How To Live Happily: Have No Expectations

“Expectations are premeditated resentments.” ~ unknown

This is the first of what I am thinking will be a series of occasional “How To Live Happily” posts on what I have learned through studying, living, introspecting, and contemplating, about how to live a joyful and happy life.

Since leaving Christianity I have been reflexively suspicious of philosophies of resignation. By philosophies of resignation, I mean recommendations that we must renounce our desires in order to be happy and/or good. Nietzsche was my first and most influential guide to post-Christian thinking and Foucault was my second. Nietzsche appealed to (and inflamed) my sense that life was to be passionately affirmed and that struggle was an integral part of the essence of life. True happiness and the richest possible life was to be found in perpetually taking on new challenges, and new difficulties, new struggles, and growing through overcoming them. Foucault convinced me that our culture encourages us to waste too many of our energies talking about pleasure instead of having it.

The ideal I ultimately embraced was that life should be a perpetually renewed pursuit of one’s own perfection. And without resistances to overcome, we stagnate or degenerate. This is why among all the traits to cultivate, “the will to power”, understood as the active desire to constantly find new challenges so that one might perpetually grow, was the most ethically estimable. There are limits to how we can ultimately grow. One cannot be blamed for inherent limitations. But the relentlessly reinvigorated, resilient impulse towards growth was the single most decisive character trait; the one that could make the most important contribution to one’s overall excellence. I developed and defended an ethical theory built all around this notion in the final chapter of my dissertation and I still affirm it and regularly develop it in blog posts.

In this post, I want to explore the value of a form of resignation that I am learning which I have found powerfully contributes to, rather than stifles, my own life of perpetual striving and growth. I have increasingly cultivated an attitude of resignation towards expectations. I think that expectations are probably as much to blame for human misery as anything else. At least I think they account for most of my miseries in life. And I think that certain internal dispositions and attitudes that I want to recommend cultivating in the place of expectations have the potential to make us all much more pleased, content, comfortable with challenges, and, so, capable of effectively embracing the will to power (i.e., the will to growth).

New Year’s Day I linked to a study that led researchers to infer that when we announce our New Year’s Resolutions to people and receive their praise for our initiative, our brains start feeling pleasure as though they’re praising us for actual accomplishments. Then we risk getting lulled into feeling like we have already done much more than we have and so we begin to lose motivation to actually go do what we resolved. Our brains get the pay off without doing what the pay off was supposed to be a reward for and prematurely they can lose sight of why they’re supposed to do the arduous tasks they’ve already been rewarded for. Thinking about that study I realized that it’s possible that when we fully expect a good thing to come in the future that our brain begins registering that thing as something we already have. To the extent that this is in fact the case, it might explain why things we never had often feel like things we have lost when we don’t get them.

Now this frustration we feel in not getting particular good things needs such an explanation. This is because normally we are very good at not having countless good things we could imagine having without mourning them in the least. If you were to think of the immense number of possible good scenarios you could be in–the possible range of uniquely wonderful people you could get to know, all the uniquely interesting activities you could engage in with each of those people, all the uniquely interesting places you could visit with them, all the uniquely interesting time periods one could live in, all the uniquely wonderful kinds of life successes you could have and hurdles you could satisfyingly overcome, all the uniquely gratifying skills you could develop, all the possible delightful pleasures of taste and sight and sound and smell and touch that you could possibly experience–you begin to realize that the number of great things you actually will be able to do and experience are a tiny fraction of the total possible good things that could (or even do) exist.

But the vast majority of all these lost possibilities rarely bother us because we are often mostly pleased with what rich experiences, pleasures, and successes we do have available within our lives. There is no need to get down about those great possibilities which are impossible to experience, nor is it usually distressing that we must make choices to only pursue some of even what is possible, since our time and our resources are too preciously finite to pursue all of them equally. It is irrational to feel discouraged about the impossible because feeling bad will not make it any more possible. I do think we can (and maybe even should) rationally feel some twinges of sadness that not all good things are possible for us.

It is rational to respond to a bad thing (or a limit on the good) with an emotion that correspondingly acknowledges and feels that badness. That’s healthy insofar as it is intrinsically good both to know truths and, more specifically, to feel truths about value accurately. But insofar as we have a project of thriving and being pleased, it is counterproductive, distracting, and a waste of energy to want what cannot be had. And in the vast majority of cases, we really are wise enough not to. But not when we start expecting it. Because once we start expecting something, I think our brains latch onto it like it’s ours already. It is no longer one of the good things our brain accepts it cannot have “because one cannot get everything one could want”. Suddenly, this is one of the things we convince ourselves we must have. We perceive it as an entitlement.

An entitlement is something that belongs to us. But sometimes we perceive things as entitlements even when we do not deserve them or cannot actually have them. We really are entitled to some things we do not have and cannot have. And some of the things we are entitled to, we have. Coming to consciousness of a true moral entitlement can be very good–especially when we are either threatened with being deprived of it or come to realize we have already been deprived of it to our tangible detriment or as a matter of abstract injustice. Such consciousness should be motivational since justice is important and our own flourishing is important. And so is the flourishing of others who are wronged as we are or worse. So there are things worth fighting for and being agitated to fight for.

But we have to be careful lest injustice make us miserable and compound its abilities to injure us and corrupt us. When we pursue our moral entitlement, we cannot let our happiness and ability to thrive suffer in the meantime while we don’t have it. We cannot let not having it make us miserable since it is not entirely under our control whether we will ever have it. And, on the flip side, some things we have are things that we do not actually deserve, but we risk feeling very aggrieved, even though we shouldn’t, when they are stripped from us. We must train ourselves to recognize and let go of what is not rightfully ours.

Loss hurts. Excruciatingly. Never having many particularly good things is something the brain automatically accepts. What kills us are the losses, real or imaginary. Sometimes we lose things we actually have and that stings. Sometimes we lose things we have latched onto as an expectation and an entitlement. We may have decided it belongs to us morally or believed it was coming to us in the inevitable course of future events. We may think it explicitly or we may have only implicitly developed attitudes and feelings of expectation and entitlement. But however it gets there and however we experience it, having a good thing we believe belongs to us taken away has great power to make us miserable. And I suspect that when we are denied something we expected to have, emotionally and/or cognitively, that thing feels like something we had and lost.

And here’s the irrational part. We become so obsessed with that which we feel has been robbed from us that we lose focus of all the other good things that we could have instead. Everyday there are available to us more opportunities for pleasure and positive experience than we ever even could avail ourselves of. If we only concentrated differently or put our energies into different places, we could find a thousand new ways to absorb ourselves richly in life and a thousand things to appreciate about it. Yet, when we expect a particular good we risk shrinking our perception of all the good in the world as actually being that one piddly little particular good thing. If it doesn’t show up, there’d might as well be no good in the world.

Imagine if the only thing that could possibly make you happy was one grain of sand you had to go find on the beach. Your odds of ever being happy would be exorbitantly low. But good things are as abundant in the world as sand is on a beach. Our problem is that we constantly lose sight of this because we’re looking for one fucking particular little grain that we expected to have and convinced ourselves belonged to us. But nothing belongs to us and nothing cannot be taken from us, not even if we deserve to keep it. But, fortunately, there’s plenty of sand on the beach for the taking.

Oliver Burkeman wrote the following about successful entrepreneurialism:

Research by Saras Sarasvathy, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, suggests that learning to accommodate feelings of uncertainty is not just the key to a more balanced life but often leads to prosperity as well. For one project, she interviewed 45 successful entrepreneurs, all of whom had taken at least one business public. Almost none embraced the idea of writing comprehensive business plans or conducting extensive market research.

They practiced instead what Prof. Sarasvathy calls “effectuation.” Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, they took stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagined the possible ends. Effectuation also includes what she calls the “affordable loss principle.” Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step.

They didn’t set their hearts on some particular definition of success. They looked at what they had and figured out what they could make of it. Where they could afford to lose, they took chances and eventually some paid off.

Expectations don’t just misdirect our focus so that we waste our energies and squander opportunities. They also corrupt love. Expectations that someone who is wrong for us is the only one who could ever please us keep us trapped in unhealthy relationships. Expectations we can change someone make us resent them when they don’t change. Expectations that our love will match some ideal we have built up in our minds make us dissatisfied with the rich reality of an actual love we actually have with actual people.

And even when we are with good people, who we should love, we ruin it if we start putting expectations on them as to how they should feel or express their love. When we decide “my lover will do this great thing for me” we now resent them when they don’t do it–even if they never promised it or never should have promised it, given who they are. And they’re highly likely to resent us if we make them promise it and resent us even more if we make them follow through. If someone loves you, there’s no need to try to control them. You’ll smother the love dead if you do. But expectations lead to controlling behavior. They lead to impositions of obligations that your lover will resent. Things are no longer fun to the extent they’re felt as obligations. Even if they are obligations (and those in friendships and loving relationships do have obligations to each other), still the worst thing we can do in most cases is to let ourselves or others feel like they are under obligations.

I have been amazed by all the freely offered gestures of love I never asked for in life. And those gifts are completely untainted because they were never demanded. And often they exceeded what I would have requested. Sometimes I have been gobsmacked at how much I have received simply by not asking or, even, by taking an initial no for an answer and just waiting a little awhile with no expectations. So while it’s good to sometimes ask for good things or let others know you like certain things, expecting them from those you love is usually counter-productive to getting it. Appreciate what they really do offer if it is in fact a lot and especially pay attention to all they give you you didn’t even think to expect.

I’m not saying “resign from desire”. No. Desire. But remember that your desires can be satisfied a million ways, not just one. Desire kinds of good, not their particular instantiations. Desire love. But don’t try to predict or expect or feel entitled to it from any particular person or through any particular gesture. Just constantly seek out good people and offer them your best. And anything or anyone you thought would be good but turned out bad–just abandon it or them. It’s not a loss. It wasn’t an actual good. Desire success. But don’t imagine you really have any idea what it will look like or feel like to get it in specific terms.

And if you have a genuinely good thing and you irretrievably lose it (or if it is best you let it go for the future prospect of something better), don’t feel entitled to it. Accept that it is gone. Actively cherish what you had. Celebrate its positive and enduring place in your life. Memorialize it. Keep it. Your hurting brain is going to cast about for explanations of why you’re hurting. It’s going to be frustrated and terrified by its helplessness to retrieve what it lost and to keep things from being lost. In order to regain your sense of power, you will be tempted to blame yourself because subconsciously you’re probably reasoning that if it’s your fault, that means you were powerful after all and that means maybe next time you won’t blow it and lose something special. But you’re not omnipotent. You cannot keep all good things.

Focus on understanding constructively on how to improve yourself so you don’t let good things slip away insofar as you realistically do have control but assiduously refuse the false and irrational regrets that build up to fit a false narrative that everything really is in our control. Embrace your limits as inevitable and not your fault. Feel your helplessness, without confusing it for hopelessness. Because it’s not hopelessness. You don’t have to be all powerful to be powerful. You don’t have to expect any particular good thing to hope with realistic optimism that some good things will come your way.

Don’t fight your memories of the good lost. Don’t try to root it out of your heart. Savor in your memory what goodness you had. Mourn the loss as much as your brain needs in order to properly process its natural frustration.  And, whatever you do, open your eyes to all the myriad good things you could be doing and could be savoring. Apply yourself to trying to do them and trying to savor them–with no expectations as to which ones you will actually succeed at or actually savor. Just keep searching for unexplored goodness, keep trying to get it, never expect to have it–just hope and keep opening up new explorations on the assumption some of the existing searches will fail. Never expect the good as an entitlement, always accept it with enthusiasm as an unpromised, undemanded gift.

There are so many invitations to love that surround all of us if we only open our hearts widely. Accept the invitations. Open your heart. Be jealous of no one. Dream up numerous plans for happiness but attach your heart to none of them. Scatter seeds widely. Expect nothing. Apply yourself with endless optimism and vigor, and in time you’ll wonder with a perfectly forgetful gratitude why so many gifts come your way.

Your Thoughts?

More on How To Live Happily: Truthfully Understand Yourself and Your Constructive Potential

I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. To learn more about philosophical practice’s standards of practice and to keep up with all installments in the “Philosophical Advice” series of posts keep tabs on this page.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Hitchslapper

    Being less needy, is essential to avoiding disappointment, which leads to displeasure.

  • Matt

    beautiful. can apply this to my own life and problems in a meaningful way. have just come out of a long relationship and am stuck feeling that i am ‘entitled’ to still be with this person, when in reality i am not. i think it will help me to let go of my inner expectation to meet someone new, also. great work

  • Shira

    Very interesting! My own post-Judaic guide has been the Buddha, and it seems to me that what you are calling “expectations” is a species of craving — in this case, craving to imaginary futures. I certainly agree that this is apt to make a person both unhappy and less effective than he or she might be!

    For a while I used to fret about whether not craving results would make me passive, but eventually I figured out that there is an effective alternative to expectations, which I think of as intention. Like expectation, intention involves imagining the future. However, my guess is that different brain circuits are involved. As a rough guide, I find that intention works steadily in the background, and when you turn your attention to it, it is there, humming away. It is emotionally cool, but somehow reassuring. Expectations, however, tend to snag or steal your attention, and they are not steady. They often go along with extreme emotions, hot or cold (and that is likely how they entrap your attention.) They are protean, and they make use of present experience (for instance, by condemning your behavior at this moment, or promising to fix what goes wrong in the present.)

    These are just my observations, but I think they are common experience!

  • Joe

    You are back to seeking a religious solution (dressed up as atheism) to your problems – finding a pattern where no pattern exists.

    • Shira

      That’s extraordinary gnomic. I have no idea what you are saying, but it would be interesting to find out.

    • tumeyn

      I’ve got to agree with Joe. There are lots of points in this essay where Daniel talks about “moral entitlements” and things that are “rightfully ours”. This makes no sense if my mind consists solely of molecules that react to their surroundings. I have no more “rights” than a blade of grass or a dung beetle. I’m just a collection of molecules that happens to have have “pleasurable” sensations and I should therefore act in a way that maximizes my own pleasure, power, and procreation. Any sense of “rights” or “good” or “evil” or “justice” is just an illusion at best.

      (by the way, as a reality check: Remember that society can’t grant our rights. If society grants our rights, then society can also take away our rights – just like it did in Nazi Germany, etc. If our rights come from “society”, then we have no right to complain when “society” takes them away.)

    • baal

      I don’t read Dan that way at all. It looks to me like he’s working on understanding how brains actually work and then applying it to his personal life. This is an entirely good and secular activity and doesn’t necessitate ‘religion’ or religion-like solutions.

    • Shira

      tumeyn — That’s an interesting point of view. Are you saying that we DON’T have rights and morality is nonexistent (for the reasons you state), or are you arguing the contrary, that we DO have rights and morality exists and therefore we are not just “molecules that react to their surroundings”?

      In either case, I think you are wrong. As it happens, the way these particular molecules react includes the conviction that we have rights as individuals and moral obligations to each other. There is no reason that something other than physical laws is required to explain this fact of human experience. And given that we do have such convictions, it is perfectly reasonable to talk about morality and rights while remaining an atheist and a materialist.

    • tumeyn

      I’m simply arguing that Dan’s talk about “rights” and “morality” doesn’t seem to make sense. I completely agree with your statement that “these molecule react to give us the conviction that we have rights and moral obligations.” But that conviction must be either false or true. I’m arguing that if materialism/naturalism is true, then the conviction must be false. Our sense of “rights” and “morality” are merely gut feelings and opinions – nothing more. You (and Dan) can talk about them AS IF they are real, but if materialism is real – then you are simply deluding yourself. We are simply a ball of molecules reacting to our environment. We have no moral responsibilities to anyone or anything.

    • Shira

      tumeyn — I think I understand where you’re coming from, but please correct me if not.

      I am convinced by the evidence available to me that morality and rights are human concepts (or convictions) that are operative only in social contexts. A child raised by wolves would not have an operative moral sense. And a person living utterly alone — even one raised in human society — has no rights beyond those he can impose on nature. (For instance, he has a right to life ONLY if he can escape from his grizzly bear neighbors.)

      To you, I gather that the sort of morality and rights I have described “don’t really exist.” Fwiw, to me, the idea that these things somehow become more real due to having been created by a Creator God seems like a sort of projection of human nature onto the universe. In other words, from my perspective, your concepts of morality and rights “don’t really exist”.

      This disagreement about the nature of reality doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother you. I’m a Buddhist, lol. The Buddha had a handle on the map vs. territory problem 2500 years ago, and the scientific worldview hasn’t improved a great deal on his insights.

      And incidentally, I can state categorically that even if morality has a limited scope of applicability, yes we DO have moral responsibilities to other humans and to life in its broadest sense. That, in fact, is one of the main things that makes us human rather than, oh… slime mold.


    • tumeyn

      Shira, for the sake of argument, let’s use your “child raise by wolves” analogy. I’m the only human being in existence and have not been taught any societal conventions of right and wrong. Is it “wrong” for me to mercilessly torture animals simply for the pleasure that it bring me?

      Again, if materialism is true, then I don’t see how such an action can be considered “wrong”. I’m simply trying to maximize my pleasure during my brief flicker of existence in this universe.

      You say that “we DO have moral responsibilities to other humans and to life in its broadest sense. That, in fact, is one of the main things that makes us human rather than, oh… slime mold.” That sounds great. But again, you are sneaking in this word “responsibilities”. Who says I have any responsibilities? If materialism is true, then the only person I am accountable for is *ME*. Torturing animals, lying to people for the simple pleasure that deception brings, endless sexual exploits for the fun of it, who cares? I’m simply responding to the molecules bouncing around in my head and living in a way to maximize the pleasure I have while I’m here. We all may feel that this is no way to live – but if materialism is true, then this “moral outrage” we feel towards such actions must be just a gut feeling that has no basis in reality.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Joe and tumeyn, this article was an exercise in practical moral philosohpy and moral psychology. While some of what I argue can be interpreted as compatible with a fictionalist, a constructivist, expressivist, or other sort of view of ultimate moral ontology just as well as with moral realism, I summarize many of my reasons for holding to moral realism rather than moral anti-realism here: and in the posts linked to throughout the essay and listed at the end. Those address many of the familiar objections to moral realism.

      In either case, it is a philosophical position, based on evidence, logic, conceptual analysis, and important needs for philosophical coherence and consistency. It has nothing to do with arbitrary mystical assertions. While I do not do so explicitly here, there are ways I have already begun to and will eventually make all the derivations of obligations that I here allude to in passing. For the sake of this task, it was perfectly legitimate to hold some things as givens that in other places require explanations and justifications. Biologists do not have to show all their chemistry, nor chemistry all their physics. The more fundamental constituents of a level of discourse can be assumed while engaged on a more complex level. Here I am dealing with practical ethics and how to live life. There’s a place for that–especially since I have historically already spent a disproportionate amount of my ethics writings on this site on metaethics rather than practical ethics.

    • Shira

      tumeyn — Is it wrong for a cat to play with a mouse? I don’t think moral categories apply to cats, and a human child raised by wolves is not any more or less moral than a cat, as far as I can see.

      I’m a little fascinated — and, to be frank, slightly sickened — by your assertion that responsibilities and morality do not exist without some sort of immaterial basis. It seems to me that you make the assumption that human beings are hopelessly corrupt unless morality is imposed on them from outside. (For instance, you imagine that a child raised by wolves would, for some reason, take pleasure in torturing animals, which seems a strange thing to imagine.) The assumption of utter human corruption is not supported by evidence, as far as I can tell. But please tell me if you know of some evidence.

    • tumeyn

      Shira, you say “I’m a little fascinated — and, to be frank, slightly sickened — by your assertion that responsibilities and morality do not exist without some sort of immaterial basis.”
      Are you suggesting that morality is a material reality? Either morality is material or immaterial. Yes, I am arguing that it is immaterial – but very real. From my perspective, morality can only be one of three things:
      1) A material reality (ie, some sort of “moral particles” floating around waiting to be discovered by scientists)
      2) An immaterial reality (ie something “other” than just the atoms in our heads – dictated from something or someone outside of us)
      3) An illusion – something that we all LIKE to believe in, but is actually nonexistent.

      Can you think of any other possibilities?

      Here’s a basic question: Is it wrong to enslave and exploit someone? I’m whether it is a good idea or a bad idea. But is it WRONG? Throughout history societies have had to ask this question – and not everyone has agreed. Can we categorically say that the slavery of the 18th century in the US was wrong? Is it merely your opinion? What is the basis for making such a moral judgement? In other words, if the South had won the civil war and made slavery universally legal and accepted by society, would that make it morally acceptable?

    • Shira

      tumeyn — Like you, I would say that morality is an immaterial reality. However, I suspect we differ on the meaning of “reality” in this case. Morality is real in that it has real consequences — it affects the subsequent unfolding of the universe. It is not real in the sense of being a physical thing. I would say it’s real in the way that every experience — whether happiness or the color blue or an idea — is real. It is part of the model of reality we build as human beings. Models are not illusory, but they are subjective. Some models exist inside only my experience, or yours, but many — such as morality, or the color blue, or the feeling of happiness — are shared by all, or nearly all, human beings.

      Yes, it’s wrong to exploit and enslave someone. (And not only some”one” — it is wrong to exploit and enslave any being.) It is wrong because it causes needless suffering to the ones exploited and enslaved, and also degrades and corrupts the exploitative and enslaving human beings. And here’s an interesting thing. A child knows this. But through education, an adult can be formed who ceases to know it. (Much of that religion was, of course, religious education, and as the Southern preachers correctly pointed out, the Bible was on the side of the slave-holders.) So what you have here is morality as a part of human nature, degraded by cultural and religious education so that immoral behavior comes to seem acceptable.

    • tumeyn

      Shira, you write “[Morality] is part of the model of reality we build as human beings. Models are not illusory, but they are subjective.”
      Are you suggesting that morality is subjective? In other words, back to my question about slavery: If the South had won and made slavery both legal and acceptable, then you would be Ok with that? After all, there have been times in history when the vast majority of people viewed slavery as acceptable. Was this Ok for them? Or were they participating in something morally corrupt?
      There were times in history when it was almost universally acceptable for husbands to abuse their wives. What sort of moral code makes this wrong? Yours? For morality to be universally applicable, it must have authority. If my neighbor puts up a speed limit sign, I am under no obligation to obey it. But if my town puts up a speed limit sign, then I am under an obligation to obey it. I obey it because it comes from someone in a position of authority over me. It’s great that you personally think that slavery and spousal abuse are wrong. But there have been times in history when the vast majority of people disagree with you. Were they wrong? If not, would those things be wrong today? Why not? Just because the majority says so? But I’ll remind you again: If our rights are derived from the will of the majority, then it only takes a majority vote to take those rights away. (as a side note, Hitler enacted most of his laws against Jews by a democratic vote!) Either we have rights, or we don’t. You seem to want things both ways: You speak of some sort of moral authority, but then claim that there is no “being” or “thing” that grants the authority of which you speak. (forgive me if mis-understood you)
      Call me simpleminded if you like, but I just don’t understand where our rights come from in an atheistic worldview.

    • Shira

      Lol. You don’t understand where our rights (and / or morality) come from from an atheistic worldview, while I don’t understand where they come from from a theistic worldview. After all, based on the Bible and most other religious literature, G-d not only accepts but actually commands immoral actions (including your chosen examples of slavery and abuse of women). So I am at a loss as to how anyone can claim a divine origin for morality.

      My view is that morality is an inherent part of human nature. (If you want a good summary of the biological basis and evolutionary history of morality, I would suggest Jonathan Haidt’s excellent and readable book _Righteous Minds_.) We each have a moral code based on our biology and our experience. We argue our moral code in an effort to get others to agree with us. When enough people DO agree (it doesn’t have to be a majority, a committed minority is often sufficient), then rights come into being. Rights, after all, only exist when a less powerful person has an enforceable claim against a more powerful person, or against a group of people. If there is no enforceable claim, then the powerless may CLAIM a right based on moral principles, but they do not in fact HAVE that right.

      Let’s take your question about slavery. Suppose the South had won. Slavery would be immoral, but (at least in the short term) enslaved people would have many fewer rights than those not enslaved. However, it would have been a short-term victory for the South, at least as far as slavery was concerned. I say that because already BEFORE the Civil War the moral claims of enslaved people had made a strong impression on many not enslaved. Slavery was outlawed in many places in the world even without a violent rebellion. It is unlikely that the planters, obstinate and corrupt as they undoubtedly were, could have ignored the Zeitgeist for many decades.

      There is a line in the Passover haggadah we use in our family (it was given out with grocery purchases in, I think, the sixties, and the translation is, let’s just say, somewhat free) that goes something like, “In every age some new freedom is discovered. In every age some new kind of oppression must be opposed.” This is a pretty good statement — based, I think, on a sort of mid-century American optimism more than any Jewish texts — about the evolution of morality.

      Another way of putting it is that in every generation we discover another group of people previously regarded as strangers who clamor to be admitted to the full rights of membership in one’s own circle. That’s a pretty constant trend throughout human history, as it happens. And it’s one of the reasons I do not despair of humanity.

  • Dave B

    This is the most important lesson I’ve learned since recently becoming a father. Expecting that I can accomplish a given task on a given evening and get to bed at a given time is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. I’m far happier when I just enjoy the time I spend with my son and savor my free time whenever it does come along.

  • baal

    “To the extent that this is in fact the case, it might explain why things we never had often feel like things we have lost when we don’t get them.”
    On the rare occasions when my wife and I fight (heated discussions?), the vast majority of the problem lies in our expectations. Our solution has been to make it a point to figure out and express as many of our expectations as we can before delving in to the disagreement (which often evaporates). This doesn’t mean we agree about the reasonableness of our expectations but does make it clear what has to be accommodated or worked around.

    On a more personal note, I find some personal comfort that Dan, with more rigor and thought, is reaching conclusions that I did a long time ago.

  • Brian

    Very interesting thoughts. One contention. As a Christian (already preparing myself for vitriol) who loves philosophy I have a contention w/ the portrayal of Christianity being a philosophy of resignation. The “renounce desires=be good” is a false dichotomy found only in unhealthy expressions of Christianity. “All Men desire happiness…this is without exception” says Pascal in the context of defending the faith. The Christian message is that there is an objective, fixed, universal happiness found in relationship with God. Not “religion” or “being good” but in right relationship w/ God. This is the summum bonum and is both the origin and termination of all “expectation” thus not making all expectation fruitless. It gives ground, explanation, and freedom of expression to expectation. On a different note, how does one desire, not expect, yet still hope? i.e. what is the role of hope in this dialogue?

    • Shira

      No comment on the issues regarding Christianity, which isn’t my religion.

      That said, what exactly do you mean by hope? I suspect that you mean something different than everyday usage which often comes down to “wishful thinking”. (I hope he brought the beer!)

    • baal

      This is Camelswithhammers, you can expect minimal vitriol :).

      My mother-in-law clearly sees (uses?) god belief as resignation. She has had a number of really awful things happen and went from mildly Christian to very devout. Her words focus on how she’s not going to deal with the negative events and that she’s just trusting the Lord these days.

      She doesn’t seem out of the normal range for Christian believers for me.

    • Brian

      Stepping aside (if possible:)) from how I’d like to answer that as a Christian, in which case I would turn to Aquinas, I would say that hope is more than wishful thinking inasmuch as it contains a greater vested level of interest and it’s object is perceived as more permanent. i.e. the permanency, predictability, and reliability of the objects we long for determines logically the extent to which we ought to “hope” for them. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, so our hopes ought to be set on things more permanent if we’re going to use it in non-pejorative beer related manner. This assumes the essential nature of hope rightly defined for human stability. Expectation suggests rights, as Dan mentioned, which assumes human worth. So we bring into this not only our assumption concerning whether humanity, molecules or otherwise, has worth, but also what is a stable thing to position our forward-looking wishes on. If my “hope” is unstable, it is not true hope that will bring me through hardship and give me purpose. If my “hope” is an expectation, then I think to highly of myself. If my “hope” is mere desire, than it means nothing more than “I want another beer” in which case it loses all meaning. I guess I’m contending that instead of talking about “having no expectations,” we ought to think about the implicit assumptions here about my “rights” and the permanency of things future.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I didn’t mean to imply that Christianity need be interpreted as a philosophy of resignation (though some dimensions of it have historically been resignation oriented and there are some extremist resignation formulations in the Bible, particularly from Jesus himself). I am just saying, as a matter of my biography, because of the excessive and unhealthy curbs on sexuality that I endured in my Christianity, I wanted nothing to do with such extremism in that direction after leaving the faith.

    • Brian

      baal. interesting tag name. I just noticed your post. No offense to your mother-in-law, but this is unfortunately the “christian” norm. Just like any ideology, many who hold to it do not properly understand its content. I know because I teach many Christians. The “not going to deal with negative events” is far from what the Bible and Christian faith calls Christians to do. That is mere psychological denial, detachment, or positive psychology. Those are unhelpful. But to elaborate further requires a lengthy discussion on Theodicy which even most Christians, much to my dismay, have not engaged in.

    • baal

      fwiw I’ve been using Baal for a long while including with trivia contests. It’s fun to beat folks who think I misspelled ‘ball’. Christians also seem to take a undue amount of offense at it (yes I’m aware of the bible anti-baal screeds). To some degree, I don’t mind. If someone can’t look past a name to read an argument, I don’t need to engage with that person.

    • Brian

      My intention was inquisitive, not accusatory. I’m sorry you took it that way and thus ruled out content I had hoped to genuinely engage in.

    • Shira

      Brian — Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’m about to get myself in trouble by talking about something (philosophy) that I know practically nothing about, so if I screw up too badly, perhaps you or Daniel will come to my rescue!

      The Stoics, according to my limited understanding of them, believed in hard determinism, and accordingly denied the existence of free will. Their introspection was therefore in aid of aligning their will with whatever would happen, since it was outside their control. Thus, as you said, resignation.

      The Buddha, by contrast, explicitly rejected any view that negated moral agency, whether due to hard determinism or the overwhelming will of a creator god. (I can support this from the suttas, if you care, but since it’s hard to embed a citation in this comment editor, I’ll give the citation only if you wish it.) In no way at all did the Buddha teach resignation.

      The purpose of Buddhist introspection (as well as Buddhist communal norms and standards of personal virtue) is to overcome what are nowadays called cognitive biases. The Buddha had a very advanced understanding of the map vs. territory problem: while there have been any number of religious leaders and philosophers who understood that human beings are irrational, the Buddha, as far as I can discover, had the best pre-modern understanding of what Dan Ariely calls our “predictable irrationality.” And because he understood the problem very well, he developed a series of correctives for it.

      Now it’s true that Buddhists have been less energetic in putting programs into action than Christians have been. I don’t claim much knowledge of Christian doctrine, but I know quite a reasonable amount about history, and Christians have one of the most active records of mobilizing communal action for spiritual projects. Unfortunately, and please forgive me for observing this, the wisdom of these projects has been exceptionally varied. Buddhists have been more concerned with looking carefully before they leaped. (If I have a somewhat jaundiced view of Christendom, you can put it down to my Jewish background, I’m afraid. I can see that being proactive is the right choice in some circumstances, but my own preference is for more studied action.)

      As for the verse I quoted, it’s not about fear of death, but rather about the futility of excessive self-protection. That subsection of the Dhammapada begins, “‘He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.’ Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.” and concludes with the observation that I quoted earlier. What he means, I think, is that we have a tendency to hang onto our grievances either as a form of retroactive self-defense or as a goad to revenge. But it’s foolish to defend ourselves after the damage is done, and equally foolish to try to harm our former opponent, because death will come to tear down both our own life and that of our opponent. Therefore (as a middle verse in this sequence advises) we need to practice “non-hatred” — the deliberate cultivation of goodwill toward oneself and one’s opponent, and mend the quarrel.

      That’s why I said the Buddha is a hard-headed realists: he does not stand for coddling ourselves. And this is the key to understanding how I, at least, would answer your final question: ” how does one conquer our desire for selfishness, destruction, vice, and the easy way out through beer/friends/sex?”

      The Eightfold Path is a series of arenas in which we practice exactly that. The purpose of meditation is to become familiar with our own foolishness and our own nobility — to understand our individual patterns of actions and interactions. As understanding grows, compassion also grows — this is just the way things are. We take our new understanding and try to put it into service when we are not meditating. We take our mistakes and our successes (of thought, speech, and action) back to meditation, to understand them. And gradually, we gain confidence in our ability to act in accordance with our nobility and also in our ability to handle the unexpected and unwanted circumstances that arise for every human being. With confidence, we have less reason to turn away from suffering, whether our own or others’. And when we do not turn away, we are in a position to choose wise action or, when there is no wise action available, to practice equanimity. (In modern parlance, we learn to “let go” when we honestly cannot do anything useful.)

      So that pretty much defines the Buddhist path. I would be interested to hear how you feel that hope works for you and how it fits into the Christian path of answering your question!


    • Brian

      Thank you for engaging with me on this. I appreciate your irenic approach…refreshing. Concerning moral agency, I don’t understand how the Buddha provides grounds for why we ought to be active moral agents other than a circularity. And (not that your statement was intended as a polemic) the dichotomy of options, i.e. determinism or overwhelming creator is an over-simplification. i.e. a thorough reading of the Bible indicates both free-will (moral agency/responsibility) and a Sovereignty that gives that agency grounding as well as empowers it’s process while still choosing to remove His influence from aspects of human choice. But the nuances here are such that Christians disagree, though they’re non-essential.
      Your language concerning introspection sort of lost me.
      Concerning the fear of death quote, how are these reasons anything other than basic human psychological motivations for having “reconciled relationships” (“mend the quarrel” and don’t “hang on to our grievances”)?
      Three things about the eightfold path. 1) I admittedly am no expert here and need to learn more; 2) This seems more common sense to me, i.e. do things, go back and think about what you did and said, then go do things differently while trying to be nice which leads me to; 3) Not to be obstinate, but the paragraph on the eightfold path still sounds narcissistic…i.e. dealing with our own action, introspection, and focus on how we treat others. I don’t mean to be lame, I’m just struggling to better understand Buddhism. It seems like I’m grasping at straws. But perhaps I just need to go do some more reading on it.

  • Shira

    Brian — Ah, that’s interesting. My own feelings about hope are somewhat tarnished, I must admit. The quintessential Jewish hope, after all, was return to the land, and that hope was fulfilled. But it’s hard to argue that that was an entirely good thing, either for us or for our neighbors. The amount of suffering that has arisen out of the resettlement of Israel by Jews makes me very sad.

    In Buddhism, one legitimately envisions only one’s own future behavior. Expending effort on envisioning the future behavior of others, or unpredictable future conditions is futile, even if we do tend to do that. The functional equivalent of the kind of hope you describe might be equanimity, which is calm acceptance of reality. (Even if we need to make changes, the first step is to accept the facts as they stand.) Equanimity is one of the four jihanas. These are habits of thought that, when cultivated, lead to decreased suffering and increased happiness for the practitioner and those affected by him or her. The other three, in case you care, are goodwill for all beings, sympathetic joy when other beings meet good fortune or attain wholesome accomplishments, and compassion, which is the desire and intent to help when other beings are suffering. Most Buddhists spend some time each day cultivating those states of mind, in order to make it more likely that our behavior will be guided by our mental preparation.

    Anyway, that may be off the topic you intended, and Daniel may decide to add his own thoughts about hope, but I appreciate your willingness to engage in friendly discussion.

    • Brian

      Daniel, thank you for the clarification concerning the biographical intention. I understand the resignation notions in the Bible, but think they must be understood in their context of rightly comprehending which part of us is being “denied” and thusly resigned and which is being “freed.” But that gets into the complexity of theology that is embittering to many and requires a host of assumptions to engage in. I am unfamiliar with the “curb on sexuality” you mention as my own experience in the faith has been nothing contrary to many philosophers throughout history concerning the proper place of the sexual impulse. This is something I don’t think atheism addresses well, i.e. the proper limitations of sexual expression. I think any attempt to frame a sexual ethic must borrow from Judeo-Christian capital. Otherwise I don’t see much in our evolutionary history, or even by the “all is exploitation” Nietzsche, that gives many legitimate boundaries to sexuality. Sira, I am interested in Buddhism, and am familiar with the jihanas. However, please help me. I often don’t see the difference between Buddhism and Stoicism in this regard. Also, how is Buddhism as you express it nothing more than a spiritual expression of narcissism? I know that sounds harsh in my language, but it always strikes me as seeking peace within oneself and “resignation” if you will to anything outside our “control” which is most things. So all you have is self. And this doesn’t seem to be a motivator for those Buddhist I know to be benevolent or altruistic, but merely to naval gaze and/or detach from reality…not accept it. In my mind, reality is that this world is full of pain, suffering, and the natural human impulse toward self-destruction and self-motivated survival. This is tempered by those under the umbrella of economic security who contemplate benevolence b/c of their abundance…but it isn’t a natural impulse under long duress. That is, furthermore, why our “expectations” are not realized. But we don’t want to go there, because then we must admit the same of ourselves…i.e. I place my “hope” in that which is not a worthy object, namely the beer, my friends affections, or my capacity to conform to the jihanas and “resign” in all circumstances. But the “hope” for me is in a source outside of self redeeming things in a way conforming to true goodness…an “expectation” I can “hope” in, wishful or not:) But this last line sounds like preaching and I don’t want to go there. Please help me understand both these issues of “sexual repression” and my thoughts as they stand concerning Buddhism. Really appreciate the dialogue.

    • Shira

      Brian, you have indeed expressed a quite common misapprehension about Buddhism. (And don’t worry, I am — almost — impervious to being offended. I would much rather have someone state their idea clearly rather than make me guess what they mean, especially when, like you, they are not trying to attack but just to understand.)

      Two common, opposite but related, misunderstandings of Buddhism are these: 1) Buddhists are just narcissists and 2) Buddhists are just spongy blobs of compassion without backbones. But the fact is, the Buddha’s concern was suffering, both one’s own and that of others. And the path of wisdom is the middle way. Without good understanding, one cannot choose wise actions to put compassion into action. Without an open heart, one can never develop good understanding. So both kinds of development are important, and they reinforce each other.

      I don’t know what Buddhists you know. The ones I know are active in educating prisoners and providing hospice care, among other things. And I don’t know any Buddhists who are detached from reality. It seems to me, as I read the suttas, that the Buddha himself was the hardest-headed realist I’ve ever come across. “Not everyone realizes that they will die,” he wrote, “but those who do realize it mend their quarrels.” That’s not the fluffy Buddha to whom so many flowery (and mostly fake) quotes are attributed!

      One possible point of misunderstanding is that the jihanas are not supposed to be a kind of action (well, except as thought can be considered a sort of action.) Think of them as trellises on which we train our minds to grow, so that action will follow the paths of development we’ve laid out. I assume that hope (which was the original topic of this thread) is a similar sort of mental discipline rather than, for instance, a cheap rescue fantasy like the end of a fairy-tale.

      Your final point about where one places one’s hope seems to me to have something to do with what I, again, think of as refusing to let the mind escape from reality into fantasy. I kind of look at it this way. We are prompted to give to others when we encounter suffering. However, we can choose to look away from the suffering and therefore stifle the impulse to benevolence. We can look away very energetically, by filling our thoughts and our time with beer and our friends’ affections and the quest for a great job or great sex or peak experiences.

      In other words, it isn’t that the impulse to benevolence peters out, but that we quite carefully stifle it. We do so because we don’t want to face reality. If we do choose to face reality, we will naturally try to alleviate suffering. Virtuous behavior and accurate understanding are yoked together.

    • Brian

      Thank you for the response and time to explain. The conversation has of course taken a turn at this point with flavors of “comparative religions” which the discussion about expectation, hope, and future in relation to reality certainly logically brokers. My mentioning of the Buddhists I know does refer to individuals I’ve met who, though at times engaged in benevolent action, often seem emotionally and relationally detached in their attempts to achieve wisdom and enlightenment. That a) is limited to a narrow scope of interaction and b) in no way is accusatory of Buddhists as being a bunch of selfish brats. My comment concerning narcissism had less to do with potential benevolent action as the motivator behind such actions. i.e. the Buddhist seeks truth, enlightenment, peace, consciousness, mindfulness, rapture, equanimity, expanding, formlessness, etc…. by looking ultimately within. That seems to me to lend itself to an unhealthy stoic detachment from reality, not towards an “impulse to benevolence” which I just don’t think is a real “impulse” in our material or spiritual instincts.
      Concerning the quote on death, I’m not sure I see that as particularly deep. There’s both common sense and a host of assumptions in the statement. The common sense is that an awareness of our mortality makes us want things to be “right” or “mended” in the time we have. The problem is I don’t think it gives reasons for why we “ought” to be mended. The assumptions are that relationships should be mended, we should care about others and not merely the self, and that a fear of death actually causes that level of “mending.” I’ve known plenty of people who die in bitterness and with no interest in “mending” in spite of a clear and present awareness of their mortality. The “flowery” part is the optimistic assumption that this is the way people respond to circumstances. I think the true “reality” is that we respond to most circumstances with a selfish desire to escape, withdrawal (perhaps by meditation), hurt, or psychologically disconnect. And no amount of our efforts to overcome that will work. We are hopeless and in need of rescue. Help me understand that it’s not this. i.e. how does one conquer our desire for selfishness, destruction, vice, and the easy way out through beer/friends/sex?

  • DuWayne

    I am really looking forward to your continuing posts on happiness, this is a brilliant starting point. My only point of contention would be that it is also important to understand that *not* carrying expectations is a process. We are socially conditioned to have expectations, conditioned even, to what those expectations should be. Even if we are opposing the socially conditioned expectations, those socially conditioned expectations are shaping our own expectations. And at the core, our conditioning and how we react to it is about having expectations.

    The reason I bring this us is because while it is easy to express the idea that expectations are detrimental to happiness, which is dead nuts accurate, it is really hard to break that conditioning to be driven by expectations. All the harder, because there are a great many expectations that are entirely valid and necessary for fostering rich and rewarding relationships – or even just to function. So the process of ending our dependency on expectations, must be tempered by the practical need for some expectations to exist.

    What is important to keep in mind is that failing to eliminate expectations that interfere with happiness is not a bad thing. It is not a failure we should ever take too seriously – it happens. It would be nigh on impossible for it not to happen. Expectations based desire is fundamental to some of our earliest and most deeply seated neurological development (in “Western” culture). Our brains are wired for it at a very early age. Working our way out of that kind of conditioning is really fucking hard and failing isn’t merely acceptable, it is inevitable.

    Inevitable as it might be, it is also good. Every time we fail, we afford ourselves the opportunity to learn something about the process. Failure is never a good reason to quit trying altogether – especially when it comes to the pursuit of happiness. But when it comes to changing who we are, it is really easy to decide that, after trying something and failing, that there must be something wrong with *me* that makes *me* uniquely unsuited for that change. This is especially true of happiness, because we are also conditioned – especially in U.S. American culture, to believe that if you *deserve* to be happy, you *will* be happy – and if you aren’t happy, it’s because you don’t deserve to be. Effectively, not being happy is a moral failing – so not only do you not deserve to be happy if you aren’t, but you should pretend to be in any case.

    There is a lot of baggage to wade through, in the pursuit of happiness. I really look forward to seeing where you take this.

  • Joan Casey

    Thank you for making this post. Im living my life happy and I dream of always staying that way. You are right people look for something they dont have. I like your example of a one grain of sand above all others. I live in a third world country and most of the things I would like to have are on the first world countries. I do not have much but those things make me happy. If Im right Thats happiness right? Dont ecpect too muh.. Just be Happy…Im looking forward to seeing more of your pursuit for happiness.. :)

    Whoever reads this if you have spare time kindly view my blog life is amazing… :)
    thank u so much for inspiring a person like me.. :)

  • rumitoid

    There is a lot to respond to here. I agree that expectations are the main source for the common misery most people put themselves through from day-to-day. Complications associated with these expectations end up creating complexes, forming part of our worldview, contributing to lifestyle, and toying with all our relationships. The true breadth, height, and depth of its influence is probably impossible to assess, for it runs through all of our being. Hindus call it “fetters,” the Christians “entanglements,” and the Buddhists “attachments.” Like crabgrass, expectations have roots that must be pulled up or somehow destroyed for any real change to mateialize.

    I remember back in ’91 having read somewhere that the key to our greatest freedom and deepest joy is to have no expectations. This struck a deep cord and it began to reveal how much expectations had been the source of my unhappiness. I vowed to give up all expectations. Then there came a day when a friend about to return to friends in Ojai regaled our group at lunch about her great expectations for this reunion. I kept waiting for an opportunity to warn her of the dangers. But before I got that chance to enlighten her, I had a startling realization: fear was part of this new “spiritual axiom.” That I was not loveable or acceptable enough to expect an exuberant or even warm welcome from those I knew. Uprooting the motive behind my “No expectation” belief needed a process of soul-searching and mourning.

    I see the basic drive within us as a natural tendency to thrive. This gets corrupted to ambition, perpetual struggle, greed, the desire for wealth, fame, and power, and other misdirected yearnings.

  • rumitoid

    I hope you know that these “insights” and “strivings” are well-documented in the way of the saints. I feel certain that you know the realizations you have had on your journey are nothing new. There is both rejection and acceptance of your observations in all religions. Read Merton or Rumi. Or Lao tzu. There is nothing new under the sun and a season for everything.

    Some atheist meet Christianity at depth; most do not. From what I read of your realizations, turning another page in any of the major religions would have revealed its presence. You did not abandon Christianity. You abandoned a surfaced and flawed belief system about Christianity.

    Most of your realizations are common understandings in groups like AA. No mystery.

  • rumitoid

    Self-awareness, of which a few species seem to limitly demonstrat, is a huge difference. Choice is not natural. Only by placing this within the pervue of a sparky neuron response, just an evolutionary survival trait, is without evidence in all the rest of creation. There has clearly been a break. But working backwards, assigning instinctual responses of the non-aware to basic societal interactions of the aware, filtered through a bias of a theory, is not evidence but froviolty.

  • Leo

    Oh wow!
    This is a work of art let me tell you that, this is one of those undemanded good things that you were talking about!
    Unfortunately it came a bit late since I think I lost my best friend due to me demanding stupid things from him. I guess we are going to get over it but I fear there is some permanent damage.
    But reading this, and with a huge pain within me, I simply started texting people from my contacts list and the conversations are still going, talking about many things, entertaining things!
    This is a piece of work I will read many times for sure
    And I’m a Christian (Catholic) but if Nietzsche said those lucid things then he deserves recognition, as so do you
    Thank you

    • Daniel Fincke

      I’m glad to have helped, Leo. I hope things look up for you soon!

  • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

    Thanks Shelley!! It’s very important to me. :)