Is the happiness equation working for you?
After a challenging year of infertility and recurrent miscarriages, I finally had my second child – our family felt complete. With my first I was a little obsessive about sleep (for example, I read the 12 books the public library had about sleep). I had big ambitions to not use sleep props the same way the second time around. Unfortunately, Michael, my second child, was not naturally a good sleeper (day or night). I worked so hard to create the perfect sleep environment and get the perfect wake times, hoping he would take long naps. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.
When he would wake early from a nap (which was more often than not), I would get so disappointed. It felt like I was failing as a parent. I was frustrated with the unpredictability and seeing him get over-tired but not able to catch up. I was sharing my napping woes with a girlfriend, expecting advice about how to get Michael to sleep better. Instead, she told me that my happiness equation was out of balance.
Happiness equation? I wasn’t talking about happiness, I wanted to talk sleep, but as we kept chatting, I started to think she was on to something, my happiness equation did feel out of balance. I had worked so hard for this second baby, how were a few sleep problems causing such issues for me. So I asked her to explain.
The Happiness Equation
My friend explained the happiness equation using a school exam, it says:
Happiness = Expectation - Reality
Imagine you wrote an exam and expected that you would get a C, but actually got a B. You would feel pretty excited and happy about it. Now imagine the same test, but you expected to get an A. When you found out you received a B, you would feel disappointed. In both situations, “reality” is the same – you get a B on the exam. What’s different is your expectation. In one situation you expect an A, so reality is worse than your expectation. In the second scenario your reality is better than your expectation – resulting in you being happier.
Thinking about my own life, I was definitely struggling with an Expectation/Reality problem. I was going into situations with a really specific vision of what I wanted to happen. When things didn’t go as planned (e.g., my son woke early from naps), I would get frustrated and try to redirect life to follow my plan.
I can see now that my expectations were also weighing heavily on those around me. It meant that I was not easy to be around, especially when things went off track. I would get frustrated and disappointed. Most importantly, I was missing out on amazing opportunities.
If you pay attention to yourself and those around you, it won’t take long for you to see people struggling when things don’t go as planned. It seems to happen a lot when we are trying to control the uncontrollable. Like when people get worked up about traffic. They are expecting to get to their destination quickly, but the reality is that traffic is slowing them down. Happiness plummets.
This happens to me when I’m trying to control things I don’t have control over (especially with my kids). I remember the first time David slept 6 straight hours. I was so excited. The next night, I was so pumped to sleep for 6 hours. When he woke every 2 hours, to say I was disappointed, frustrated and angry is a huge understatement. I have since adopted the Serenity Prayer in these moments when I am struggling to balance my expectations and reality.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
I repeated this to myself many times a day when my second child, Michael had colic and food intolerances and would scream in my arms for hours on end.
It’s not about lowering expectations, but releasing expectations and being open to the unexpected
At Thanksgiving this year, I was getting ready to go to a dinner with my husband’s extended family. At the last minute my husband got very sick – with the stomach flu, so I ended up going alone with my two boys, something I had never done before (normally my husband normally since it was his extended family). As I was getting ready, I was thinking, “ugh, this is not going to be that fun and could be super stressful with the two boys”. As I drove over, I tried to reframe it, “Julia, this is not about lowering expectations, don’t plan that it will be bad, instead remove your expectations – be open to what the evening will bring”. I repeated this to myself over and over before we arrived, a clear sign I wasn’t feeling hopeful.
Turns out it was a brilliant mindset shift.
David, my 5 year old asked if he could go play in the basement and bring Michael, the baby. My youngest had never left my side when at a new house, at least not for more than a couple of minutes. I was about to say no, with the excuse that he would be fussy, but instead heard that voice in my head, “remove your expectations, be open to what the evening will bring”. I let them go to the basement.
For the first time ever, both of my boys played with their second cousins independently. After 15 minutes, I peeked down the stairs and saw them playing Thomas trains, Michael trying his hardest to be like the older kids and participate. I quietly walked back upstairs and had an entire hour of uninterrupted grown up conversation.
As I drove home, my boys sleeping in the back seat, I thought about how much openness and lack of expectations allowed us to have this amazing evening.
Releasing our expectations does not mean that we will find happiness in every moment, every activity, or even every day. The family trip to the grocery store might not be pleasant, your toddler might have a meltdown in the dairy aisle, and you might feel relief by the time you’re done. This is likely not a happy moment of your day. But it doesn’t have to be a disappointing moment, it could just be a moment, a moment that is past, that is no longer here with you now. When your ex-husband sends you a mean text, it is still going to hurt, but it doesn’t have to hurt as much as it would if you were expecting him to be nice.
Striving for stretch goals
If you are thinking, “this sounds great, but I’m working to create the life I want, striving for big goals, lowering my expectations goes against these things”, you are not alone. At first I was a little turned off by this equation. Shouldn’t we be striving for big goals? If we aim low in life, yes we might be able to do better than our low expectations, but that seems a little depressing.
The happiness equation isn’t about letting go of your goals. In fact, it supports you to develop and achieve stretch goals.
You have big aspirations, but the path to achieve those goals is not always clear. By being open to new and unexpected experiences seems essential to achieving stretch goals. These are goals way outside of your comfort zone, so you will need to experience the unexpected to get there.
Putting the happiness equation into action
Happiness = Expectation – Reality
The happiness equation it’s hard to put into action. It’s something you have to practice over and over. It gets easier with time, but it’s like a muscle you need exercise. If you are in a type A personality like me, someone who likes to plan, be organized, and do things thoughtfully, this can be very challenging. But we are the people who benefit most from thinking about the happiness equation. We are the people most likely to get disappointed when we have specific expectations that are not met.
If you find yourself disappointed in a situation, ask yourself, “is my happiness equation in balance?” Learning to release our expectations opens us up to amazing possibilities.
The goal in life is not to have as many minutes as possible together as a family, or with your children. The goal is to have a great moments, amazing memories. Those moments rarely happen in a planned way. So when we release our expectations, and open ourselves to the possibilities, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when we find joy and happiness.