Sunday, October 13, 2013

Great expectations

Is managing our expectations the key to happiness? That was the tagline to an article from the British newspaper The Guardian, shared on Facebook by Gateway Women.

"How can happiness be influenced by things we don't have, were never going to have, and wouldn't have missed, if the thought hadn't occurred?" asks the writer Oliver Burkeman. 

His conclusion is that "happiness equals reality minus expectations. Raise expectations beyond reality's capacity to meet them, and misery follows."

Burkeman connects his theory to the millennial generation, trying to reconcile the inflated expectations they grew up with (thanks to their baby boomer parents, for whom things turned out pretty well, overall) with the current economic reality. And as I read (of course), I couldn't help but think about the subject of inflated expectations and the ALI world -- particularly in the context of my own niche in the community -- those of us living childless/free after infertility &/or loss, whose hopes & expectations were raised by ARTs but ultimately dashed.

I've written about expectations before, although perhaps not in so many words. Infertility might be a little different in terms of Burkeman's "things we wouldn't have missed, if the thought hadn't occurred." I mean, even among people who ultimately decide that they really don't want children -- how can the thought of having children NOT at least occur to us, given societal expectations and the current worship of all things pregnancy, baby and mommy-related in magazines, ads, TV shows, movies, etc. etc.? 

For those of us who have difficulty fulfilling those expectations of having a family, the proliferation of ARTs, the continuing advancements, combined with the headlines about women giving birth in their late 40s & 50s (whether with their own eggs, the articles often don't say, but that's another matter...), have served to inflate our expectations of what's possible through science-- not just our own expectations, but (perhaps even more so) those of the people around us, who so badly want to see us happy -- want us to have what they have so easily -- but don't really know or understand on a visceral level exactly what we are going through to try to make those dreams come true. 

We might SAY that we're not going to get our hopes up -- but really, how can we help it if we inevitably do?  Low success rates might be staring at us in the face, but it's really, really hard not to imagine ourselves on the right side of the odds, especially when it's something that we want so very, very much.

"The chicken was fine," Burkeman concludes, referring to his disappointment that the promise of pasta for dinner on an airline flight wasn't fulfilled. And while it might seem a little ridiculous to compare chicken to children -- the childless/free life can be pretty good too, once you manage to look beyond the disappointment that children aren't going to be on the menu of your life.

Read the article and tell me, what do you think of Burkeman's theory?


  1. It's a common idea in Buddhism, that the root of all of our suffering is tied to our expectations and if we could stop trying to predict our path and keep up with the Joneses, then we would live in a state of mental bliss. And it's a great idea, but I've never been able to manage my expectations when my heart has been invested in something. Dinner -- I can usually roll with a change because I've invested very little emotional energy. But family building? I'm not sure how one doesn't invest emotional energy into it. And how much living are you doing if you don't feel things deeply? I don't know; it's a complicated idea.

  2. I recently read a similar mathematical equation for happiness--expectations divided by reality--and was struck by it. My life with my daughter is happy, but it would be far happier if I hadn't expected to have two daughters.

    I agree with Lollipop that lowering expectations as a way of accepting reality works in some situations, but when it comes to planning a family, it's nearly impossible. And if losing my grief for my first daughter came at the expense of losing my love for her during my pregnancy--I wouldn't want to take that trade off.

  3. My stream of Buddhism suggests, talks a lot about victory and winning and never being defeated. So when I started down that treacherous path of ART, I also put my faith on the line. If I chanted enough hours, believed in a successful outcome with all my heart and threw in a healthy dose of positive visualizations, I felt assured that having done all the RIGHT things, I would be successful on my 1st attempt. Victory would be mine! Even the doctor said just start thinking you're pregnant. And I did. Until I wasn't. It was not the type of disappointment I handled very well. So I adjusted my "expectations" until I was just a miserable pile of mess. Couldn't quite figure out what the expectations of a drug addict or short sighted teenager were compared to mine. Or the over 40 woman over there. It dawned on me that life was truly unfair. What is reality's capacity anyway? Whose reality? I do believe we are in the driver's seat when it comes to determine our own happiness. I don't think that getting what you want will necessarily make you happy. But it sure helps.

  4. Here via the roundup.

    There was a great New Yorker cartoon many, many years ago showing a middle-aged businessman walking down the street with his right foot forward and thinking, "If everything goes according to plan, soon my left foot will be in front!" captioned, "Life in a world of lowered expectations." I can't find it in the online cartoon bank, but in searching there I found another one, a New Year's celebration and the toast: "Here's to even lower expectations in the new year."

    I do sometimes feel that my goal for the day should be to get my left foot in front, but as you'll guess, I'm not entirely comfortable with the thought of life in a world of lowered expectations!

  5. This is such a difficult question, which you put so clearly and succinctly. I certainly do not know the secret of balancing expectations and reality (as other commenters pointed out, that's incredibly hard to do when it comes to family building).

    The following thoughts sometimes help me gain perspective when I get broody:

    1) I believe that it is wrong to de-value what I have now (e.g. love, marriage, job I like, relationships with family and friends) for what I don't have (kids). Every good thing in our lives is a gift, and should be honoured.

    2) I can try to look at my hopes and expectations from a distance. Not telling myself I shouldn't have them, but acknowledging that they are not the whole picture, just one part of it

    3) Talking to/ reading other people who have faced what I fear and who are making a decent life for themselves anyway. I may still hope that things turn out differently for me, but I still know in the back of my head that whatever happens, I will make a life for myself.

    And there are days when nothing works and everything just stinks with unfairness and pain. And that's fine too, because bad things hurt sometimes, and that's the way it is. At least I know this is the path I chose, at least for a certain distance - how long I don't know.

    thanks again for the thoughts

  6. Lori,
    I just wanted to thank you for starting and continuing your blog. I found your blog when DH and I were nearing what would be the end of our infertility treatments in late 2008/2009....and then rediscovered it this summer. DH and I have elected to take the childless/free life and try it out for size. I feel so misunderstood by so many people in my life, but when I read your posts, I feel like you are right here in my living room, sharing your heart. So I want to thank you for that.

    This particular post was definitely a conversation-starter for DH and me! I have personally found that I have a tendency to get really upset with struggles that pop-up during life, since infertility has already taken so much from me. I think a part of me believes/hopes that since we have already endured such loss, we can now live our lives free from too much drama or trouble. But, of course, that is never the case since life is most definitely not fair. Accepting that the sadness of infertility will never go away has been a heart-wrenching experience. I find I'm always having to consciously decide to not let other troubles get me too down or disappointed. But it's never easy. Not at all.