Last weekend, I attended the World Happiness Summit (WoHaSu) in Miami, and today is my first full day back home. The initial days after a conference or training tend to be a little off for me – I want to implement all of the information and insights I inevitably gain, but I struggle to reestablish my routines and get back to life as usual. It normally takes me two or three days to find my rhythm and get back in the swing of things, and those days are a weird mix of inspiration, wistfulness, and sadness.
This time is different. Other than some residual fatigue from an intensive conference experience resulting in not enough sleep, I’m feeling really good. I unpacked within hours of getting home (a record!), I reconnected with my family last night over Mexican food, and I’m back to work today. But moreover, I FEEL good. I’m not experiencing my usual post-conference let-down, and I’m motivated to finish up some big projects I have in the works (hello, book!).
So what makes this experience so different than others? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it has something to do with an experience I had on the first day of the conference, and the decisions I made as a result.
I went into the conference with some specific intentions and expectations, and while I loved the conference and plan to go back, it became clear on Day 1 that my expectations were off. A few hours into the summit, I noticed I was feeling disappointed, frustrated, and uncertain – not energy I particularly wanted to bring to a summit devoted to happiness.
In the past, I probably would have succumbed to those feelings – and if I’m being completely honest, I would sought out other people who felt the same way so we could bond over shared complaints. I would have left the conference feeling worse about myself, viewed it as a waste of time, money, and energy, and I wouldn’t have gone back next year.
I didn’t do that. Instead, I took this as an opportunity to practice what I preach, and I approached my feelings with curiosity and openness. I paid attention to the rising disappointment and anxiety, and noticed how it was manifesting in my body (tight shoulders, furrowed brow, rising heart rate). Instead of running from it, I created space for it. I acknowledged that it was there without sinking into it or avoiding it. It was simply there.
Then, I asked myself a simple question – Lee, how do you want to feel? Do you want to continue to feel this disappointment and anxiety? The answer, unsurprisingly, was no. I wanted to feel connected, inspired, and fulfilled. So I asked myself another question – what do I need to do to create those feelings? I sat for a minute, and realized the answer was simple – I had to release the expectations I had for my conference experience and open myself up to new possibilities.
Simple, yes, but not easy – a recurring theme when it comes to practicing mindfulness. It’s really hard to let go of what we want or what we think we deserve. It hurts when our expectations are out of sync with our reality. But when we continue to grasp for something that eludes us, not only do we miss out on other opportunities, but we perpetuate the cycle of entitlement and disappointment. And that’s exactly what I was doing as I sat in the conference, stewing.
I had my answer – I had to release my expectations and meet the moment as it was, not how I wanted it to be. So I took a deep breath, sent a little prayer out to the Universe, and reengaged. I reset my expectations so that what I wanted would be within my sphere of control. I committed to showing up as myself, listening with my whole heart, and meeting other people where they were in their journeys.
The moment I reframed my experience, I felt lighter. I sensed my energy shift away from resistance and toward openness. Yes, there was still a piece of me that was bummed things weren’t going as I’d hoped, but that no longer held my full attention. It got smaller and smaller as the day went on, eventually fading away.
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As often happens when I’m on the right track, I got a lovely tip-of-the-hat from the universe that afternoon. One of the headlining speakers, Mo Gawdat, gave a powerful talk about engineering one’s own happiness. There were many takeaway moments, but the one that resonated most was his simple equation – happiness is greater than or equal to the event minus our expectations.
What does this mean? Well, when our expectations exceed what an event provides, then we’re likely to be unsatisfied. But when an event meets or exceeds our expectations, we are generally content. In short, we’re happy when life goes our way.
This is exactly what happened to me that morning. My expectations were out of alignment with what the event could provide. It wasn’t anyone’s fault – it was simply a mismatch. To change the balance of the equation and increase my happiness, I had two choices – I could modify the event or I could modify my expectations. I couldn't change the event (and in hindsight, I wouldn't want to), so that left my expectations – and so I changed them. And as a result, my happiness skyrocketed.
This weekend reaffirmed a powerful concept – I am in charge of my happiness. I cannot control everything that happens in my life, and I can’t control what other people say or do. But I can control my response. I can’t choose if I have a thought, but I can choose whether or not I buy into the thought. I always retain the power to respond to my situation – no one can decide that for me unless I let them.
Now that I’m back home, that sense of empowerment and self-determination remains, and I suspect that’s why my reentry has been much smoother. Knowing that I can influence key variables within the happiness equation fills me with a sense of agency and purpose. My happiness is in my own hands – and it’s up to me how to create it.
So let me ask you – how will you create your happiness today?
This was very profound Lee! I appreciate your statesmen of it’s really hard to let go of what we want and think we deserve. How inspiring it is to know that we hold the key to our happiness if we would just lay down our own self-limiting beliefs.
I can’t wait to get the book and read it!!!!
Thanks for sharing your experience!
You hit the nail on the head, Queenella – we are in charge of our happiness, and its our own perceptions and beliefs that affect our ability to create and sustain it. Thank you so much for your comment, and I hope you enjoy the book!
I liked the post, and concur with the equation, BUT I have an issue with the equation. Inevitably to balance the equation, we must change or lower our expectations, right? When I go out to eat, I should expect that the food I order is better than the food I can make at home since these are professional chefs… and I don’t think that is an unreasonable expectation. Likewise, I have an expectation that humans should treat each other with kindness, but again, I am often disappointed because I see less kindness towards others than avarice and apathy. I have lots of examples (like my expectations of decorum with my military cadets…) but you get the picture. My fear is that if we keep lowering our expectations, then yes, we may increase our personal happiness, but we may also be losing that “carrot” that drives us to succeed or try to improve the future “events,” or worse–we may be allowing a less-than-adequate standard to become the norm. How do you balance those two opposing forces on that equation?
Hi Dax – thanks for your comment! I think there are other options to balance the equation than changing or lowering our expectations. From a mindfulness perspective, another option is to “hold expectation loosely.” It’s not wrong to enter into an experience with an intention or an expectation that something will happen a certain way. But when we wed ourselves to that expectation and things DON’T turn out how we want, that’s when it interferes with our happiness.
At the heart of mindfulness is not attaching to an outcome – we’re able to create, have, and observe an experience all at once when we allow the moment to unfold as it will. As humans, we’re going to have desires, and you’re right – that is incredibly motivating. But when we become so focused on a sole desired outcome, we close ourselves off to other possibilities and set ourselves up for disappointment if it doesn’t happen.