Sunday, June 03, 2007

Keep your expectations low

The emotional issues I went through as an adolescent often took the form of a sense of disappointment with the behavior of others and of me. A mathematician I knew at the time told me my problem stemmed from undue optimism. Hence I tried, for a time, to be more pessimistic-realistic about possible achievements in the hope that I would be less disappointed and, yes, happier.

This is a variant on old though different themes. Buddhism for example teaches that, through meditation, you can reduce your desires and hence, with enough meditative effort, get closer to what in modern parlance might be called your bliss point.

A couple of times I have tried to modify the standard microeconomic model of consumption to account for this behavior. Thus a consumer allocates his time between work, leisure and meditation to constrain his/her desires for comnsumption goods and other pleasures. The greater the effort ‘invested’ in meditative pursuit the higher the marginal utility gained from any given bundle of goods or from a sensual encounter. The difficulty lies in coming up with sensible interior optima – optima that don’t involve for example investing much of your time in meditation and living on lentils.

These thoughts come to mind this Sunday morning as – for the 1,924th time - I do not go to Sunday Church but instead think about breakfast and my bowels.

I am also searching the papers for something worth reading. Eventually I find this on the miserable secret of marital bliss. It’s the same theme – keep your aspirations low and greater happiness will ensue in the midst of door-slamming teenagers and failed dreams. The writers even suggest that Buddhist meditation can help you cope.

I am interested in whether readers accept this line. That I find it interesting probably indexes to some degree my own disfunctionality.

I quote from the article - it is my bolding:

‘THE key to a happy marriage and family life is accepting that misery and suffering are unavoidable, American researchers say.

Therapists claim that "mindful acceptance" of family rows...and painful relationships is better than believing in perfection.

But they fear that childhood fairytales, love stories and modern counselling techniques are promoting an unhealthy belief that true domestic bliss can be achieved. "Our culture perpetuates the myth that, with enough effort, we can achieve a state without suffering," says a new report in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.

...."In the US, the value placed on the 'can-do' spirit and triumph over adversity creates an environment where suffering can be viewed as a symptom of personal failure..."

Psychologists have worsened the problem by using the term "mental health" to signify an ideal psychological state where people are free from suffering, according to Dr Diane Gehart and Dr Eric McCollum, family therapy professors.

They believe that a Buddhist meditation technique could provide a new way of coping with family suffering.

"Mindfulness", where a person tries to focus on their thoughts and actions in the present moment, is used by psychiatrists to cope with anxiety.

The American family therapists believe it could play a bigger role in people dealing with abuse, divorce, rejection and loss. "We suggest a different antidote to the struggle: mindful acceptance of our relational pain and of the many aspects of a relationship over which we have no control," they say.

"Mindful acceptance is the realisation that while some pain is inevitable, the suffering of the struggling against things we cannot change is not."


x miss croissant x said...

Hi, don't speak english very well. Im' brazilian and I read your post. I think it very beautiful, but i didn't realy undestand. If you can explain for me...

Slim said...

As an old friend of mine used to say "always expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed!"

I was never sure whether it was pragmatic profundity or self-fulfilling prophecy...

Steve said...

It certainly had occurred to me before, Harry, that one reason for a modern high divorce rate may be due to a unwillingness to endure "rough patches" in the same way as those who married in previous decades. I am sure I have read, and find it remarkable, that more divorces are instituted by women and often in circumstances where the man did not even realise there was a problem. (Certainly, in some cases they would be complete jerks who should have recognised a problem. But I think we all know of real life, reasonable, men who have been dumbstruck by a wife's departure.)

I assume that modern feminist thought is an influence here. But on the other hand, it is sometimes good to see an ill-treated woman leave a relationship that is positively harmful.

I find it hard to see how an undue emphasis on romance and "happily ever after" is really at fault here: those fairy tales are old, and if they were the source of disappointment, divorce should have been more popular for a long time. (Although of course the sheer legal difficulty of getting a divorce until law reform in the second half of the 2oth century is relevant here too.) I think it is more a case of typical modern attitudes: religion and the seriousness of vows are less significant than they were before; sexual pleasure is everyone's right and there are more people around to help you get it; personal fulfilment is more important than stability for the children.

Having watched my own parents be unhappy for certain periods, but to emerge out it with my mother long regretting my father's relatively young death, it does make me feel that some people who divorce now are just not really trying, or being patient enough.

So I don't really see any harm in proper warnings to couple to not have unrealistic expectations, but it is not going to be the complete answer either.

As to the Buddhist meditation aspect of that article, I remain unconvinced that it has any special role to play here. I mean, Christianity (apart from some perversions of it) can hardly be accused of promising happiness of any sort in this world. It puts the value of duty and sticking to marriage vows above that of personal happiness (perhaps to too great an extreme for even the likes of me, although one can see how the Catholic church uses annulment now as a default way around this.)

This post makes me sound like I am a bit of a fan of pessimism and suffering, but generally I would class myself as an optimist. I think the right attitude (which is basically probably shared by Buddhists and Christians) is to have a quite high degree of acceptance of the good things you have in whatever situation you are in, whether or not you particularly wanted to be in that situation.

I see the lack of such an attitude today as in many aspects of society , and as a conservative I don't approve. For example, I find it bizarre that in my relatively young lifetime gay couples have gone from having their sex lives a criminal act (wrong even by my standards) to now demanding that the meaning of marriage be changed to something no society has ever had before at any time in history. Can't they just enjoy their sex lives and open relationships?

Reproductive technology is influenced too, eg. married couples on IVF who will use multiple embryo implant despite the danger it will lead to twins or triplets and their poor health outcomes.

I suppose it is all part of the overkill of the idea of rights that modern Western society has suffered for a while now.

hc said...

Slim, I think the point is to be realistic (and hence a bit pessimistic) rather than to see only the worst. The argument is the simple one that life is no fairytale.

Steve, The high divorce rate I agree is partly a consequence of not taking a balanced view. Unless marriage is a bed of roses it is a failure.

I think strident, foolish attitudes fostered by the women's movement are also partly to blame for the higher divorce rate and also because, with increasing numbers of women in the workforce and with smaller family sizes, women are less economically depedent on men.

pommygranate said...


interesting concept!

i do think that one of the reasons the Gen Yers are so drugged up on anti-depressants is that their parents and teachers have pumped up their expectations so much throughout their school years, that when they finally hit the job market and realise that they cannot play football for England or earn $1mm a year at age 24, they are majorly deflated.

However, 'aim low' is unlikely to catch on in today's 'Just go for it girl' culture.

Probably make us a lot happier tho