As humans, we have a unique capacity to envision an immense variety of possible future states. This allows us to have ideals and strive for them – to plan, to learn and grow… and to want things.
This has everything to do with how we spend our money… and the joy or misery we experience from it.
In an essential way, this orientation toward the future is what makes us human. We can imagine something we want to achieve, something we want to avoid, something we want to have, and then we can plan and aim ourselves toward achieving, avoiding or gaining possession of whatever it is.
But there’s a downside.
What if I want something that other people have?
What if I want something that I had in the past but no longer have?
What if I expect to have something but don’t get it?
What if I want something I can’t have?
That gap between what we have and what we want can inspire us to strive, persevere and lean into our lives more… But it can also make us miserable.
One of the main causes of depression – along with loss, feelings of being stuck and certain poor habits – is striving for goals that we cannot achieve. I don’t mean difficult goals that require work and grit to achieve; I mean goals that are genuinely beyond our abilities.
The desire to achieve and have things – or to make things happen that are beyond our capacity and control – is extremely common these days. And it could be one of the reasons that diagnosed depression has been increasing.
Images of and expectations for perfection and unrealistic success have been increasing. Social media shows posts of people enjoying lives of adventure and perfect happiness. It’s natural to want to share joyful images and triumphs, but the cumulative effect in this online format is to present a world that none of us lives in – where everyone is always happy and successful. This can lead to a greater focus on image and external displays of success rather than internal satisfaction.
More than ever before, young people believe they will never be satisfied until they get what they “deserve.”
And in 2005, a third of American teenagers surveyed said that they were going to be famous someday. These are all examples of expectations that – for most people – will never be met.
If we expect to have a certain kind of house or car but don’t yet have what we expect, we can work on it either from the outside by striving to get those things or from the inside by adjusting our expectations.
Striving is wonderful. Earned success is one of the genuine satisfactions of life – as long as what we’re striving for is genuinely achievable and reflects our true values.
But to the degree that we tie our well-being to the outcome of our striving, we’re also focusing on things beyond our control. We may work hard, do everything right and still not reach the specific outcome we desire.
It can be delightful when an experience exceeds our expectations, like when we try out an unknown restaurant that turns out to be wonderful or get exceptional customer service at a store. I had a root canal a few years ago, and because of the skill and spirit of the dentist and his staff I still remember the experience fondly!
On the other hand, if an experience doesn’t live up to our expectations, we’ll likely feel bad about it – disappointed, sad, angry…
In addition, one of the most certain paths to feeling miserable is to compare what we have with what other people have. I know a person with a net worth of about $50 million who feels terribly disappointed in his life because, unlike several of his friends, he’s not worth $100 million!
If we expect to have more of something – wealth, airplanes, triumphant pictures to post on social media – than other people, then we’re probably going to feel bad.
And in the worst case, we’ll feel bad not just about the specific circumstance but about ourselves.
One way that people deal with this is by spending beyond their means. Racking up credit card debt can feel painless at first, but this can change. As Ernest Hemingway said, “gradually then suddenly.” Eventually leading to feelings of regret, guilt and even shame.
The objective difference in quality of life between a net worth of $50 million and a net worth of $100 million is certainly not worth feeling miserable about. Yet if we hold our expectations strongly to an outcome that we’re not likely to achieve, misery is all we’ll achieve.
One key is not to compare what we have with what others have. That’s easier said than done, of course. But it’s well worth the effort to practice.
If you find yourself making comparisons, the most useful approach is not to suppress, indulge or push away the feeling, but to acknowledge it and then redirect your attention toward appreciating what you do have. And maybe – if you’re comparing your circumstances with something that’s possible and true to your deepest values – you can use that desire to fuel a healthy striving.
Beyond this, pay attention to the expectations you have of yourself and what you expect to have and enjoy.
Then decide if your expectations are reasonable or not. If they’re not, then do the internal work to adjust your expectations accordingly.
To live well, reality should be our trusted friend.
Coming to terms with what’s possible is not about giving up on a dream. It’s about having our expectations align with reality and envisioning those dreams we can make happen.