It was quite a few years ago, when Sandra Lawrence was principal at Lakeview Elementary in Solon, that a sign appeared on the wall of the teacher’s lounge. I assumed that Sandra was responsible for the sign, but nobody ever said for sure. It was only about the size of a sheet of typing paper, and it said simply, “Happiness is a conscious decision, not just a reaction to circumstances.”
I thought about that for some time before I fully understood just how true it is. Some people who have very few of the things they want, or even need, claim to be happy, while others with every luxury and privilege are not. We know that possessions aren’t the answer, and we know that not everybody puts the same value on the less tangible things. We learn, eventually if not in our youth, that it is not someone else’s responsibility to make us happy– we have to do that for ourselves, and it takes a considerable amount of living and a multitude of experiences before we figure out that it’s more a matter of accepting what we can’t change, making the most of what we have, understanding what we ourselves are capable of doing as well as what we can’t do. In the end, it is up to us to accept ourselves and our life for what it is and to decide to be content with that.
During the recent Summer Olympics in London, a comparison was made of the apparent happiness of some of the medal winners. It was surprising to learn that most of the bronze medal winners were happier with their achievements than were the silver medalists. One of the bronze medalists, a swimmer as I recall, explained it by saying that the silver medalists were generally disappointed to not have won the gold, while those who earned the bronze medals were happy to have gotten any medal at all. It is mainly a matter, he explained further, of being able to manage our expectations.
A salesman once encouraged me to try something I didn’t think I could achieve by saying, “aim for the cupola– and you might hit the barn.” To me, that sounded like some of the inspirational mottoes he might have been indoctrinated with in the course of his training for his job. He would be encouraged to try to sell his top-of-the-line package and, even if that failed, he’s probably end up selling something nearer the middle. If he merely tried to sell the mediocre product, he would probably end up in selling the cheapest, or nothing at all. It’s a variation of, “hope for the best– be prepared for the worst.” I’d like to amend that by adding, “accept what you get.”
I suppose our expectations are based on experience. We generally tend to expect things to improve over time. Each generation strives to improve their lives– to achieve a standard of living a little higher than what their parents had; to raise and educate their children a little better than the way they themselves were brought up; for the new job to pay better and be more satisfying than the previous one. On a more personal level, we expect the new relationship to be more fulfilling and longer-lasting than the last; the new diet to work better than those that came before; the new doctor or the new prescription to eliminate the problems that the previous one couldn’t improve; the new dress or hair-do to turn more heads; the new lawnmower to do a better job. Almost every change has its disadvantages as well as its advantages and I sometimes think our enthusiasm or dismay boils down to expectations– just like that Olympic swimmer said.
What we are accustomed to seems, to each of us, to be the norm. If you grew up in poverty, it doesn’t take as much to make you feel you’ve improved your lot, as it does for someone who grew up with wealth and privilege. Maybe this is why those millionaires behave as if they were being impoverished if someone takes away one of the loopholes that allow them to pay a much lower tax rate than the people who work for them have to pay.
For most of my life, I’ve been content with what I have. I’ve been known to say that I don’t want to be rich; as long as I have ten cents more than I need, I guess I’ll be okay. It’s sometimes a problem to decide just how much it is that we really need. Maybe that’s the difference between us ordinary folk and the very rich – we have different notions of just what constitutes necessity and what defines luxury. I’m pretty sure that some of the people who aim for the cupola don’t settle for anything less.