Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What I'm Learning from Denmark

I read recently that the happiest country in the world is Denmark. Not because they have the greatest economy, lowest taxes, or cotton candy that grows on trees. They are happy because they have low expectations.

My response to this idea goes against most of what I've believed my whole life about setting goals, having a positive attitude, and dreaming big. Does any of that matter? I think it does. Because having low expectations for how life may go is different than having low expectations for ourselves.

Low expectations for how life may go says, "Life is hard. Once we accept this we'll actually be happier. And when life is going well, that's just a nice surprise!"

Low expectations for ourselves says, "You will probably never amount to much."

See the difference?

I'm beginning to. I can still have high confidence in myself and a positive attitude about life while still recognizing that sometimes, bad things happen and when they do, my whole world need not crumble.

I wonder if all of this is really about protecting ourselves. That maybe we choose how we will react to the world as a means of self-preservation. Recently, I watched a psychologist on television address multiple people's problems by first asking, "How does this serve you?" It's an odd question to be asked when you've just finished unloading about a heavy alcohol addiction or an inability to forgive someone. But she was persistent. "How does this (mindset, addiction, path, etc.) serve you?" We don't make decisions in life that don't serve us in one way or another. And I wonder if the same is true of expectations.

If I have extremely high expectations for life, maybe I'll be so far up on Cloud 9, that I'll soar above tragedy. Just keep your chin up! But we usually end up rocked by the mole hills because had our head stuck in the clouds.

If I have extremely low expectations for life, maybe I'll be so expectant of disaster that I'll be able to move on because I wasn't that surprised anyway. Life just sucks! But we usually end up depressed and separated from the very lives we live.

Both paths serve us in one way or another. And taking the path of either extreme doesn't sound appealing to me. There must be another way.

This thought reminds me of something I heard Brene Brown say in her Oprah interview lately. She talked about how the "most terrifying, difficult emotion"

She says, "When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. I'm not going to feel you. I'm not going to soften into this moment of joy because I'm scared it's going to be taken away." We try to protect ourselves by anticipating tragedy.

Brene interviewed a man who spent his entire life not getting too excited or too upset about anything. He thought a path of neutrality might protect him. He liked to stay right in the middle to avoid disappointment. But when his wife of forty years died in a car accident, he thought: "I should've leaned harder into those moments of joy, because that did not protect me from what I feel right now."

She goes on, "We're trying to dress rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch." We don't want to feel the pain. We want to avoid it entirely.

I feel like there must be some balance between these two extremes and I think that balance is gratitude. 

We choose the road that's somewhere in the middle.
Life is not a dreary place where everything goes wrong.
Life is an unpredictable place that we cannot control.
So we acknowledge the moments that bring us joy.
We notice them.
We revel in them.
But we need not be anxious about when our joy may cease.
Because that robs us of it.
Instead, we anticipate that life will never be a walk in the park (of cotton candy trees).
And we drink deeply in joy.