I'm traveling through Portugal right now with my wife, Amy, and our 6-month-old son. It's our first time to Portugal and an experiment for me. While I couldn't help dreaming of a wonderful trip while we eagerly planned where to stay, I also made a point to read almost nothing about Portugal before coming. The point has been to let the country fall onto my senses as much as possible like it's entering the mind of our 6-month-old: fresh and without preconceived notions -- a Zen Mind Beginner's Mind vacation.
This has been difficult. We spent three days in Madrid on our way here (also a first for me) and landed in the middle of the city's riots against the European Union's austerity measures. Rolling our stroller home from dinner one night, we had to run away from an angry mob burning garbage cans and breaking windows. When we made it safely to our hotel, I found myself saying to Amy: "Maybe we should go to Italy." My plan to be a perfect Zen traveler was being replaced by that yearning for the safe and familiar (not to mention pizza).
We didn't go to Italy -- and my request was met by a disgusted look from Amy, who did the majority of planning work for this trip. But I'm glad we didn't. Portugal turns out to be stunning, and I've learned something: With our uber-complex future-oriented brains, it's tough to find that truly Zen zone of no expectations. But it's less hard to lower them.
After the riots, I decided Portugal might be terrible. Then, when we arrived in Lisbon, with the narrow cobblestone streets, the tiled churches, the Moorish castles, the women drying laundry on the line, the surprisingly good wine, turning each corner that first night was like unwrapping a new Christmas present. Pure magic. I had that distinct feeling in my chest the whole week in Lisbon: Yes! This is why we travel.
Of course, Lisbon is a beautiful city regardless of your expectations. But if I had read, say, Frank Bruni's gushing article about the city in the New York Times before coming, I think it would have been less magical.
And this has gotten me thinking. Expectations are such an important piece of our satisfaction, and so much of the media we consume serves to raise our expectations to ridiculous heights. Our TV stars all have perfect bodies, travel magazines show only the most gorgeous beaches, ski magazines only the most stunning powder days. It's no wonder we have a nagging sense that things somehow aren't quite good enough.
It may sound strange to lower your expectations to raise your happiness, but given the fairytale images we're constantly fed, lowering expectations might just be a matter of bringing them into balance. Consider the fact that Denmark has ranked above any other country in life satisfaction over the last 30 years, and scientists think the main reason is their low expectations. "If you're a big guy, you expect to be on the top all the time and you're disappointed when things don't go well," Kaare Christensen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, told The New York Times recently in reference to the happiness study published in BMJ. "But when you're down at the bottom like us, you hang on, you don't expect much, and once in a while you win, and it's that much better."
In Portugal I've learned this again and again. After a starry-eyed week in Lisbon, we headed to Peniche, a surf town. It being summer -- their season of small waves -- I didn't expect to surf much at all. I didn't even bring a board. But when we found little one-foot waves and a place to rent longboards, I had some of the most blissful surf sessions I've had in months on waves that I wouldn't even look twice at if I was back home in California. On the contrary, being in Europe, I've expected food that would send me into spontaneous orgasm, and good Portuguese restaurants, it turns out, are a little less abundant outside of cities like Lisbon. As a result, I've found myself extremely grumpy at several restaurants that weren't really bad. Just not great.
Neuroscientsts have a theory about why this expectation-lowering might improve satisfaction. Dopamine, a feel-good neurochemical that we get a boost of during sex or after a hit of cocaine, is also increased in the brain when we come upon something unexpected. It's evolution's way of motivating us to check out new things -- learn. Lowering expectations allows something that might seem otherwise average to be surprising. If you can be in a perfectly present state, letting the world rain down on you as you take a walk down the street or eat a simple English muffin -- no thoughts of future or past -- surprises pop out everywhere. But since this can be a difficult state for we busy folk to access -- save when we've just walked out of a yoga class or finished a jog -- lowering expectations seems a good fallback.
For those who have been reading my articles for The Fear Project, you may be scratching your head now. Lowering expectations flies in the face of some of those positive-psychology studies on overcoming and managing fear. As we've seen, doing well in the face of something scary is often about thinking positive, visualizing positive outcomes, debunking our hard-wired negativity bias and, of course, training hard, which in and of itself requires hoping for a good outcome. But my bet is that ever-elusive happiness is a much more wily dragon to tackle than simply accomplishing a scary goal. Happiness, as so many sages have reminded us, tends to come not with objects or medals or accomplishments but the simple ability to appreciate what is in front of you. And for what's in front of you to be satisfying -- if you've been well-trained by our fairytale media -- you may have to check your expectations now and again.
There's probably a balance to find. After all, Denmark is the country that produced LEGOS and the quantum physicist Niels Bohr. Danish people work hard and set goals and accomplish those goals well. If they weren't optimistic enough to believe they could accomplish these goals, they wouldn't even set out to attempt them.
So perhaps the Danish have somehow mastered the art of what I've been struggling to do on this Portuguese vacation: dreaming big, going hard, and yet expecting... nothing.
We've just arrived in the lovely city of Porto. I'm going to continue the experiment.
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