In my cold, dark distant past I did a psychology degree. I know, total basic. Apart from now understanding jokes about Freud, what stuck with me was that unhappiness/stress is caused by the gap between reality and expectations. Stick with me here, its important.
I’m talking about you being unhappy because you expected London to be life-changing, but the reality is that you are the same person as you were at home. The expectation that before you are 30 you would have your life figured out, a solid career and be living by yourself…but the reality is you are still skint and finding happiness in the bottom of a coffee cup.
I always thought that this concept was an aspirational one, that to solve this cognitive stress it was important to recognise your expectations so you could strive for more. That part of life was trying to achieve those expectations running around in your head. It is one way to go about it, and has the added bonus of making you feel like you are working towards something big, like there is a horizon to reach.
The problem is the expectations that we have in our heads are getting wilder and wider reaching. Before social media, before feminism and global travel being reachable to many the expectations were more consistent. School, OE, marriage, house, babies; yes there were variations within that but for the most part the expectations were all along the same path. So, because of conformity and lack of options, your ‘reality’ would fit somehow into the same expectations as everyone else you knew.
Now days, well. I follow an American cat called Norman on Instagram. In this world of increased travel, freedom and the breakdown of social norms people just aren’t leading similar lives anymore. I don’t think I could even begin to compare the careers of friends at this point, we each have our own definition of success and different options available to us. As an example the legendary Talon-ted Lex wrote this post about turning down a promotion, and yet I have friends who are firmly (and happily) on the accountant/lawyer traditional career path. So whose ‘expectations’ am I meant to compare my reality to anymore?
Sadly Facebook and Instagram have, as always, a part to play in this (not Twitter, twitter is like a kindergarten that is drunk on sugar at 3am, a place to commiserate the horror of life rather than crow over accomplishments). Every person, on their own different success paths, will post when they reach a milestone moment. All these posts filter into the back dark corner of your brain and set up an Everest of expectations. This new massive wall of expectations uses midnight as a perfect time to tell you that EVERYONE you know is happy, travelling the world, having incredible career opportunities, a wide circle of friends, buying a house, and being a little bit quirky. With the power of social media you can’t define the edges of people’s lives, all the big bits just form a frightening mountain of expectations that you will never, ever, be able to live up to. Seriously, not even Jennifer Lawrence would be able to achieve the ‘good’ bits of everyone’s lives all at once.
This is why honest conversations are important. I mean those conversations that are hard and make you feel a bit squeamish. Those conversations that might happen after a few gins or after an overdose of sugar. The honest conversations about the hard edges of life.
It’s so important to hear that your bohemian friend who is travelling the world feels a little lost and disconnected. That your friend living the start-up dream worries about burning out from the long hours. That your corporate friend making all the money is crying from a lack of creativity. That your friend ‘living it up’ in London struggles with loneliness. That the girl who has the house and the family feels trapped sometimes, that she is missing out.
This is not a pity party, that’s not the point. It is just the other way of looking at the realty vs expectations problem. Instead of striving to improve the reality, you can also re-assess your expectations. Add in those hard edges to put the green grass into focus. These honest, awkward conversations will make that gap between your expectations and reality so much smaller.
They are hard conversations to be a part of, as an age/society/internet generation we are not that great at just listening. If someone is open about their struggles or worries generally either people try to ‘one up’ the bad bits, competing for Best Loser, or they will try to make them feel better. But actually what friends and your expectation need is to just get the edges out with no comment, no competition and hopefully a large glass of wine.
I know where I am in life. No it is not everything I dreamed it would be, but I don’t think those dreams would actually make me happy. It’s taken me a hell of a long time to get this reality, and honest conversations with friends have been an incredibly important part of it. We are human after all, each of us is a living breathing ball of happy, sad, inspired, striving and desperate for a coffee. All you need to do to give your happiness the best possible chance is to cut through the bullshit that Facebook tells us, that our own little minds tell us, talk to your friends and set your own expectations.
Pin me for later!