Happiness Is A Function of Outcomes and Expectations

Ah, my final Editor’s Column. The space in which I am supposed to make some grand, sweeping statement that encompasses everything that I have learned at Colgate. Well, instead of trying to buck this expectation, I’m going to fully embrace it and talk about the one biggest lesson I’ve learned while I’ve been here. Actually, there are two lessons, but both relate to the general themes of expectations and happiness. I’m also going to warn you: you’ve heard these two things before, but just bear with me. The first lesson is that you should try hard to recognize when things are going well in your life and enjoy those times to the fullest. The second lesson is that when your life is in the crapper, keep reminding yourself that it won’t stay like that forever. Things always get better; sometimes they just take a while. Like I said, these two ideas are nothing revolutionary. But I think that sometimes our expectations can get in the way of applying them, and therefore impact our happiness. I’ll explain one at a time.

In regards to lesson number one, I want to use a typical interaction between Colgate students as an illustrative example. Suppose that one of your friends approaches you and asks, “How are you doing?” You respond that you’re doing well, pause for a second, then add, “You know, except for all the work.” What is a reasonable expectation for happiness? A lot of us tend to strive for a point in time in which we have no stress, no worries and everything is going as planned. Only at that point do we believe that we can consider ourselves ‘happy.’ The fact of the matter, as all of us learn at some point, is that a time where we have no worries will never actually exist. There’s always a deadline, there’s always pressure, that’s just life. So when can we actually be happy? I’m not about to say that we can just convince ourselves that everything is great and force ourselves into happiness through sheer will power. But I am interested in which problems actually affect happiness and which don’t. 

Transient suffering, be it sports practice or studying, really does not bring down our steady-state of wellbeing. In fact, constructive pain like these examples tends to increase our sense of wellbeing in the long run. No, real suffering comes from other sources. These sources include interpersonal strife, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, loss of a loved one, loneliness and depression. These are the problems that actually affect our happiness. When we are not afflicted by these kinds of suffering, we need to appreciate these times because, frankly, they never last. Bad things happen and, as sad as it sounds, it’s always just a matter of time before something bad happens to you or people you care about. So bask in the good times when you have them, don’t take them for granted. You never know how long they will last.

Lesson number two is important for those who are experiencing hardship: it gets better. Just as the good times don’t last forever, so too do the bad times eventually fade. It can be a very easy trap to lose hope and give up when life seem bleak. It’s easy to think that nothing will ever be the same. But the truth is that even the worst suffering fades, and if we can hold ourselves back from being enveloped by it, perhaps we can make it far more bearable. Realize that, for the most part, many people have had to face similar challenges in the past and have made it through. As repeated in the chorus of “Stars” by Young Blood Hawk, 

“Hold on / hold on / the stars are bound to change / hold on / hold on / wait for

another day / hold on /hold on/ the future’s not that far away.”

My high school theology teacher used to tell me that happiness is a function of outcomes and expectations. Truly, then, realizing that neither the good nor the bad will last forever may allow us to set more reasonable expectations and hopefully, then, react to situations in the most beneficial way possible.