Want to be happy? Lower expectations

Want to be happy? Lower expectations

Conspicuously hanging on a wall in a zi char restaurant in Johor is a banner.

The key to happiness, it screams in bold Chinese calligraphy, is to think big as "nothing is impossible if you believe it is achievable".

What a load of rubbish, I say. The key to happiness is to think small and lower your expectations. Bring that bar down a notch or two.

And if you find that you're still making a gross over-estimation (and if it's regarding your own abilities you probably are), keep forcing that wretched bar down.

When I met my husband seven years ago, I expected that he'd be like most boyfriends and spout the words "I love you" within, say, four months of the relationship.

Not a chance. Not even after a year of opportunities - romantic picnics at Botanic Gardens and DVD evenings snuggled up on the couch. Not even after I bit the bullet and said those words first.

His response? I am falling in love with you.

I was on cloud nine until it dawned on me that this simply meant he didn't love me yet. I wanted to ask him what his current fall-height was, but bit my tongue.

Things got so bad that we would be at Chomp Chomp hawker centre and he would remark that he loved the barbecue chicken wings there and I'd think: What! He loves the chicken wings but not me?

He eventually said the words after 18 months. It took so long, he said, because he wanted to be sure. At the time I was already thinking that maybe I needed an exit strategy.

I would have saved myself a ton of angst if I had been stripped bare of any expectations.

Since then, my newfound philosophy has helped me keep an open mind.

Expect a promotion this season? Don't count your chickens before they hatch. Looking forward to a trip with friends? Don't forget that the last one ended in disaster. He didn't call within three days after asking for your number? He's probably just busy.

Boy, have some of my expectations been off the mark.

Like the time in college when I wrote off a boyfriend because he couldn't spell - surely, a baseline expectation for a serious relationship, I thought.

I discovered his atrocious spelling after he wrote me a poem. One of the lines read: "When finnaly we embrace, my heart soars to the hightest hight" (sic). Another went: "Please excepted this small paert of my heart" (sic).

I couldn't help myself and pointed the errors out to him, which hurt him terribly.

As an English literature major in the University of Wisconsin, I'd always pictured myself with a fellow bibliophile. The incident left me wondering if I had anything in common with the guy.

In my eyes, he had instantaneously morphed into an uneducated, Midwestern, beer-guzzling hick. We broke up soon after.

Years later, I found out that he had dyslexia and had gone on to help conduct research at the university.

Who knows what might have happened, had I been less prejudiced and had he used spell-check?

Then, there was this other time I ended up unwittingly roughing it out in the wilderness of Mongolia for nine days with my husband because a brochure for the trip - which boasted a personal chef and luxurious gers (felt-lined tents) - raised my expectations to the point that I believed I was in for a wild desert romance.

I imagined candlelight dinners under a star-filled sky, plush quarters and riding horseback into the sunset.

Instead, after a bumpy six-hour-long jeep ride to the middle of nowhere, I glumly watched the chef unpack a haversack of "survival food" - corned beef, root vegetables and nuts. The rest of our meals, she said, would comprise whatever animal the locals had slaughtered.

On the first day she presented us steaming goat's head swimming in a soup of its own innards.

The ger was stuffy and warm, and when I lit up the oil lamp I was given - the only light source within 100km - creepy crawlies came a-crawling from every crack and crevice in the universe. After sunset each day, I stared glumly into the electricity-less void, feeling cheated and sorry for myself.

I'd trekked 10 hours a day from campsite to campsite carrying a huge backpack, bathed in rivers and survived on granola bar meals. So why did those times leave me feeling empowered, while this time I was just relieved it was over?

It all boiled down to expectations.

Had I none, I probably would have been able to keep an open mind. Or at the very least, brought a torchlight and toilet paper.

Once I got home and scrubbed the wilds off, I scoured the Internet for beaches and luxury spas I wanted to visit. I made a list and presented it to my husband, determined to get the romantic holiday I had expected.

A faint chuckle was all I got. We had already been to most of the places on the list. I had just forgotten. And as I tried to recall the countless "romantic" holidays I had orchestrated, I couldn't remember most of them.

Mongolia, though, now that was a trip seared into memory.

That's the annoying thing in life, isn't it? - you can't plan for significant experiences.

On May 11 this year, as my newborn wailed in her crib and I grappled with the challenges of motherhood, my husband walked into the room holding a cake with a single candle on it.

In my daze, I had forgotten it was Mother's Day.

I blew the candle out. He gave me a peck on the forehead, took the baby in his arms and asked softly: "Really, can we keep her?"

In the moment, without expectation, I was the happiest I'd ever been.

limjess@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 6, 2014.
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