Not-So-Great Expectations
March 13, 2019

Sometimes, we learn lessons in life, but then either forget them or fail to apply them in new situations. I recently noticed that I had done that very thing.

One several occasions over the past year, my wife and I had spent time with some of our closest friends. Each time, a strange thing happened: I came away feeling irritated or even upset. The first time or two it happened, I chalked it up to sleepiness or to a particularly potent bout of introversion. But it kept happening and kept happening. In fact, it was infecting my marriage as well. My wife and I had always gotten along really well, but I began to notice that I was getting more and more irritated with her, too.

Well, I quickly felt that this was just too much to bear. If I couldn’t enjoy spending time with close friends and loved ones, then there probably wouldn’t be too many more happy times left in life for me; and I didn’t want to die a lonely, angry, old man. So, I spent some time sifting through my thoughts and feelings, trying to pinpoint the source of the problem. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for years, and I’m also an extreme introvert, so society is naturally a struggle for me. But I’d also had good, enjoyable friendships before, so I knew that this problem was something new and worse than whatever I’d struggled with in the past. And, after much introspection, I think I finally diagnosed the problem: I was trying too hard to control other people and my interactions with them. To be clear, I’m not a manipulative person, so I wasn’t trying to force people to act a certain way; but I definitely experienced frustration when people didn’t act as I expected them to act or feel as I expected them to feel.

I’m agnostic and mostly skeptical about religion, but I do think that religions have accrued kernels of wisdom that can be useful for us. And Buddhism, I think, has something to say about this situation. If I’ve understood the basics of Buddhism correctly, then one of the Four Noble Truths is this: Life is suffering. That means two things, I think. First, it means that mere existence is, on average for most people most of the time, probably more painful than pleasurable. We’re always in need of food, water, and shelter—as well as the instrumental goods which lead to those intrinsic goods—which means that we’re always hunting for and competing for those things. Even in the very best of lives, the fear of our inevitable demise still hangs like an ominous cloud on the horizon, darkening what could otherwise be a sunny existence. But second, “Life is suffering” means that we cause ourselves a boatload of unnecessary suffering by having desires and expectations that fail to be fulfilled. We hang all of our hopes on getting some new job, and then feel crushed when someone else gets it. We wish secretly, in our heart of hearts, to find The One to be with for the rest of our lives, and then suffer every day in which we haven’t found them yet. We cling desperately to the past, but find in the end that we can never regain it. And while it’s not clear how much we can mitigate the first kind of suffering (though there are good reasons to think that it’s at least possible in theory to reduce hunger, thirst, homelessness, and disease on a global scale), the second kind of suffering can perhaps be reduced pretty significantly by letting go of our unreasonable desires and expectations as much as possible, by revising the desires and expectations that can’t be released, and by embracing whatever is actually happening to us instead of wishing futilely for some other thing to happen.

I thought I had absorbed this lesson well enough to recall it when it needed to be applied, but apparently it’s (at least for me) the sort of thing that needs to be re-learned again and again in different contexts. In short, my problem was that I was causing myself unnecessary frustration by setting up expectations for how my friends would act or feel during our interactions. For example, we spent time with an old friend, but realized quickly that they’d changed since we lived close together. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Heck, I’ve changed since we lived close together. But the person didn’t match my old mental image of them, and I kept finding myself irritated by the difference. (I didn’t consider at the time that perhaps they could have been irritated with me for the same reason—though they didn’t appear to be.) And, as another example, I kept getting frustrated during a book club meeting that the conversation kept wandering down rabbit trails instead of staying on the topic of the book. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of the things we discussed, but I made myself angry by constantly comparing my anticipated conversation with the actual conversation. As a final example, I kept getting irritated that my wife said and did things in group settings that didn’t match what I hoped she would say or do. Again, she didn’t do or say anything wrong, but she just didn’t match my expectations.

If Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths describe the problem, then its Eight-Fold Path describes the solution. The Eight-Fold Path is a set of guidelines for living which, if followed, will supposedly lead to enlightenment and/or to the resolution of the problem of suffering. The first of the eight items is “right vision,” which means seeing the world as it really is and understanding how it really works. On the surface, that seems simple, but it’s actually quite difficult in practice, I think. Our view of the world is confused and confounded by all sorts of problems: we lack information about the world, we are motivated to believe that certain things are true because they’re beneficial to us or to the people we love, our attention is finite and easily trapped, and we’re controlled by all sorts of cognitive biases and failures. Seeking, filtering, and assimilating information; noticing and mitigating motivated reasoning; focusing our attention on meaningful problems; and identifying and eradicating biases—all of these steps require hard work, and that’s only the first of the eight folds! What I’ve described can also be called learning. Learning is just updating or replacing an incomplete or inaccurate mental model of the world. So, by learning, we move closer to seeing the world how it really is, which causes our expectations to better match reality, which allows us to reduce the amount of suffering we inflict on ourselves.

Our definition of learning needn’t be confined to schools; we all learn all the time every day. Every time we make a prediction about how the world will be and then that prediction turns out to be wrong, we have the opportunity to learn. If we properly update our mental model, then we’ve reduced future suffering for ourselves. It’s only when we restrain the update process and forcibly maintain the old model that we make it possible to commit the same mistake again in the future.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that, once I realized that I was expecting my friends to conform to my mental model of them, I was able to start fixing the problem. I made a conscious effort during our interactions to let go of my expectations and to embrace whatever happened without judgment. And I think it really helped. I went from irritation to enjoyment almost instantaneously.

Of course, I’m no guru, and I’ll probably have to re-learn this lesson again in another context, or even in the same kind of context. But I was proud to have noticed the problem and to have made an effort to fix it using a lesson I had already learned elsewhere. I’m already trying to think of other areas of life in which I can apply this lesson. Anyway, I hope that you can gain something useful from this little story. Laters!