When You Can’t Change Your Reality, Change Your Expectations

Use 1-minute micro-shifts to be happier

James Altucher says happiness is third grade math: All you have to do is divide your reality by your expectations.

In a fraction, when the denominator outgrows the numerator, the result falls below 1 and moves towards 0. Similarly, when your expectations grow far beyond your reality, your happiness goes to zero.

Let’s say you come home and your partner gives you a big, unexpected gift, like a handbag or new gaming console. Your reality skyrockets. You had no expectations. Your happiness goes through the roof!

If, however, you spill your coffee as you sit down to work, the numerator decreases. Reality threw a curveball. You didn’t expect stains on your desk today, so the denominator is still the same — and your happiness goes down.

We can’t control our reality, but we can change our expectations. That’s the only “trick” there is. The only insight you need.

Whenever your reality fails you, immediately adjust your expectations. This is the only lever you can pull, but you can pull it within seconds each time.

As your coffee races towards your stack of notes, shift your expectations from “I’ll have a productive start to my day” to “I’ll have a nice, shiny desk when I’m done cleaning this up.”

When your software won’t send the email, go from “I’ll be done in 5 minutes” to “I’ll feel relieved when I close my laptop.”

When your partner breaks up with you, go from “I won’t have to think about dating again” to “I’ll learn something from this situation.”

Like that last one, not all of these shifts are easy to make. Some take years, but a lot of them really are a matter of seconds. A breakup is something to chew on, but spilling your coffee or tech problems? You won’t remember either of those next week, so don’t ruin your happiness over them today.

Our expectations aren’t a fixed setting in our brains. They’re different for every situation we face. Sometimes they’re lower, sometimes they’re higher, but each event is another chance to practice. That’s why it’s important to keep making these micro-shifts.

The habit you need is adjusting your expectations whenever reality changes.

Don’t get me wrong. Managing your expectations in advance is a noble effort. The lower you can keep them on average, the higher the probability your reality will be a pleasant surprise. But that’s not enough.

When we constantly try to keep our expectations low, often, the best we can hope for is balance. A fraction that results in 1. Life is as good as we hoped it to be — but not better. Reality = expectations.

It’s too hard to never expect anything! Shouldn’t we have high aspirations? Of course. But we needn’t be angry if we fail to achieve them on our constructed little timeline. That’s what shifting your expectations post-reality-crash allows you to do: It extends your patience.

It’s nice to aspire to a perpetual state of low expectations. If they were always at zero, everything would be a pleasant surprise. Your reality would not be diminished, and you could always be happy with what is. While that’s an ideal we can strive towards, it’s one we’ll never reach.

For now, let’s do what we can with what we’ve got.

First, don’t let your expectations completely dwarf your reality. I know. You thought you’d be fitter, richer, smarter by now. Sometimes, you look in the mirror and see disappointment on your face. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re pretty okay. You’re always enough for today.

Second, don’t expect yourself to be happy, especially not all the time. By definition, that won’t work.

Third, whenever your reality falls short of your expectations, immediately adjust. Direct your vision to a new five-minute future. How can you course-correct right now? Don’t wait. Don’t be lazy. Practice, practice, practice.

Your expectations only add to your happiness insofar as they fall short of your reality. You can’t prevent the tide from turning against you on occasion, but you can build a habit of making sure your expectations never trail far behind.

Happiness really is like third-grade math: We can figure out most problems quickly, but if we want lifelong mastery, we must solve a few equations every day.


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