Doug Bruns

Happiness, Joy

In Family, Happiness, Life, The Examined Life on November 10, 2019 at 9:50 am

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

A year or so ago while celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary one of our adult children asked if we could articulate the keys to a successful marriage. Carole went first. She spoke with intelligence and experience about the vital role communication must play when two human beings are committed to living together in support of one another. It was workable advice. Carole is nothing if not practical. When my turn came I quipped, “Lower your expectations.” I recall elaborating a little, saying something about resisting the urge for more, that success is more easily realized when we lower the bar. I’ve thought a great deal about my response and have been meaning to give my kids a better developed answer. So here goes.


The notion of lowering the bar goes back to something Melville said. I can only paraphrase it, having lost the quotation. If we expect less—less from life, less from others, less from ourselves–the chances of being happy will rise. Let’s label this attitude as pessimistic. The pessimist doesn’t expect much and therefore doesn’t require much to be pleased. There is, consequently, more opportunity for joy. Recent studies bare this out, citing that if not taken too far, pessimism will lead to a longer and happier life. Similarly, the life of the minimalist, the individual who eschews the cultural mantra of more more more, is likewise a happier individual. Like the pessimist, the minimalist too is lowering the bar. They don’t need much to be satisfied. It is said that Socrates walked through the market and marveled at all the stuff he did not want. He took joy in his lack of need. The other way of considering this is to think about saying yes to what matters. That in turn forces the question, What really matters, What are the essentials? These are good questions to ponder–or in the case of a relationship, to discuss.
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But isn’t marriage a contract between individuals promising to support the best efforts and designs of the other? Doesn’t lowering the bar take the punch out of this vow, leading to an attitude of accepting the simply adequate? My response: What is wrong with adequacy? By definition it meets the implied need, does it not? Why do we think we should get more than that? Of course we would like more than that. We will call that a preference. We would prefer more than the simply adequate. But we have little to no control over the successful outcome of our preferences. Yes, we will make our best effort, ideally with the understanding that our preference might not come to fruition. This is insurance against disappointment. If our preference is realized, we will be pleased, happiness being a side-effect. But if things don’t work out we are prepared and consequently we’re less disappointed. Indeed, we can experience a real degree of joy and satisfaction at our ambivalence. C.S. Lewis called joy “An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
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That I have successfully lived over forty years with someone is testimony to a realistic attitude. Overt optimism is a dangerous and twisty road to travel. There are lots of ups and downs which can take a toll on a relationship. There is little point in magnifying them with unrealistic expectations and desires. More often than not things are not going to go the way you’d prefer. You can be upset about that, or you can accept it as a fact of life. The wonderful thing is that the more realistic your view, the more joy you experience. At some level the overt optimist knows the fallacy of the position. He or she knows that hope dashed is a painful and disappointing thing, yet they hope against hope. Realism, on the other hand, is a comfort. There is an internal peace that is in harmony with accepting the world as it is.
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As I’ve said before, happiness does not respond to being pursued. That idea is a cruel trick. It leads to mindless consumption, to uninformed expectation, to unrealistic desire. “Happiness cannot be pursued, it can only ensue,” said Viktor Frankl. Buddhists and the ancient Greeks both warned against desire (the desire for, and pursuit of happiness, for instance) and aversion (wishing to avoid unhappiness). They held to the middle way, the Golden Mean, as Aristotle described it. This position I call realistic pessimism. The night before our marriage Carole and I, jittery with pre-wedding nerves, asked out loud, “What if it doesn’t work out?” Our honest answer: “We can always get divorced.” We still joke all these years later about it. We can always get divorced if things don’t work out. That is realistic pessimism at work, complimented by a dash of humor. Ours is a joy-filled and largely happy marriage. We don’t take it for granted. We recognize that our hard work and efforts have paid us well in return. But we are also realistic people. We support and encourage one another, yet we don’t press too hard and are supportive when things don’t go the way we’d prefer. We don’t expect too much and are fine with things in a state of adequacy. Anything beyond that we welcome, but we don’t hold our breath. We’ve had more than our share of fulfilled preferences and are grateful for that. Going forward we are realistic. We are growing old. Things will likely get harder, life will grow more challenging in all sorts of ways hard to imagine. But realism is a comfort. There is hard-earned joy in that.
  1. Excellent analysis.

    My family enjoys a very good standard of living, but I didn’t appreciate that for a very long time .. because I was dreaming of 7-figure incomes, private jets and running a business empires.

    Exactly as you describe, my over-optimism and lack of realism has been a very twisty road and taken a huge toll on my main relationship.

    Despite the pain and unrealistic expectations of the past, that ‘unsatisfied desire’ is still there and am repeating the same mistakes again.

    I believe that my silver investments, that in reality have lost more than 80% of their value over the past 10 years, will make me a millionaire and still believe the ‘youtube silver gurus,’ despite every prediction they’ve made for the past 10 years having been wrong.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Joanne ~ You describe an interesting place in your life. Back in the late 90s my wife and I started a business. It became quite significant and successful with multiple locations and over 50 employees. We enjoyed the good life by any conventional measure. We had fancy cars and more than one house. We took cool vacations to cool places. You get the picture. But slowly it began to dawn on me that the stuff I owned had slowly and quietly come to own me. I remember standing on my property of 17 acres despairing over all the work that the place required. Why would I despair? Why would I not love all that stuff? I was well down the slippery slope, having sold out my core philosophy and principals, but it was beginning to dawn on me that I’d traveled far, too far, from the place of my core values of simplicity and tranquility. It took time to extract myself from all that, took time to sell the business and the properties. But with each step in the right direction I felt better about myself and the path I had now turned to. Now, several years later, I can look back and see all that transpired and bring a little bit of wisdom to the experience. Fact is, however, that when you’re in the thick of it you can’t really see objectively. It takes, I think, something to jolt you awake. It sounds like you’re getting close, if not already there. Best to you and thanks again for taking the time to read and comment, Doug

  2. D, one of my guiding expressions, that came immediately to mind when I read this is: “rich is the man (and woman) who knows he (she) has enough”. And, also being aware that lots of our fellow citizens do not have enough. Thanks, H

    • Likewise, as the Dali Lama says, “…not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” I appreciate that you turn our attention to those in need. We, particularly those of us in the rich developed countries, too often squander at the expense of those who suffer from lack. Thanks for reading and commenting. D

  3. Makes me think of the phrase often said to new couples: “The honeymoon doesn’t last forever.”

  4. […] the ruts of tradition and conformity!” wrote Thoreau in that last chapter. I touched on this in my last essay, that is, the cultural pressures to be something other than individually realistic. It takes […]

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