What to Expect When You’re Expecting Happiness: Ants in Paradise
“You’ve gotta remember,” said Kevin the bug guy, “that you built your house on top of their house.” He said this in earnest, as though it was supposed to justify why we had 4,560,750 ants in our kitchen. I was not interested in absolving a single one of the 4,560,750 for breaking into the home on top of their home. Leave it to the bug guy to empathize with the bugs.
Wait, I should back up a bit.
Andy (our intrepid feline) helpfully pointed out one morning that there was a river of red ants flowing along the hallway from the pantry. The colony-sized current abruptly ended at — pardon me, IN — Andy’s food bowl. Guys, the bowl was unrecognizable under the infestation of angry, biting ants. (Well. They might not have been angry, and no one in this story was actually bitten, but I’m choosing to vilify every single one of the 4,560,750 ants for this story.) They overflowed from the food bowl into the water bowl, where much to my delight, many of them drowned after dining on their Last Supper of prescription cat kibble.
Panic rightfully ensued and The Husband was woken up to Handle the Life or Death Situation (it was 4:15am which helped heighten the drama). Kevin the bug guy’s appearance later in the day to officially home wreck the colony under our home was greatly appreciated. All in all, the red ants are now dead ants and the humans and cat lived to tell the tale.
Why am I creeping you out with this grotesque story? Because shit happens and unless we want our lives to be shit too, we must manage our expectations.
Manage our expectations for happiness?
Last month I was all gleeful about ourbrand new vacation home in paradise, doodling palm trees and generally being a giddy asshole all over town — fawning over the mountains and midcentury architecture and date shakes (they’re a thing: throw dates in a blender with vanilla ice cream and life’s just better). I was living life by the pool, looking up variations of margarita recipes, and excitedly opening up new spatulas and other hourly deliveries from Amazon. Life was great! And then the infestation happened and snapped me out of my stupor. Did I forget I was living on planet earth?
For the record, I’m not hideously naïve. I knew there would be creepy crawly creatures in the desert (I suppose they keep Kevin the bug guy employed) and I knew there would be a fair share of entries in The Book of Bad Calls while settling into a new place (The Husband may or may not have burned both of our new cast iron pans in the first week, but let’s keep that between us). Even though it’s been sunny every single day since we arrived (59 days ago!), I suspect there will be rain one day. I didn’t just fall off the turnup truck. I know how life works, and yet I need reminders sometimes about how happiness equals the difference between our expectations and reality.
What kind of equation is this?
I brought this up at the beginning of 2021 (doesn’t that feel like 13 lifetimes ago?), when many of us expected 2020 to be buried alive with the fresh start of a healthy new year. Now that was naivete at its finest, wasn’t it? Our high hopes perched us perilously above reality, and when Covid further tightened its death grip around our world we sat back stunned, mostly because we expected it would be better already.
One of my clients was at the front of the Great Resignation pack. She landed her dream job and got herself all swept up in just that: the dream. Expecting her boss to be consistent with the version of himself he showed in the interview process (beware the interview façade!), and expecting to work on major accounts from the get-go, her dream bubble burst when her boss acted like his distant self and her client list could best be described as profoundly lackluster.
“Should I have been skeptical from the start?”, she asked. My heart fell; I don’t advocate paranoia and suspicion as paths to living the good life. But I do encourage an “antennas up” approach, with realistic beliefs about what’s possible and what’s not. This client admitted to glomming onto the hope of a congenial boss (her previous boss was a certifiable dick) and meaningful, high-profile work. She might have inflated her expectations from the jump. What could she have done differently? Other than asking better questions in the interview process, she might have envisioned a less-than-perfect start to the gig, with room to get to know her boss and earn the right to take on bigger accounts over time.
Another client started dating again and met a woman he was ready to “go steady with” (he’s of that generation, don’t poke fun at him like I did). He immediately fell into the expectation trap, thinking she’d be available at a moment’s notice to do dinner, thinking she’d be game to meet his kids, thinking she’d be up for a road trip to the Poconos. She wasn’t on the same fast-moving relationship train as him and his hopes were dashed. What could he have done differently (other than not picking the Poconos?!)? Slow down and have the “where are we at in our relationship right now” check-in conversation, sure. Also? Manage his own expectations about where things were in the moment and where things might go. Enjoy the current reality and not get swept up in the fantasy of next steps.
Is all this easier said than done? Of course. But that too is life: no one ever said it’d be a piece of cake.
Researchers are clear that the ability to self-manage and set reasonable, realistic goals are crucial aspects of managing expectations and avoiding disappointment. That’s it, right — mitigating the disappointments and the let downs of life? The bummers and adversities will be served to us on a continuous conveyor belt; we can’t stop the engine of disappointment (c’est la vie and all), but we can take the sting out of it by reworking our relationship with expectations.
If you don’t expect your new job to be gleaming and perfect, it’s more okay when it’s not.
If you don’t expect your relationship to sweep you off your feet, it’s more okay when it’s a slower moving train.
Yes, we do need life to suck sometimes, and we can get better and better at appreciating life’s consistent lack of perfection. If I don’t expect paradise to be critter-free, then I’ll be more okay at 4:15am when I see a little bugger scurry across the floor. (KEVIN… can I text you 24/7?!?!)
Oh and just in case you missed it… please take 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!