Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Key To Happiness: Acceptance vs. Expectation


“Happiness is in direct proportion to acceptance and inverse proportion to expectation.”
Michael J. Fox on the Oprah Winfrey show March 31st, 2009

My wife recorded the Oprah show and had been telling me that I would find it to be inspiring (it was).

Michael J. Fox, has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for well over a decade. On national television, he courageously presented himself, shakes and all, to talk about how happy his life is in spite of the disease. Not that he was happy to have Parkinson’s (he talked frankly about how difficult the simple task of getting out of bed can be), but rather that it had taught him what was really important in life and the peace that comes with accepting life as it is instead of wishing it to be different.

As I was watching the show, the phone rang just as my wife began cooking a spaghetti dinner. Carol makes fantastic spaghetti and I was looking forward to it. Carol went into the bedroom and closed the door to talk to her sister.

The show ended about 45 minutes later. I was impressed with Fox’s optimism (in fact, his new book, “Always Looking Up” has the subtitle, “Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist”). I felt grateful for my life, accepting of the problems I was facing and at peace. In short, I was happy.

Then I remembered that spaghetti dinner. I was looking forward to that dinner. I was expecting that dinner. Carol was still on the phone.

I knocked on the bedroom door and interrupted Carol’s phone call. “Should I go ahead and make a pizza instead of waiting for the spaghetti? ” I asked, fully expecting Carol to say that she’d be off the phone in just a minute. Instead, she put her hand over the mouthpiece and said to me, “Yes, go ahead and do that.”

I pretended to accept this, but I was angry. My expectations had been thwarted and I was upset.

I took several steps towards the kitchen when it hit me: I had experienced, in a small way, the validity of Michael J. Fox’s comment about acceptance and expectation. I had gone from happy to unhappy in the blink of a spaghetti dinner.

Since then, I’ve been noticing the times when I’m unhappy because I have some expectation of how things are supposed to be and aren’t. Being upset doesn’t bring me peace or change one iota of reality. In fact, it makes me more unhappy.
Michael J. Fox can spend all his time being bitter and angry (in fact, on the show, he talked about the many months he spent in exactly that way before willing himself out of it) or he could accept what’s so and make lemonade out of the lemons he had been handed. The same is true for all of us. As the psychiatrist C. G. Jung wrote, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”

If Michael J. Fox can accept Parkinson’s, we can surely accept what comes our way. Acceptance, of course, doesn’t mean capitulation. Fox is working diligently with doctors to find a cure for the disease.

I encourage you to start noticing when you are unhappy. Notice if your unhappiness is related to some thwarted expectation about how situations and people are not performing as you expect them to...and then to act rather than complain.

One action that will make a difference is to take a holiday from complaining about ANYTHING TO ANYONE. I find that when I discipline myself to not complain, it forces me to either act to change things or to accept things as they are. Either choice makes me feel happier.

Try it for a day. Try it for the next 15 minutes. Resolve to act rather than complain when your expectations aren’t met. To act rather than capitulate to unhappiness.

With best wishes,

Larry Barkan is a consultant, author and speaker. Learn more at

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