Happiness, craving, and the treadmill of expectations


Eric Weiner writes today in the New York Times about a recent report saying that the Danes are the happiest nation, and puts it down to their attitude of not having unrealistic expectations — something that he (rightly, I think) equates with Buddhism. It’s a post that’s worth reading in full, especially for his analysis of the "hedonic treadmill," but here’s an extract:

About once a year, some new study confirms Denmark’s status as a happiness superpower. Danes receive this news warily, with newspaper headlines that invariably read: "We’re the happiest lige nu." Lige nu is a Danish phrase that means literally "just now" but strongly connotes a sense of "for the time being but probably not for long." Danes, in other words, harbor low expectations about everything, including their own happiness. Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the "hedonic treadmill." That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

I once heard Joseph Goldstein make a nice distinction between aspiration and expectation. Both involve having an idea of things you would like to happen, but with expectation there’s a degree of clinging to the idea of achieving our goals, whereas with aspiration there isn’t clinging. The problem with clinging is that when we don’t get what we want we plummet from excited expectation to disappointment, and when we do get what we’ve been craving the tendency to crave hasn’t gone away, and so we’ll soon find ourselves craving more. This is the dynamic that Weiner so neatly describes.

I’d argue that all of our actions are strategies for attaining happiness. From that perspective craving is not “bad” but just a strategy that happens not to work. What does work are lovingkindness, equanimity, and an awareness of impermanence.


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