Most people like to say that their ultimate goal in life is: to be happy. One common formula for attaining happiness is:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
This formula states that your happiness depends on your level of expectations minus the reality you face. In other words, the lower your expectations, or the better your reality, the greater your happiness. Now, how you define a “better” reality is up to you, but this can include your health, family and friends, income, career and material possessions.
Although happiness is desirable, it’s not realistic to be happy all the time. There are times when we’re bored, sad, angry, depressed or frustrated. Ironically, happiness means realizing that you won’t always be happy.
A more realistic state to strive for is something subtler than happiness: contentment. Contentment is not happiness; it’s a state of mind where you view your life positively and are satisfied with what you have now, while at the same time recognizing that you may want more in the future.
Returning to the formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectations: if we replace Happiness with Contentment, we get: Contentment = Reality – Expectations
However, this formula doesn’t explain what affects our expectations. For that, we’ll need 4 more formulas.
Formula #1: Expectations = Unacceptance – Acceptance
Acceptance is viewing things, people and events in their current state with no desire to change them. Unacceptance is the opposite; it’s an intolerance for the way things are.
This formula states that the more in life you accept and the fewer things you don’t, the lower your expectations will be, and the greater your contentment.
Things, people and events that you can choose to accept include:
- your family members, friends, co-workers, and spouses
- where you live
- you job, health and age
- your physical possessions
Most of these you have no control over. The ability to recognize the things you can and cannot control is the basis for the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Contentment is knowing that the only thing you have control over in your life is how you see your life; in other words, believing is seeing.
Formula #2: Expectations = Regret – Hope
Regret and hope are mirror images. Regret is disappointment over the past; hope is optimism for the future. The less regret and more hope you have, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.
Although regret and hope are opposites, one thing they have in common (and which relates to acceptance) is that they involve periods of time you have no control over. We can’t change the past or directly change the future. We can only live in, and therefore change, the present, realizing that the present is the past of the future.
Formula #3: Expectations = Ingratitude – Gratitude
Gratitude (or thankfulness) is one of the most important keys to contentment. Being grateful means not just accepting people and things as they are, but appreciating them as they are. It’s practically impossible for contented people to be ungrateful and for miserable people to be grateful.
The more grateful you are, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.
Formula #4: Expectations = Selfishness – Selflessness
Closely related to gratitude and ingratitude are selfishness and selflessness. Selfishness is thinking only of yourself; selflessness is thinking of others instead of yourself. There’s nothing wrong in thinking for yourself, but if you think only of yourself, you’re selfish. Finding the balance can be challenging: as the sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
The more selfless you are, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.
The Pleasure Principle
In addition to these formulas, there’s another one many people live by, one which directly impedes their contentment: Happiness = Pleasure – Pain
People believe that to be happy, they need to have as much pleasure as possible and avoid pain at all costs. This is due to a misperception that pain and pleasure are opposites; they are not.
Ask any parent what’s the source of their greatest pleasure and they’ll likely answer: “my children”. Then ask them what’s the source of their greatest pain, and, again, they’ll likely answer “my children”.
Every meaningful pleasure in life requires painful efforts, often over years. To have the pleasure of graduating from college or university, you must endure painful years of learning. To have the pleasure of succeeding in a career, you must endure the pain of finding work, followed by years of work, which can often be painful. To have the pleasure of a successful marriage, you must endure the pain of finding a mate, potential break ups and working to improve yourself and your relationship.
This is not “short term pain for long term gain”. It is long term pain for longer term meaningful gain. Therefore, we must discard the Happiness = Pleasure – Pain formula and replace it with a new one.
Call to Action
Knowing that painful actions ultimately lead to contentment, and recognizing that our expectations influence our contentment, we can reveal the final formula.
Formula #5: Contentment = Painful long term actions3 – Expectations
As the formula indicates, positive painful actions needed to accomplish meaningful pleasures exponentially affect contentment. For example, you may need to take 5 painful long term actions to achieve one of your life’s goals: 53 equals 125; such is the power of action.
You can increase your contentment further by lowering your expectations through having more acceptance, hope, gratitude and selflessness and less unacceptance, regret, ingratitude and selfishness.
Wisdom is knowing the right price to pay in pain to get the right pleasure. The final portion of Hillel’s quote is “And if not now, when?” This is the ultimate call to action and the only true path to contentment.