There is this popular equation for measuring happiness or measuring disappointment that Demetri and I were discussing on a previous podcast, and as I began digging for who stated the quote, I found that the debate around this formula is more heated than I expected. The quote comes from Randy Carlson and states,
“The definition of disappointment in life is expectations minus reality equals disappointment. The only two solutions you have to get over disappointment is to either alter your reality or alter your expectations.” - Randy Carlson
Surrounding this quote were forums and blogs asking, “Is this really the equation for life-long happiness?” or “is this all it takes to avoid disappointment?”
While I don’t believe this equation is hacking life or solving all our problems, I believe this quote gets to the root of disappointment, and how we can avoid creating expectations that could fall prey to disappointment in the future.
First, I must say, the equation needs a slight altering. In my opinion, the equation must be:
Reality - Expectations = Disappointment/Gratitude
Reality must be the first value because reality is the only real entity in this formula. Expectations, illustrations of our future selves, goals, and dreamlines are just that — dreams. This idea of expectations reminds me of a quote from the Tibetan Buddhist master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche as he states,
“The past is only an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it. So why bother with attempting to establish an illusion of solid ground?” - Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
And so, reality must be the first value because we know that value will always be a positive number. One cannot imagine a negative or zero value of life because how could life be empty or absent of existence? If you’re a philosophical idealist, then maybe you believe the world is nothing more than your mind’s projections, but even in that case, you must be dead for reality to cease entirely.
And so rather than expectations being the guaranteed value in Carlson’s formula, expectations could be removed from this equation and we would have only reality — things as they truly are. Yet, when we build up expectations greater than reality, we are left with a negative sum and this, the negative-sum value, is where I believe disappointment is rooted.
Let’s create an example. Let’s say, my side hustle is growing at a real rate: I see my audience growing, my workflow is enhancing in both skill and time efficiency, and I am more fulfilled than ever. For this case, let’s say this reality computes a value of 100. In this case, it is fair to hold the expectation that I will continue to grow at the same rate, and my expectations can reach a value of 100. Thus, I am left with a sum of zero and my feelings are indifference, stoic, level-headed. I am not getting high or low about the situation, but simply being.
But, let’s say my side hustle is outputting a reality value of 100, and I just lose myself in excitement. I imagine the places this business will take me, the wealth, fame, legacy, and ease of living this could bring, and I build my expectations up to a value of 200, doubling my reality. In this situation, the disappointment formula is going to spit out a value of -100 and your life perspective has completely 180’d. Instead of being elated and grateful for your current level of success, we become impatient and ask: why am I not at the level of my expectations yet? Why have I not reached my full capacity? And thus we are thrown into a trance of self-unworthiness.
Your reality might be entirely outside of your control. In running, breakthrough races are not born overnight, and sometimes it takes waiting through months of training and racing to see any improvement. You may meditate or do yoga every day and ask yourself, “why am I not getting better yet?” “Why am I not as strong or flexible as I want to be?” when the truth all muscles take time to develop. You may think your YouTube channel, podcast, or blog should have a certain level of popularity, but the compounding effects of time are outside your control. All you can do is wait.
If the disappointment equation is to teach us anything, it is to teach us that disappointment is entirely within our control. As the Buddhists believe, expectations should be empty because the future is never reality, it is always uncertain. When we empty ourselves of expectations and see reality for whatever value it gives us, we begin to see our value sum in as positive. Whether it be a crappy, exhausting Monday, or a relaxing, perfect Sunday spent with loved ones, when we remove expectations, all values are positive because you are still living and experiencing this thing called life.
As one last note to this equation, we can inverse our disappointment into gratitude with Stoic negative visualization. It is a joke Demetri and I harp on often, but Gary Vee has this idea of imagining his family dying every day in order to spark intense gratitude for the time he gets to share with them. It seems drastic and morbid, but practicing negative visualization amplifies our appreciation for life. Survivors of near-death experiences are often moved to completely alter their life and do the things they love because they have a real grasp of the death that is eventually awaiting them, and when we keep death as our only expectation — let’s say with a value of -10 and reality with a value of 100 — our formula gives us a value of positive 110 and we see life with its ever fleeting and short-lived beauty.
Have an awesome week!
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