Google [CBS News When low expectations achieve big results] for research that reveals how one’s expectations get in the way of happiness. This is not to say expectations aren’t useful or natural. Indeed, a kind of natural expectation, or sense of anticipation plays an integral role in survival. This impulse drives all living things to hunt and gather, which actually causes all living things some elementary sorrow. (See Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life, p.545).
Human thought magnifies this natural impulse and adds to the sorrow we experience. Thought enables us to dwell on expectations concerning both our hopes for the future and our regrets of the past. Of course, this ability has enabled us to rise to the top of the food chain, yet it has also become too much of a good thing. (1)
Buddha the scientist
I regard Buddha as one of history’s greatest scientist. His four truths speak to the human predicament in a rational and succinct way. Thanks to MRI technology, the hypothesis of Buddha’s truth of suffering has finally become testable. This is similar to the holdup in testing quantum entanglement, which Einstein called “Spooky action at a distance”. Testing quantum entanglement had to await advances in technology to make the Bell test experiment possible.
While the confirmation of quantum entanglement is awe-inspiring, it doesn’t really affect daily personal life. Happily, MRI and other technologies now make it possible to peek into the ‘spooky action’ in human biology. Proving Buddha’s hypothesis true ought to influence one’s personal life deeply, but does it? Does knowing this evidence make it actually any easier to utilize? One reason it may not, lies in how expectations can drown out reality. The emotions behind our expectations easily create a blind spot… a.k.a. the Dunning–Kruger effect. (See John Cleese, A ‘Taoist, p.144)
Then again, if science could prove God actually existed and that as a sinner I would burn in hell, I assume I would be extremely motivated to do right… always! As it stands, all I ever hear is faith based anecdotal “evidence”. The “proofs” I hear are simply stories that echo to various degrees the believer’s beliefs along with their projected fears and needs. Surely, the cultural narrative instilled during childhood — a pre-belief as I call it — is typically the prerequisite for accepting such as “evidence”.
I imagine my lack of any firm pre-belief is likely due to the weakness of my social (tribal) instinct. Even so, I’ve noticed that the religious faith of many believers goes only skin deep despite their fervor. Indeed, a symptoms point of view tells me that they fervently need each other to reiterate the “evidence” to maintain their collective belief and thus boost their faith in it. If what people believed were actually real, almost everyone would accept it as such … like a belief that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
Buddha’s Truths, on the other hand, are an invitation to look within yourself. They don’t require faith. All they require is whatever proof you can find in your personal life experience. As life experiences add up, I find my faith pulled deeper, and with that a natural inclination to live accordingly. This means lowering my expectations. Life feels happier now, even as old age whittles me down. Seeing why this is true scientifically, is just icing on the cake. No, it’s more than that. Having scientific corroboration of Buddha’s four truths increases the proof in the pudding of my experience, and with that a deeper urgency (2) to always do Right.
Happiness in a bottle or puff of smoke
This research into expectations does help clarify my understanding on other matters, like why alcohol and other intoxicants are so appealing. Intoxication takes the edge off expectations held by happy and angry drunks alike. Intoxication allows us to feel more loosely in-the-moment and exist without expectations.
Food and other sensual pleasures, including addiction to nicotine, also deliver the promise of more happiness. This sense of happiness is the result of engendering a need, an expectation, a desire, and having it fulfilled in a timely manner. Of course, the happiness is fleeting, and we return to feeling need, loss, or boredom. As chapter 40 concludes, Having is born in nothing. Our expectations return and push us to satisfy them again. This revolving door of pleasure and pain underlies all habitual activity… if not all activity.
In the wild, most of this would play itself out in a balanced way. Civilization’s prime objective has always been to enhance our ability to meet, if not exceed, our expectations. Loss of natural balance is the consequence and casualty of this blind quest. What’s worse, we press on under the illusion that more progress will solve our problems, which ironically are often the result of previous progress. This reminds me of that aphorism, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.
Science and the collective human experience further “Right Comprehension”. Accordingly, humanity will gradually regain much of its lost equilibrium. Even if this turns out to take 10,000 years, that is truly not a long time. Just think, the Agricultural Revolution that upset the equilibrium was just an evolutionary moment ago, i.e., merely 10,000+ years ago
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Google [A computational and neural model of subjective well being] for the in-depth PNAS report. Here is a taste….
A common question in the social science of well-being asks, “How happy do you feel on a scale of 0 to 10?” Responses are often related to life circumstances, including wealth. By asking people about their feelings as they go about their lives, ongoing happiness and life events have been linked, but the neural mechanisms underlying this relationship are unknown. To investigate it, we presented subjects with a decision-making task involving monetary gains and losses and repeatedly asked them to report their momentary happiness. We built a computational model in which happiness reports were construed as an emotional reactivity to recent rewards and expectations. Using functional MRI, we demonstrated that neural signals during task events account for changes in happiness.
Happiness (t) = w0+w1∑j=1tγt−jCRj
+ w2∑j=1tγt−jEVj + w3∑j=1tγt−jRPEj
(1) Chapter 71 puts forth the only way I see to soften our expectations… Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Alas, trustingly believe that we know what we know is irresistible. Thus, to actually treat this ‘insanity’ (disease) requires first identifying the thinking side of survival ‘keenness’ and then downplaying its role in your life as best you can. Simply put, Realizing I don’t know works very well.
(2) Note how urgency (urge) parallels the sense of necessity conveyed in Buddha’s Forth Truth, p.604. The more aware I am of a danger, the greater the urge to do Right. I don’t need to burn my hand more than once to urge me to keep my hand out of the flames. Expectations ‘burn’ indirectly, so we have trouble connecting the dots. Indeed, the emotional drive behind expectations also blinds us to the unintended consequences.
The value of science lies in enabling us to be aware of less tangible phenomena. Once we connect the dots, modifying behavior becomes much easier. Once the existential danger feels sufficiently real, you can’t help but respond appropriately.
Buddha wraps this up saying, “There is salvation for him whose sole desire is the performance of his duty”. I regard desire as simply need + thought. Right Thought and Right Comprehension help me redirect the survival instinct of need away from external object oriented gain, and toward an internal qualitative gain in how I approach life. I can’t rid myself of natural instincts (need, fear, etc.), but I can redirect instinct in a more beneficial direction once I know the Right direction in which to aim.
Appreciation counteracts expectations too. However, it’s not a fair fight as expectations merely require instinctive need or fear to evoke (i.e., need + thought = expectations, etc.). On the other hand, appreciation is not a strong instinct (if at all), and so requires a broader perspective to evoke. I suppose all this signifies that a sincere sense of appreciation is a sign of genuine contentment, if not happiness.