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An equation for happiness

The other day I saw a man wearing a shirt that said, in Swedish: Inga förhoppningar, inga besvikelser. Which translates to ‘No hopes, no disappointments’.

I laughed to myself when I read it because, as Homer Simpson so eloquently puts it, ‘it’s funny ‘cause it’s true’.

People have often called me a pessimist but it’s not something I’ve ever been offended about. If anything, I see it more as a compliment.

Perhaps because of a childhood that wasn’t very happy, I learned early on the value of not getting my hopes up too much. To this day, I believe a major key to contentment is to have few desires and feel gratitude for whatever you already have. Unfulfilled desire is after all, as the Buddha discovered long before I was born, a major source of unnecessary suffering in the world.

Although, this can be taken too far. I’ve often put up with abusive behaviour from other people because I was so used to being treated badly that I assumed it was normal and didn’t see a point in protesting. Over the years, I’ve had to work a lot on learning to stand up for myself and not put up with people’s shit. So, just because you try to have few desires doesn’t mean you can’t have reasonable expectations on people. There is no need to become a doormat or a martyr. It’s important to find the right balance.

A few years ago I came across an equation on a Stoicism blog I can’t seem to find again but it was something like:

H(happiness)= R(reality) – E(expectations)


In other words, happiness is when you’re expectations fit the best with the reality of your situation.

This can be applied day to day. If for example you wake up one morning to find you’ve gotten sick with a cold and have to cancel the fun plans you had for that day, then you have two choices: Either you dwell on the fun you won’t be having because you can’t leave home and you end up making yourself miserable for the rest of that day. Or you accept that you are sick and do the very best of the situation. That can be something like having a warm cup of hot cocoa while catching up on your favourite Netflix show or doing some reading you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t had the time to. In the end, if you accept what is, you’re far more likely to do something that will put a smile on your face despite your sickness.

But the H=R-E equation can also be applied to life overall. It’s good to have goals and plans but it’s better if they fit with your possibilities and if you always keep in mind that it might just not happen.

For example: my aim is to become a widely published author. Best case scenario, I write something that’s a massive hit, I become a billionaire and can give tonnes of money to causes I care deeply about. But I know that getting published through a traditional publisher is very difficult. A lot of people dream of being writers and I have a lot of competition. It would be a massive break for me to even find a publisher in the first place. In the end, self-publishing might be the only option that will be available to me and I have to be okay with that.
Wanting to become a successful author isn’t wrong but if I make it the deciding factor of my happiness then I won’t be happy until that goal is reached. And if I never reach it then, well, I’d simply never be happy.

In the end, most people will have ordinary lives and that’s fine. There is lot of beauty in ordinary things.


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