ago, I read a lot of relationship books, and one of the experts said the same exact thing about relationships – that the people who had the lowest expectations had the happiest relationships. Not low expectations in terms of putting up with any intolerable situation, but low expectations in respect to what the relationship was going to do for them – I’ll meet a prince and have 2.5 children and a loving partner who fulfills all of my needs, etc.

    I see the same tie with money – we often expect that money is going to do all kinds of things for us to make us happy, and forget that happiness comes from within.

  19. ClaireTN says:

    Thank you, J.D.! This is a great post. When my husband and I bought our first home, we found ourselves really reassessing our values. Everyone was telling us that the only right choice was to buy as much house as we could afford, but we just didn’t feel like we needed that much space. What would we do with it…fill it with stuff, heat it, and clean it? That just didn’t seem appealing, so we bought a nice little place — far less than we could afford — in a walkable neighborhood where people really knew each other. That process really changed our expectations about what would make us happy. Best decision we ever made.

  20. Chris says:

    We had it all. Home over the bay, travelling First Class, skiing in Europe, Sunbeam Tiger (classic car), Forumla 1 races – Montreal, etc. etc. But it didn’t make us happy as we were when we lived in Chicago in 1-bedroom apt.
    I found suburban living was a killer to our marriage as we spent time tending to our house and possessions and shopping all the time. Less Play, Less Loving, eventuall a divorce.

    Too bad some of Us have to grow and mature to find our Values and not accept what our world tells us we need…


    “In character, in manners, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.”
    -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  21. ctreit says:

    I think there is fine line between setting healthy goals and being obsessed by silly things/goals. I know that I would not be happy, if I did not have goals. At the same time I know that I would not be happy if I felt compelled to sacrifice everything to reach a goal.

  22. Jon Davidson says:

    A sense of entitlement breeds a level of expectation. Are your expectations realistic? Who is to say? Each of us are different. Certainly the expectations of someone in Europe will be different than a U.S. citizen.
    Why not set individual goals instead of having a broad set of expectations? Goals are akin to having a contract drawn up by an attorney and expectations are more like a handshake agreement. When goals are set properly, specific and time-bounded, there is no mistake as to whether or not they have been achieved. Are people willing to make that effort?

  23. Danielle says:

    I’ve had some thoughts along these lines about money and percieved hapiness.
    I thought at one time that buying “stuff” would make me happy. Buying stuff was the only was for me to assert power over my money…. by using it.
    Then I realized although my material possesions are lovely… that money is gone and cannot be replaced.
    The big ah-ha moment was NOT spending my money was the ONLY real way to assert power over my money… be cause every other way…. it isn’t your money anymore!
    And i find that i am happier now than i ever was spending loads of money.

  24. Kevin says:

    I don’t think a person can “decide” to lower their expectations any more than a gay person can “decide” to be straight. Sure, they can go through the therapy, walk the line, and start a family, but deep down, they’ll still be gay, no matter how much they try to convince themselves otherwise.

    I think it’s a lot easier for the Europeans in question to have their low expectations, because that’s all they’ve ever known. North Americans, however, grow up surrounded by Big Gulps and Bacon Double Cheeseburgers. They can’t just decide to “forget” that those things exist once they already know they’re out there.

    Once I’ve sat in a Corvette ZR1 and mashed the pedal to the firewall, I can’t help but compare it to my little Civic. It just isn’t going to provide the same thrill. However, if I didn’t even know there was such thing as a Corvette, I could in all likelihood be perfectly content with a wimpy car. But once you know how much better things can be, you can’t “un-know” what you know.

  25. bon says:

    Interesting book on the topic — Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

    The long and the short of it is that we can never predict our own happiness, but should talk to others about their experiences and levels of happiness to predict what will make us happy.

    Most interestingly, he makes the point that our society continuously reinforces the message that children and money will make us happy, when in reality they do not. There are so many cultural ways of reinforcing this message due to evolutionary necessity — the collective pursuit of children and money ensure that society keeps running smoothly, but not that any individual benefits from those pursuits.

  26. mhb says:

    Sometimes your sense of timing fascinates me, JD. I was just moping last night about not being able to travel anywhere far away this year (my coworker just returned from Ireland!), and then moping about our tiny apartment this morning (our friends just closed on a condo, and here we are still renting!).

    But we’ve got a great marriage, an adorable cat, a loving and (mostly) healthy extended family, relative income security, and we’re both working on interesting graduate degrees. For vacation this year, we’re going camping – we’re both able-bodied and our families gave us a nice tent a couple years ago. I’m pretty damn rich, and it’s stupid to be unsatisfied with where we are right now, as young as we are. Thanks for the timely reminder.

  27. Jane says:

    I am a European now living in the US and I have experienced a huge cultural difference between the two places. Lifestyle expectations seem to run high in America, yet people seem to want a lot for a little. Here we expect access to the fundamentals of a progressive society (as listed in the BBC article); healthcare, finance and education, yet paying for them is met with howls of horror.
    I think it’s interesting that top earners in Denmark pay 60% income tax! That small cup mentality enables their society to provide access to the above fundamentals for every member of their society. Is that why they’re happier?

  28. RB @ Richby30Retireby40 says:

    Geography of Bliss, sounds like a great book to check out at the library. Thnx for the suggestion!

    I think one very important factor is not surrounding yourself with materialistic people (not meant to be a bad connotation). I don’t know how many times the splurges of my friends have pushed me to splurge on my own. Friend bought a $6,000 IWC watch, so I felt like I should enjoy one too. I actually ended up buying 4 watches in 12 months b/c I got so into them! BAD WASTE OF MONEY! At least I sold two, got store credit for one that I used on my engagement rings, and just kept one 🙂

    Hang out with frugal, nature loving people, and you will save a lot of money! It’s hard enough to resist temptations on your own, it’s even harder if you hang out with people who just spend spend spend.



  29. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Notice that the countries listed as being the happiest are small countries, Denmark, Switzerland, an article on Yahoo said Costa Rica. There may be a different mindset there. They aren’t dominant countries who’s actions could change the course of history. They probably have lower national ambitions (or none at all) and that’s reflected in a less driven culture. They have a greater emphasis on happiness and lower expectations for greatness of many sorts.

    The US is not only a large country, but also the most dominant in the world in most regards, which means what we do has impact beyond our borders and it tends to create a competitive spirit, a need to be No. 1 that doesn’t exist elsewhere. So if we think we’re falling behind in the space race or what ever, we increase math and science standards in schools–that’s how we respond to the world around us. We’re driven to maintain the dominance we’ve known for decades.

    There’s a price to be paid for being No. 1 that means we can’t be as laid back as other countries, at least not collectively. When we do, we won’t be the dominant country any more.

    This isn’t a pro or con statement on the ‘American Way’; all cultures have circumstances that make them what they are. Our competitiveness is what makes us a great nation, but it probably also makes us more stressed, and maybe less happy as a result.

  30. DC Portland says:

    Thanks JD for the great post and link to Steve’s interview with Weiner.

    I am just now completing a master’s degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Weiner’s not a psychologist, but draws a lot of his ideas from the work of leading positive psychologists, such as Martin Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, Chris Peterson, Daniel Gilbert (noted by one of your commentors), etc.

    The important point is that what you wrote in your blog about happiness is fully supported by scientific evidence. That is the beauty of the new field of positive psychology – it is based on hard science; it is not self-help.

    I can tell you from personal experience, our understanding of what leads to human well-being is expanding exponentially. The subject is HOT, HOT, HOT! Some of the stuff that you point out (e.g.money does not lead to happiness, high expectations lead to disappointment, materialism is toxic) is changing our society, and for the better.

    PS – If you like Weiner’s work, you may want to contact Robert Biswas-Deiner (he lives very close to you). He is an expert on happiness on an international scale – he has wonderful stories to tell about happy people living in the slums of Mumbai. Also, I would love to guest post some time. My thesis is on positive emotions inspiring sustainable living.

  31. Rob Bennett says:

    Yes, lower your expectations re the materialism side of things.

    But at the same time increase your expectations re the athletic side and the emotional side and the spiritual side and the cultural side.

    I see it as a trade-off. I don’t see cutting back as representing any kind of “sacrifice” in an overall sense. That’s important for me because I’m not good at self-denial.


  32. AD says:

    I remember when I decided that I could just “opt out.” Opt out of wanting a fancy car, a huge house, all of the external things to validate me.

    I don’t watch much TV, and I seek relationships with people who value the things I value. Every now and then I backpack through the desert for the ultimate detox. With the commericals, billboards, print ads, radio ads, etc., sometimes it’s hard to shut all of that off, but I can’t even get cell phone reception in the desert. It’s bliss.

  33. Marsha says:

    Happiness is tricky – hard to distinguish from joy, fun, and satisfaction. Still, the subject is provocative, and the post is instructive.

    Good to know that Rick Steves has a podcast – I’m addicted to podcasts! This post also reminds me that I forgot to watch the rerun of the Michael J. Fox show about optimism last Sunday night. 🙁

  34. Becky says:

    I find it interesting that the article said that the northern European countries are the happiest. I live in Poland and the national pastime is complaining.

    Honestly. They are known for being unhappy–and grumble about everything, from traffic, to politics, to the weather (no matter what it is like–it’s either too hot, too cold, too rainy, etc.).

    Northern Europeans also have the highest rates of people with depression in the world–at least I was told this within the last week–that is, Norway, Sweden, and probably Denmark, though Norway and Sweden were mentioned. I’ve read it’s really high in England as well.

    How all that jives with this idea that these people are happy people? I find it interesting.

    Over here in Poland, I believe we (I’m an American but have lived here for almost 15 years) have the opposite reputation. We are happy, optimistic, hard-working people. “Driven,” yes, but we also smile easily and are friendly. Those are our pluses (besides being charitable and not bad drivers.)

    Our minuses are also many–noisy, greedy, overweight, careless with money, not “transparent”, etc. Much of the negative reputation is formed by tv shows, unfortunately.

  35. Jess says:

    I agree with this post. For me, I personally think an amount of unhappiness is the realistic part of your expectations and steps taken to accomplish your expectations. To some extent, compare people who are want to get rich quick versus those who want to get rich slowly. Slowly is more realistic and can be achieved by most people, while quickly only happens for some. I would venture a guess that the slow folk are probably happier.

    I also agree that relationships are key. I know for a fact that I am happiest when my personal relationships are going well — regardless of what is happening in my other parts of my life.

    For myself, I feel that I have very high expectations for my life, but I have also put into place goals and processes to achieve them in a realistic way — and I consider myself quite happy.

    As an aside — I find low expectations is good thing when watching movies. I tend to enjoy them much more when I don’t expect much from them. 🙂

    Finally, I want to say that I have met plenty of Europeans from those smaller countries, and I do not feel that they are any less driven to have successful and happy lives — it’s what they define as successful and happy that’s different from us.

  36. Heather says:

    I agree with this to an extent. However, my husband has such low expectations for life that he seems to lack motivation to achieve anything. Maybe I’m confusing low expectations with lack of goals. Hmph.

  37. Chris says:

    I admit a previous post actually caused a visceral (sp?) reaction in its’ first sentence: Just the mention of “never” and “should” to me suggests some kind of punative life choice or limiting at least.

    I took those words out of my vocabulary and find it liberating.

  38. Paul in cAshburn says:

    @Kevin@OutOfYourRut #13:
    “It’s like stepping out of the plane and finding you’re still flying.”

    Interesting simile. Might it perhaps also apply to our current economy? We’ve stepped out of the plane with hope in our hearts, and we think we’re still flying… until we realize – too late – that falling is not flying (or perhaps this is a fairy story and we grew wings, or, perhaps the law of gravity has been repealed?)

    “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”
    Jimmy Buffett 🙂

  39. sally says:

    I second the recommendation of “Stumbling on Happiness.” Research by psychologists and behavioral economists like George Loewenstein and Dan Ariely is also very relevant – for instance, I liked the article “The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness Can Be Self-Defeating.”

    Catherine@1: I think the issue of high expectations for one’s own performance is distinct from high expectations of wealth / happiness / etc. The former probably falls more along the lines of “exercising competence” as described by Obliviousinvester@5.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that people start to see excelling in their jobs, etc., as a means to an end (money, status) and not as an end in itself, then are disappointed when wealth does not materialize or fails to provide the happiness they have been expecting. HollyP@16 notes another important end that work can serve: satisfaction of making a difference.

    Kevin@23: Personally, I doubt being materialistic is like being gay, but do agree that our stuff-rich environment can impact our expectations. But once you recognize that having all that stuff won’t make you happy, it can lose much of its power over you.

    I don’t know, there may also be a certain level of mental training / self-discipline involved in distinguishing between a momentary feeling (like oh man that car rocks, I would feel like a total bada** driving it, I WANT) and an attitude/belief/informed desire that you will privilege as something worth acting on.

  40. Chris says:

    Heather, I used to feel that way also about my husband’s expectations. It was really that he was more secure in the moment. He had grown up wealthy or at least with abundance.

    I had grown up poor and was fired up with achievement. I also had been a Ward of the Court having been abused (beaten) by my Father etc. etc.

    My point is that I was driven to be successful through my career and personal achievement — and I did it becoming one of the first women members of the Merc trading foreign currencies.

    My husband was an Artist. A graphic designer and did the TAB and FANTA labels for Coke in the late 1960s. Those labels(packaging) lasted 40 years!!!!!!!

    He was at peace with himself and it wasn’t necessary for him to prove anything nor did he need affirmation from anyone.

    Alas, I was the needy one but it took about 20 years as an adult to come to that point… at great cost as far as personal relationships.

    I think moving to a Suburban office from downtown Chicago of the same company opened my eyes big time. I saw how individuals were buying 10,000 sq feet houses, driving rented Mercedes & BMWs — but they were house-poor and had no Networth.

    In Chicago area lots of my Clients were small business owners many along Rte 94 in Steel comopany/factory corridor and they lived in same house 30 years and drove a 10-yr old Buick or Olds.
    BUT they had saved/invested prudently while enjoying their cozy homes, family and neighborhoods.

    I just hate Suburbia… but that’s another subject.

  41. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Paul (38)–The simile I used about the plane was to support that we could get out of the plane (the culture) and find that we didn’t need it to fly (flying “solo”).

    However, it works well in your analogy of the economy as well.


  42. Cheryl D. says:

    I like words and I find it interesting that people tend to “pursue” happiness, but “embrace” or “find” joy in the little things in life.

  43. Mama Bird says:

    This is a great post. I think about this a lot actually. And I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you felt “entitled”. I think that is the problem with many Americans, is the sense of entitlement. That they are part of the “richest country in the world” and they should get a part of it. Whatever.

    I was actually a lot happier when I was living in Australia and had a LOT less than I do now. I often think about selling up and going back to basics and getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Limit some of our responsibilities/obligations and free up some time.

    And I have a great friend who lives in Denmark and she is one of the happiest people I know! 🙂

    I’m going to listen to the article and get that book from the library. Thanks to Kris for pointing it out to you! 😉

  44. Frugal Bon Vivant says:

    Entitlement indeed!

    @MamaBird: I also noticed that most Australians I come in contact with have a completely different mindset on life and money. Purely anecdotal, but it seemed that fewer of them are running after achievements like pursuing college degrees & master’s degrees, but spend more time enjoying life: working to travel for a year etc. Their minimum wage is also 2x the US average, so I’d say that has a lot to do with it too…

  45. Sarah says:

    Thanks for this post, J.D. It came at just the right time for me – I was really comparing myself to the Joneses, and feeling badly that I didn’t measure up. This was a great reminder about focusing on the important things and keeping my priorities and expectations in check.

  46. Bret says:

    This is a great subject for a post.

    I guess I’m pretty lucky because I discovered at an early age that relationships were the source of my happiness. I also enjoy experiences and am just as happy staring at the ocean as some people would be staring at a new flat-screen. I am also achievement and financially oriented, but I try to keep those in perpective.

    Regarding the America vs. the World issue, I think it’s way overblown. Throughout history, there has always been an over-achiever like America in the world. Whether it was Phoenicia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Spain, England, Japan, etc., it’s all the same. And, the world needs an over-achiever, no matter how much everyone else despises and/or envies them. In the future, it will be China or India’s turn and America will take on a new role.

  47. EllenRN says:

    I agree with the premise of the discussion. And concur with th discussion about what expectations should be lowered….I expect to do things to the best of my ability and I expect that of those around me. I do not have a sense of entitlement and I wonder if this is what has the US culture in so much trouble. I have what I have earned and I feel that it was my responsibility to earn it. I do not expect to have 10million dollars when I have not prepared myself to achieve that goal. Does this make sense?????

    Beth, I know a lot of people that have a lot of money. Not one of them acts as you describe. Is it because they are different or because I don’t think so??? In other words, perception meets expectation.

  48. AJ says:

    This is so true! Great post! I had a time in my life where everyone close to me was just missing. I was so depressed. It did not matter how much or little money I had. I was sad. I take healthy personal relationships over money any day. I can not stand to be miserable.

  49. TosaJen says:

    Interesting post . . . I largely agree with it. I have a few random thoughts about it . . .

    I completely agree with what Lisa@18 said, both about relationships and money — I’m much happier living according to my values, not striving for a particular picture of what my life will look like.

    The entitlement/expectation issue is important. Many Americans (including me, I admit) seem to have an “I followed the rules, I shouldn’t have to work that hard, where’s mine?” attitude, while a higher proportion of immigrants come in, see all the opportunities for education, starting small businesses, etc., and are willing to do whatever it takes to work toward their goals. Not all, of course, in either case!

    And I agree with Tyler and Kevin that it’s very freeing to opt out of other peoples’ expectations for “the good life”. I find it challenging, though, to opt out of the condescension of others — our frugal choices show, but our Quicken net worth balance and the experiences we spend money on do not. It’s important to pick friends who are on the same wavelength regarding frugality and affluenza. I’ve found that extended family encounters tend to be fraught with superficial evaluations of “who’s doing well” that make me want to carry around my investment portfolio!

    I’m no angel when it comes to judging others, however; I wrestle with impatience when people cry “poor” about salary cuts while showing off their new smart phones, discussing their home improvements, and talking about multiple trips to Disneyland for their kids. Given the steps we’ve taken to make our fixed costs-of-living as low as possible, I can only listen sympathetically for a few minutes, without starting to make unwelcome suggestions for how to reduce their monthly expenses. Doh! (Really, I do try to escape before things get to that point!)

  50. Rick Arvielo says:

    Thanks for the information

  51. Brian says:

    I think a good spot is having expectations but then not getting upset if they don’t happen. Most of us try our hardest to get them, so why beat yourself up? Not saying I do this well myself, but I’d like to more often.

  52. Steven says:

    “Aim low and you’ll never miss”
    “Expect the worst, and you’ll never be disappointed.”

    I’ve forgotten where I read those quotes. At the time, I thought they were great quotes (still do actually).

  53. Charley says:

    I keep wondering if we will ever change, even in this current economy, our high expectations. Our wealth as a nation seems closely tied to how much we spend as consumers. I’ve scaled back significantly in recent years and am taking that further, not because I am afraid of a job loss or other financial setback, but because I’m finding, as I explore frugality like JD, I don’t need alot to be happy. When I have too much, I see it as junk and am actually unhappy.

    My happier times are when I pack up for camping, or stay in a vacation cottage where I don’t have much to entertain me but a book and a journal. Trying to get my everyday life to match that is a source of high expectations in and of itself. And I do get upset when I seemingly fall short, but it is a process, and I can see the progress. It may be that I never reach the ideal, but I do very much look up to the Europeans who live much more modestly and less wasteful than most of us Americans.

  54. Generation Y Investor says:

    This is a great post. It’s so interesting to me because there’s a fine line between lowering expectations and being complacent. I know I can be happy with less material possessions and that’s a good thing. But I don’t want to just settle with whatever comes my way. I want to be successful and I guess in order to do that you have to risk failure which has the potential to make you unhappy. Just my thoughts.

    -Gen Y Investor

  55. Terry says:

    The fact is that happiness does not grow exponentially much after $40,000 a year or when all your basic needs are me such as shelter, food..etc. So living your dream is all in your head after that, and if you learn to live in the present moment, that is the path to pure bliss. Living away from the “now” is like wasting your life in the future or past. But most people don;t set that.

  56. Beth says:

    EllenRN: Good point on perception — do you mean yours or mine? 😉

    I can come up with countless examples of people I know with money treating others poorly, but I can come up with even more examples of people who were happy, generous, kind and honest whether they had a little money or a lot. I could see this from an early age because I was always in the middle, but many of my well-off friends and family didn’t. All I seemed to hear about was how they “deserved” their big purchases (cars, jewelry, trips, big houses, gadgets, etc) because they “worked so hard”.

    I want to give them a good shake and tell them that I knew plenty of people who worked as hard as they did. They “deserved” better because they had money to buy it, not because they were better people.

    I’m trying to wipe the term “I deserve” from my vocabulary. “Needs” and “wants” are far more effective frameworks for budgeting. If I want things, I can save up for them and stay below my means. If I feel I deserve things, then I’m going to be disappointed because my finances don’t match my expectations.

  57. Rishi says:

    Great article J.D. I am an Indian and I haven’t been able to look up to the ranking of my country on the Happiness scale but from my personal experience I know that we are a lot happier than many countries I have visited/lived in even if we are relatively “poorer”. We were brought up on the philosophy of divorcing the outcome from the effort. While putting in effort is in one’s hand, the outcome (rewards) is not. If you are not obsessed with the reward for your actions, you are unlikely to be disappointed which is what this article also mentions.

  58. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Maybe the point of tension here isn’t expectations per se, but rather what it is that we expect.

    My guess is that the expectation of a better life is probably universal. The problem here in America is that our expectation of a better life probably incorporates a few too many expensive bells and whistles–and those are the things we’re stressing over. It’s evidenced in the fact that we take on more debt than other cultures.

    Our optimism may drive us to want for better things, but it won’t pay the bills for them. Maybe the Europeans, being older cultures, have that figured out already.

  59. Frugal Bachelor says:

    “What makes some cultures happy and others less so? Is it wealth? Freedom? Or is it something else? ”

    I think it is due to the weather. if you look at the first 50 countries on the Happy Planet Index, around 47 of them are located entirely between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. But if you look at the top 50 highest GDP per capita countries, they are ALL located outside the tropics.

    It is intuitively obvious to me that folks living in a place where it is sunny, warm, and green for 365 days out of the year will be happier than people in places where it is overcast, cold, and grey for a big portion of the year. As it turns out global wealth is centered entirely in countries with horrible weather (i.e. North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia). And we piss away much of that wealth trying to artificially recreate the climate which all of the happy countries have naturally and for free.

  60. Elizabeth says:

    I’m very curious to see where Canada ranks. I’ve noticed that in most of the articles I’ve hunted down on this new survey, Canada isn’t included. We’re conspicuously left out of discussions about developed countries.

    I wonder if it’s because we defy the pattern? In previous years, Canada has ranked among the top 10 for happiness. (I believe those surveys were based on OECD statistics, this new organization also factors in the environment so it’s a bit different).

    The “Happy Planet Index” website had been down all day. Boo!

  61. Elizabeth says:

    Oops… Nevermind! Wikipedia to the rescue!

    Canada is #89 — up from #111 in 2006.

    Our less-than-stellar environmental record must be dinging us in this survey. We do well in other ones!

  62. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Yeah, it has to be considered that this survey is heavily slanted toward green concerns, such as a small carbon footprint. That may or may not make a country a better place (not passing judgement either way here) but it doesn’t have a major impact on happiness on an individual basis. I mean, green is largely a collective concept, in that a county can have a smaller footprint because it has less industry or more public transportation, both of which may be more driven by the history of the country than any public directive.

  63. Avistew says:

    I’m not sure how well I fit in that.
    I’m certainly happier living more frugally. But I don’t think I lowered my expectations.

    I used to think that if something cost more, it was better. I would spend more money on less stuff, and be disappointed.
    Now, I know that the value of things doesn’t depend on how much they cost. I find cheaper options that make me happier, and I feel good about making smart choices, when I used to feel terrible about wasting my money.

    Now, when I do spend a lot, I do so with a good (or at least, better than I used to) reason, and that makes me happier too.

    I do think it’s good to be satisfied with what you have. Thinking you can be a millionaire, and wanting it all right now, won’t make you very happy. But if you take small steps, you might very well become wealthy.

    I think the problem is people wanting to have their cake and eat it. People want it all without having to work for it.
    Once you realise working for things is more satisfying, that problem is solved.

  64. Mike S. @ Your Personal Finance Source says:

    It’s always interesting to study the relationship between money and happiness. I think the biggest factor comes from what society you grow up in. American society is very goal-oriented, which I think contributes to the high stress levels.

    -Mike S.

  65. RB @ Richby30Retireby40 says:

    I’ll tell you guys one thing though, doubling your income DEFINITELY contributes to happiness. I’ve had it happen 3 times up until 2007, and each time, my happiness was like a step function. The feeling lasts for a whole year, bc you’re giddy inside, and don’t really change your lifestyle. It starts to fade, a little, but not by much.

    Having money takes out one of the Top 3 stresses people have.

    Hence why I’m striving to reach financial independence by 40, but still work. Nothing beats working when you don’t have to work!



  66. Brenda says:

    How low are your expectations supposed to go though? I mean, mine are already pretty darn low: Make enough money to be able to afford the very basics of rent, utilities, and food with a bit left over to save. I’m quite unhappy, because I can barely do that each month (i usually make it, but not without a lot of stress). The only bar lower to go really is “Stay out of the homeless shelter”. Money probably would buy me happiness.. it’d be nice to make a real living wage.

  67. Adam Lechnos says:

    Modest expectations = Modest Gains

    If you dream big, you gain big. There is absolutely no doubt about it. You may be happier with lowered expectations, but you will only manifest what you expect.


  68. Martin says:

    Thanks for a really good post! It’s always good to fight against affluenza, whatever form it might have.

    Btw, there isn’t any northern european country called “switzerland” – the country I think they are meaning is S w e d e n.

    /a swede ( no, we haven’t got any polar bears on the streets either… 🙂 )

  69. Beth says:

    RB — Good for you 🙂 I’m not being sarcastic here. I know too many people who give into lifestyle inflation when they start earning more money, and money is still a stress. (They end up stressed out about paying for their four cars, consumer goods and a much larger big house). I think an increase of income is best when you don’t majorly change your life.

    A doubling of household income would certainly make me happy — but that would be because I found a husband. Right now, I think good relationships would greatly add to my happiness more than increased income, and this is going to affect my finances this fall. (Second job or join a club or sport? hmmmm…)

  70. Chris says:

    I spent a lot (most) of my career after the CME trading floor working for NYSE firms starting with Paine Webber (UBS) in 1984. Lots of my clients were millionaires -most 2nd generation Chicago area folks who had worked hard beginning as youths, going to College or Trade School and beginnig their Own business.
    Having control of your destiny is a most important choice we can make early in our lives, but it takes a plan, Goal and perserverance which is difficult when young.

    I worked with very Rich people and the biggest difference I saw was their Focus on Money – how to make it, educating themselves and taking responsibility for their choices so they had a firm foundation to make correct decisions no matter what The Market was doing.

    Others sought short term compensation and very much needed approval of others (affirmation). Life is an evolution; an ongoing growth of ideas and actions toward a fullness and appreciation of the Now.
    I also saw that when one operates from Fear they usually are not as “happy or successful” because the stars-don’t-align.

    Find out what you Love to do, research areas of employment/business and work toward that Goal. May I suggest reading Warren Buffet’s biography and or life story. Lot’s of Money, Simplicity, Self-education at early age (teens), and Friends and Fun!

    Off to “work” now…
    Enjoy the Day.

  71. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Chris (70)–You’ve hit at the heart of the subject. It’s the square peg in the round hole conflict. Most people are working outside their element, playing a game they aren’t suited for. That can only end in frustration, stress and unhappiness.

    Maybe those who pursue their own course are happier because they’ve granted themselves permission to do so. That may not produce a perfect life, but it will produce one filled with purpose, which can bring more happiness than money in many cases.

    Chris is discussing rich clients, those who pursued their passions and crossed the goal line, but there are also people out there (and no small number!) who have taken a similar path and haven’t hit on the monetary rewards.

    I’m still not certain why some people achieve this and others don’t, but it does appear that the journey itself seems to produce some level of happiness no matter where it lands. Perhaps it’s because a person pursuing his own path isn’t owned by anyone.

    That would be an interesting thread by itself…

  72. DC Portland says:

    I agree, it is indeed the journey not the outcome that is most important to success and happiness. What is also important is for the journey to be consistent with your intrinsic values, strengths, etc. For those readers interested in getting the most out of the journey (e.g. work, relationships, hobbies), check out Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work, “Flow”. It cogently describes what happens when we “lose ourselves” in what we are doing. Flow provides immediate rewards. But, more importantly, it trains our minds to be better able to focus our awareness on the present. This skill goes a long way toward solidfying our well-being.

  73. AD says:

    @DC Portland–how funny, I just wrote an article and mentioned Csikszentmihalyi and flow. Before last week, I’d never heard of him. In a span of seven days I’ve read his name in four different places. Weird.

    On the subject of becoming less materialistic, I certainly think it’s possible. I think materialism is something we learn from our environment, it’s not at all like being born homosexual or heterosexual.

    I think I was materialistic (though I think most of us are and always will be, to some degree) because I didn’t know any better. But when I started to question it, I began to reject it more and more. People can change their degree of materialism…my monthly expenditures now compared with five years ago is proof of that! 🙂

  74. DC Portland says:

    AD-How great is it to connect with people who have had very similar experiences in life? I left a 25-year career in financial management because it wasn’t providing me with purpose, fulfillment, and yes, happiness. I have found these things in communicating positive psychology and voluntary simplicity to the world.

    I too was very materialistic five years ago. In fact, my past life (i.e. career, marriage, hobbies) was based on it. I was on my fifth Lexus and I wasn’t any happier. It’s funny how I look back on those days and it doesn’t seem like the same person. For anyone reading who is pursuing happiness through things, you really should look at changing your focus. I can tell you from experience that being “on the other side” is SO MUCH BETTER. I like the 1980’s lyric from Don Henley – “There ain’t no hearses with luggage racks”.

  75. Jla01 says:

    “We Americans have very very high expectations. And I think that partly explains the discrepancy.”

    To think about this from a different perspective:

    Does anyone know what the Danish have done that was world-wide noteworthy or innovative in cultural, scientific, or literary circles in the past 10 years? 20? 50?

    Go up to anyone on the street in the Western Hemisphere and ask that question. What kind of answers would an average joe say on the spot?

    Probably nothing.

    Now ask that question about the U.S.

    The Internet
    The Computer Revolution
    Constant cultural innovation in music, the arts, etc.
    Financial focus (the dollar is the standard currently)

    Where does that come from? It’s our culture and the constant striving and “discontent” that is built in.

    You have to take the bad with the good. If we ripped out the “discontent” we pretty much become a bunch of lotus-eaters, as an extreme example.

    Happy, yes.

    An Effective, innovating, striving culture. Maybe not.

  76. David says:

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  77. Trina says:

    I have found that the less I want materially, the happier I am. And the less TV I watch, the less consumer goods I want. I’m raising my daughter as TV-free and commercial-free as possible. There’s so much more in life worth pursuing.

    I have a high-paying IT job that I enjoy, and at least 25% of my money goes into savings and retirement. Being happy with what I have and not going into debt for stuff that I don’t need has given me great peace.

  78. lastmohican says:

    @Chris (post 20) – Been a longtime passive reader of GRS. This comment by far struck so close to home. Couldn’t agree more with it. I’m living the nightmare now in suburban Chicago with a far bigger home than I need for a simple family of 3. Thankfully, I could(and can) afford the house, but to think that I’m wasting valuable time away from my daughter and tending to house projects both in and out. Suburban lifestyle is something that I have come to hate/detest/loath/abhor. My wife and I were far happier in a 1-bdrm apt in Chicago.

    Like you said, live and learn.

  79. Tracy says:

    I’m an American currently living in Denmark.

    If materialism is an obstacle to happiness, I have to say that the Danes are not very materialistic so that might contrite to their happiness. Some of this is because taxes are high (25%) and prices are high. But Danes very much value vacations and family time, and not things.

    But I also think that Danes have a lot of social support that takes away a lot of their worries. There are many money concerns that Danes don’t have: the social services infrastructure-you can’t go bankrupt from healthcare issues, inability to get into credit card debt (your credit card is attached to your bank account and if you don’t put a payment in full in the next month, the bank does it for you), and the way that automatic contributions are made to their pension without having to do a thing.

    I do wonder if these kinds of social benefits would work for a country of 300 million like the US – Denmark is 5 million people.

  80. Lucy says:

    I think most of the time when I expect a lot for myself, it’s not even because I want it, but because I know my parents will have a go at me for not getting things.

    I hear their voice in the back of my mind saying “when are you going to get a real job?” (i.e., a highly paid one), “you should have a house by now”, and calling me useless. It’s hard to balance what I want with what other people expect of me, and the only way to satisfy both is to increase what I have. So I guess my experience agrees with point (1) from #5: Oblivious Investor.

  81. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Lucy (80)–Your situation isn’t unique. Part of the reason so many people end up as square pegs in round holes, and not at all happy for the mismatch, has to do with early life programming. We’re often not living lives we would want for ourselves, but what others have told us is right. Maybe our desire not to disappoint others is greater then our desire to find happiness.

    It isn’t just parents who do this, schools do it as well, as do well meaning friends and others. They don’t mean anything bad in it, they’ve probably been similarly programmed and don’t know any other way.

  82. cmadler says:

    This is a great post, but I just have to ask: when did Switzerland become a “northern European” country?

  83. Penny says:

    I love that book. I just finished reading it a month ago or so. Was very interesting to read about other societies, ideas, and perspectives.

  84. quinsy says:

    I am late to this discussion, because I just got back from east Africa, where I have spent a number of summers. My experience there has been very relevant to this topic.

    I do think that traveling to a developing country can be one way that people in our state of mind can learn to change their expectations, I disgree with those who argue that our expectations cannot be changed. I help to run a volunteer opportunity in east Africa for Americans, and though I do see some who find the experience unpleasant and clearly can’t wait to get back to a life of ease, most find it eye-opening and – revelatory in a way, I can’t say relaxing or always pleasurable, but they see the challenge of living in a place where you have only intermittent access to things like water or electricity as a way of appreciating what they do have and getting off the hamster wheel to experience life where people do things like subsistence farming and storytelling and never worry about being on time or e-mail or phones.

    Everyone there is overwhelmingly and unexplainably happy. In fact, I have to admit that at times I almost grew irritated with their happiness. I would be irritated that people were not serious enough, spending all their time giggling and laughing and not getting things done as I, the American wanted to do, quickly and efficiently. But I even found myself irritated with it on the most basic level: feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge at times, walking down the street and seeing everyone laughing away and thinking “what do they have to be so happy about? This place is a hotbed of poverty and death!”

    I met people with AIDS who had a CD4 count of less than 10 (it’s a disease marker meaning that you have almost zero immune system function left) who were happy as clams, thanking God for their lives. I met orphans working as basically indentured servants in other people’s mud huts, sleeping on a mud floor, with no possessions to their names who seemed joyous and carefree. I don’t mean to say that they were unaware of their plight, they knew they were poor, they would say that they wanted things like televisions, but they just weren’t depressed about these things.

    Anyway, I don’t claim to know exactly why the east Africans are so happy compared to Americans, but I would encourage anyone who is interested in resetting their expectations to consider a trip to experience life at the very bottom of the development pyramid, the real experience living with people and trying to understand their lives. You really come back ready to evaluate your own lifestyle. Even for me, I consider myself to be quite frugal (a plastic bag re-user etc.) and I came home thinking “oh, how I have fallen from the path on which I should be living, and what I should be valuing.”

  85. DC Portland says:

    Great post Quinsy! I really appreciated you taking the time to write it, even though it was late. It is refeshing to see that happiness and income are not connected at the hip. Surely, our society will be making some huge adjustments over the next twenty years in terms of reductions in consumption related to environmental degradation. Though we certainly do not wish to live like the average East African, it is wonderful to see that we can significantly reduce our levels of consumption and, perhaps, even improve our happiness and well-being. Thanks for some real proof!

  86. Kevin@OutOfYourRut says:

    Quincy (84)–Their happiness may have something to do with the Bob Dylan song that goes “when you ain’t got nothin, you got nothin to lose”. I don’t know if we with our western mindset can ever comprehend that reasoning. But they live on the edge of death and are thankful for everyday that they live; we on the other hand, fully expect to live. They live without food and are overjoyed when they can eat.

    I often think a lot of American kids could do with a few weeks or a month or more of exposure to life in such places, living among the families instead of in hotels. They’d be a lot more thankful for the blessings they enjoy at home and maybe less likely to take it for granted and thinking that having much is the natural order of things.

  87. Shamon says:

    I don’t think Europeans are less materialistic than Americans. It was implied here:

    “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.”

    Isn’t that a materialistic mindset if you feel envious because someone has more toys than another? If material goods are less important in Europe, there wouldn’t be any envy. I heard that in Britain if you are rich or famous that you really DO have to hide from others. And that is a bit sad because humans should not be treated for what they have OR for what they don’t have. They should be treated with kindness regardless.

    An obsession with the surface, the superficial – is one of the many things wrong with this world.

    If relationships are better in Europe, then you shouldn’t have to boast, but you shouldn’t have to hide either. Envy is a sign of insecurity. It is a part of human nature, but in excess, it is unhealthy. Americans boast because they are insecure. The other extreme stems from insecurity as well. Both extremes are unhealthy.

    Europeans may not boast about their toys or money, but they boast about other things. Americans may not hide their toys or money, but they hide other things. I loved this article, but I feel that we all need to respect one another’s cultures more. If it’s Brazil, we forgive them; it’s their culture. If it’s the US, it’s an outrage; they must change. However, I really DO feel that we all must lower our expectations in order to be happier.

    Not all Americans or even most Americans are materialistic. But those who are – are that way because they’ve lost faith in humanity and are lonely. Toys cannot hurt you, they cannot insult you, make you feel bad about yourself, or reject you. Only people can. I am not this way, but many people are. It is a psychological problem that is pitiable and I empathize. If more people could have more compassion, this world would be more peaceful. An “us vs them” paradigm is the antithesis of that.

    We don’t need to throw away our new car or buy one. We just need to be kind.

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