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Path to Happiness: Knowing the Difference Between Expectations and Wishes

Updated on January 25, 2011

In an era where we are taught that we can have more, be more, and do more than has ever been imagined in previous generations, it is no shock that we live in a society gorged full on personal expectations and starving of frustration tolerance. What constitutes simple modern day conveniences to us these days are things that were once luxuries to our parents and grandparents. Moreover, these same techonological conveniences will one day be commonplace to our children – things not to be grateful for but to tbe taken for granted as basic staples of modernday living. For examples, thanks to PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) – my toddler daughter looks at me in utter disbelief when I haven't prerecorded some programme she asks for impromptu because, in her world, she can watch whatever she wants, whenever she wants it. Who can blame her – all she has ever known about TV is that it usually produces on demand what ever she desires for her viewing pleasure.

All this preamble aside, the thing that has struck me as so poignant in this scenario is the fact that despite all of our techonological advances and our relatively easy way of life, we as a society are chronically and insidiously unhappy. Now I don't propose that this malady of modern melancholy can ever be attributed to one causal factor, but I do notice a key difference between people of today and people of, say, my grandparents generation. I think that difference lies in our expectations, of how we and others should be, what we should have or do, and what we should get from life.

Not so long ago, I watched a fascinating interview with Michael J. Fox on CBC's the Hour. To say that the former Canuck is both inspirational and admirable would be an understatment, regardless of your ethical opinions on the medical research he so actively supports. When asked by the abundantly talented interviewer George Stroumboulopoulos about how he copes with the debilitating illness that is Parkinson's Disease and how he deals emotionally with the prognosis, Mr. Fox stated that he had learned a long time ago not to expect anything. He added that although he still has hopes and wishes for his life, he expects nothing and lives one day at a time. Now many a survivor of this, that, or the other has purported the importance of living one day at a time and I digress that there must be something in that too. But the very notion of abandoning one's expectations whilst simultanouesly retaining one's wishes, desires and hopes is a concept almost foreign to me. It had never really occurred to me that these are in fact separate entities, as these days they seem to be synonomous.

But after contemplating on that idea I must say thank you to Mr. Fox, because a greater lesson for today's generation has never been delivered. Take these two examples from everyday living to illustrate the lesson. Example A - When my Internet connection is poor and my search leads me to the dreaded “Page Cannot be Found” message, I nearly explode in frustration at the sheer incompetence of my Internet Service Provider. I expect it to work after the first click of the mouse. Fifteen years ago, I didn't care that a webpage took 5 minutes to load properly or that it sometimes didn't load at all – the Internet was such a marvelous novelty then. Now take example B - I really wish that I could be a millionaire (who doesn't?) so that I could spend half my time engaged in charitable occupations and the other half doing wonderful and exciting things with my family. But I get over it pretty quickly, without even a minute elevation to my pulse or blood pressure, when the lotto yet again comes up with none of my picks. Why? Because although I dream of winning the lottery, I don't expect it. Yet taken at face value, surely the loss of millions of dollars (even if only just the potential) is far more devestating than the inconvenience of a timed-out Internet search! The difference lies in my personal appraisal of these two events: one is an expectation and the other a wish. I hate to imagine what could happen to me if I expected to win the lottery each time I played – I am certain they would have to invent a new name for 'a coronary', as it would be far too polite a description for what my heart would do under attack.

So as a response to this “new” insight for me, I have been playing a semantics game with myself and pleasingly have found it to be the verbal equivalent of diazepam. It goes a little something like this:

(stated simply) 'I wish that car in front of me would drive faster, but I accept that there is no reason he should', or

'I hope that my kids nap today well today so I can get some cleaning done, but I am prepared that they might not', and last but not least

'I'd have like that cashier to be polite to me at check out, but given that she's human there is no reason for expect it!'.

When I feel that pinge of frustration or anger bubbling at the surface, I check in with myself and decode my expectations translating them to wishes. And guess what – it works! The simple philosophy behind it is this – unfulfilled wishes are disappointing but manageable, while unfulfilled expectations are devestating. And in a world that offers so freely a plethora of stresses, disappointments, frustrations and even tragedies, why add coal to the fire by heaping on unrealistic and incalculable personal expectations? If you scrutinise and exam your expectations closely, you will likely find that many of them are not only unreasonable, but also unachievable. What you expect from any given situation or relationship does not necessarily coincide the other person's capabilties or their own expectations. To this extent, an expectation can never be one hundred percent fulfilled one hundred percent of the time. On the otherhand, a wish is a statement of desire – what we would like to happen. Most of us can accept that things aren't always going to be as we would like them to be. At the same time, we can carry on wishing for certain things without becoming jaded when they don't automatically come into fruition.

I don't propose that applying the above mentioned rule is a sure path to happiness. I don't think there is one sure path to happiness, more like a system of interconnected highways, byways and a even a few grid roads. But by just opening up yourself to the awareness that expectations do not have to be fulfilled in order for you to be happy, but that they can in fact be limiting, takes you a small chunk of the journey closer to that destination we call happiness.

Useful Reading Material

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

A simply amazing book that will help you to find peace and happiness in many domains of your life!


As an after thought, I want to add this poignant passage from the book I am currently reading: Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, by Brad Warner:

"Nothing ever lives up to your expectations, no matter what your expectations are. This doesn't mean you are never disappointed. I know I sure was. But you know that disappointment is just the action our your brain readjusting itself to reality after discovering things are not the way you thought they were. The best course of action when encountering disappointment is to  know you now understand the situation better than you did before when all you had to go on was your thoughts. There's no sense in wallowing in sadness that you were mistaken. You are fortunate, in fact, because you're now better equipped to move forward realistically." - Brad Warner

I really hope to see this excerpt on or or the like some day.

By the way, I am only on page 76, but I highly recommend this book (aforementioned). It is delightfully insightful and down-to-earth at the same time, a bit like Zen dipped in chocolate I guess.


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    • Nordy profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Canada

      Clark you are so very wise, I truly appreciate your review. I know what you mean in your last comment, i would never have listened to myself either. I always say, I only wish I knew as much now as I thought I did then!

    • clark farley profile image

      clark farley 

      7 years ago

      Great Hub!

      what's that old saying 'desire is the root of all suffering'?

      I laugh when I remember when I first started struggling with that concept...(being much younger then) ...I was all 'aww that means I can't have anything good anymore'

      Of course, for me it took way, way too long to realize that it was that false/artificial 'connection' that I tried to establish with someone/something that was causing the problem.

      If only I had known then how simple some things can be!...nah, I would never have listened to myself...

    • Nordy profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Canada

      Thanks jeremey, I appreciate your review and glad you like!

    • Jeremey profile image


      7 years ago from Arizona

      very nice, very simple and to the point and oh so true! thanks for the perspective, I will make attempts to enact it into my life, a "check myself" kind of thing! Thanks! awesome and up!..........and so much respect and admiration for MJ Fox!

    • Nordy profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Canada

      Thanks Stan, and I appreciate the promotion. Your writing inspires me equally, glad to have found a likeminded hubber!

    • Stan Fletcher profile image

      Stan Fletcher 

      7 years ago from Nashville, TN

      I am simply blown away by how well you pulled my own thoughts together here in a way that is simple and understandable. Until recently, I couldn't define the difference between expectation and desire. This single issue cost me a great deal of loss. The inability to live with the frustration of unfulfilled expectations led to a deep depression, and depression led to loss. This is very well written. I will bookmark it and read it frequently. Also sending it to some of my friends and posting on Facebook. Excellent! Useful and rated up!

    • Nordy profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Canada

      Thanks billyaustindilon! You are so right when ou say that true happiness is not what it is 'marketed to be". I think you have summed up half the problem with the way things are "these days" - we are constantly bombarded by advertising campaigns that tell us exactly what we need to do or buy in order to get happiness, when all a long happiness is already there inside us, if we know how to tap into it!

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      8 years ago

      Well written - the path to happiness is not as it seems or as marketed at least. Sometimes we never get to understand that with many people dying miserably unhappy and not knowing why.


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