Sunday, May 06, 2007

Just believe that you may not achieve it.

Interesting item in Parade from Marilyn vos Savant, who, as her bionote tells us, is "listed in the Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame for 'Highest IQ.' "* Faithful readers will recall that I chose a quote from vos Savant—about the finite nature of "possibility"—as one of my opening epigraphs for SHAM. Here, responding to a reader who asks, "What does 'living abundantly' mean to you?", she writes, in part, that "nature and your five senses will provide great abundance. That includes making love, rearing children, enjoying food, and all that goes with a good life." Notice that she does not talk about acquiring a Lamborghini or even a nice pair of Manolos, living in that seaside villa in Tuscany, becoming President of the U.S., or acting opposite Daniel Craig in the next James Bond flick. In further expansion on the meaning of "good life," she puts the following text in a highlighted box at the center of her column:

"Living abundantly" can mean not desiring what is beyond reach.

This obviously presupposes that some things are beyond reach, which reprises vos Savant's repudiation of today's Secret-style, "believe it, achieve it" gospel. But let's not forget the context here: She has written these things in response to a query about "living abundantly" and the components of a good and happy life. I point this out in rebuttal to the people who've attacked me for "being so damn negative." If you read her column often, it's clear that vos Savant is anything but negative; actually, she comes across as one of the most "up" people you'll ever encounter. I'm not about negativity, either, and for the same reason: I simply believe that happiness requires a more realistic lens on life. Kind of like the Dirty Harry theory of human aspiration: "A man's got to know his limitations." (What are those limitations, for any given individual? How can we know them in advance? Ay, says the Bard, there's the rub. Be that as it may, I would argue that the sooner we begin to get a concrete sense of what's not in the cards for us, the sooner we can begin organizing our thoughts around deriving a sense of purpose and fulfillment from what is.)

One of my early mentors in writing, Andrew Tobias, once put it thusly: "Happiness is about the ability to make do with as little as possible." I know: It sounds sort of...nihilistic? depressing? almost un-American? (Plus being a bit hard to take from a guy who was Harvard-educated and generally a child of some privilege.) But I think what Andy meant—and I also think he was sincere in this—is that if your expectations are modest, worst-case, you'll seldom have to deal with disappointment, and best-case, you'll end up living your life in a constant state of pleasant surprise.

And what's wrong with that?

Happy Cinco de Mayo. Don't overdo the margaritas.

* listed at 228.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
As I've mentioned before, I once - many years ago - took a vow of poverty as part of discipleship in a monastic order. It took me years to figure out that the "vow of poverty" was not a commitment to deny myself the things I desired, but actually the ultimate affirmation of abundance... A statement that "I have enough."

Anonymous said...

When my wife and I are asked to explain our enduring, successful marriage, we both respond without hesitation "low expectations". It may seem a flippant remark; but there is a lot of truth in it: we appreciate what we have and don't expect the improbable or impossible.

J.W. said...

Undercurrents driving America.
1. No standard of living security.
2. Social status.
3. Myths about happiness.

People adopt or reject each.

The realism spectrum:
Realistic<------()------> Unrealtic
Dispair <------()------> Hope

Realism is not giving up hope.
Hope is not always unrealistic.

J.W. said...

Happiness is enjoying life while you do what you need to do.

What needs done?

Individuals America 2007 need.
1. Masters Degree
2. Money
2. Compete with cheap global talent
3. Fight the urge to buy wants
4. Emotional management
5. Health management

Individuals American 2007 want.
1. Fortune
2. Social Status
3. An easy life

Needs <-------()-------> Wants
Most met SHAM focus here
not healthcare

Just some ideas.

acd said...

I have always strongly agreed with the sentiments Marilyn expressed in her latest column. Though, unfortunately, sometimes much of what she describes is just as "beyond reach" as the expensive material goods.

I also agree with anon's theory of having low expectations. But I do not believe that happiness follows when those low expectations are met. Having moderate expectations may be sufficient for contentment, but low expectations are only helpful when things turn out a little better than expected.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with that, STeve, is exactly what you hint at in your post- becuase we DON"T KNOW what we're capable of or therefore what our real limitations are. So the point is to keep trying as if there are no limitations. It's called striving incase you've never heard of it.

Trish Ryan said...

I wonder if there isn't a happy medium here, some point where we are pushed to successes that exceed our expectations, but don't spend our lives waiting for an NBA contract or that winning lottery ticket. I'll confess, I'm not a fan of the "low expectations" theory of life; it's just to grim for me. But there's wisdom in figuring out what you're good at - and where it might take you - and working hard to make it happen. It would be neat to see a book charting people who have walked this middle ground and what they've done - sort of practical inspiration for normal folks :)

Steve Salerno said...

Trish, I agree with you in principle--and also with the general thrust of ACD's remark about moderate expectations, as I understand it, and even (in some limited "sentimental" sense) with the last Anon above you. But my problem all along has been this: How do you TEACH someone to have "moderate" expectations? What does that mean, in practice? I defy you to build a self-help system, or even a philosophy of living, around that. Do you tell people to "expect some success, but not a great deal"? Do you tell people to think "you may not win, but you may not lose, either"? Do you warn a couple that's about to embark on marriage that their marriage is "likely to be somewhat happy, but somewhat unhappy as well"? How much is "somewhat"? How do they process that information, and apply it in any meaningful, useful sense?

That's why I suggest a more minimalist approach. I think it's emotionally safer. It's like Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Assuming there were a lot of fast, talented horses in a 20-horse field (as there were), a jockey would have been most sensible saying to himself, as he approached the starting gate, "I'm probably going to lose this race." It would've made NO sense at all, statistically, to say "I'm probably going to WIN this race," would it? So why not go with the law of averages, give it your all anyway, then be pleasantly, deliriously happy afterward, when you DO win--as Calvin Borel so clearly was.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sounds suspiciously like the old adage that "The joy is in the journey." You been reading Lao Tzu when we weren't looking, Steve? :-)

Steve Salerno said...

The joy is in the journey, huh? Tell that to Lisa Nowak...

RevRon's Rants said...

How many folks do you think have gone through life utterly miserable, yet counting on the "good parts" to come later? I can't imagine a more wasted life.

Neither can I imagine a joyous journey spent in a wet diaper. Babies aren't stupid... they cry for good reason. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Hey Rev, I was just messin' with ya. I think you'd be shocked to know the high level of general agreement that exists between us. I don't know if you actually own (or read) my book, but the final section of the final chapter is really a paean to "smelling the flowers." Too many of us have our eyes focused waaay too far down the road, in my view... Then again, there are also many of us who stop to smell a fair number of flowers that we should've just left to the bees and such. So who's to say, or judge?