I believe that the central feature of unhappiness is frustration. It comes in two forms – short-term frustration, as in what we feel when we keep dropping things or our car gets towed, and long-term frustration, as in what we feel when we can’t find a job or meaningful interpersonal relationships. And where does frustration come from? Unrealistic expectations, plain and simple. When things don’t turn out as we expect, we get frustrated. And when this happens for a long time, our frustration turns into unhappiness. Why are our expectations about life so often unrealistic? Because they are formed, at least in part, by our caveman minds, minds that were designed for an environment where social status was critically important.
I’m here to tell you that you do more in service of social status than you would ever admit. Even those who claim to be totally free from caring about what other people think are still aware of social hierarchies and where they would stand if they cared. So what to do?
Expect more from yourself and less from other people. It’s an old saying but it packs a punch. In fact, I have come to expect that when I walk out my door, there is always a chance that I’m going to run into all varieties of people – smart people, stupid people, nice people, rude people, considerate people, self-absorbed jerks, crazy people, sane people, emotionally whacked people, perfectly centered people, beautiful people, ugly people, fat, skinny, and on and on. I could meet any one of these people at any time, especially when I’m in a place frequented by the general public, as in the mall or the airport. When I say meet, I guess I really mean encounter.
I have found that having this little realization at the front of mind is unbelievably liberating. When I’m driving, trying to get over for an exit and the guy in the next lane looks me in the eye and stays in my way, I don’t get upset. He’s a jerk – I expected him. Furthermore, when you realize that people are how they are, you are less inclined to say or do anything to react to them. As a very amateur road cyclist, I am frequently screamed at by motorists who want me out of their way. I know that their screams are their problem, not mine (unless they follow them up with a maneuver designed to run me off the road). I expect that there are people who just go around angry and lash out at whatever they can. That’s their deal, not mine. I don’t engage with them at all, and they don’t frustrate me. This also works when you’re shopping or dealing with some company’s customer service. You expect that it’s going to suck and go from there – cool as a cucumber.
But back to this status thing. Unrealistic expectations about ourselves also cause considerable frustration. If you won’t study and you don’t like to work hard, you shouldn’t expect that you’ll be wealthy one day. It may happen anyway, but you shouldn’t expect it. If you’re constantly doubting your value as a person, it is unrealistic to expect to find that others won’t. Again, you may find that wonderful soul who shows you who you really are. It happens, but you shouldn’t expect it. And looks, well there’s truth to be found about looks.
The fact is that certain things make for what we can call the prototypical beautiful person. This is not my definition. This is what humans want to see. We know because they will, by and large, pay the most to look at pictures of and see movies with people that fit this description. Symmetrical facial features, good teeth, a full head of hair, a slim physique, decent muscle tone, height above 6′ (for men), height between 5’5″ and 5’8″ (for women), tan skin, very little body hair, and so on. This is no surprise. We all know this. I’m not saying you can’t be considered physically attractive without these qualities. What I’m saying is that, if you have them, for you, life is easier than it is for those who don’t. Better said, you’ll be presented with more opportunities for relationships, jobs, and leisure. This is a massive generalization. I know that. But there is truth here, and it stems, most likely, from natural selection. These physical attributes, like the peacock’s bright plumage, indicate fitness. Males are tuned by evolution to match their genes with the fittest females possible, and the women, vice-versa. It is no surprise that we are visually aware of physical beauty. So what does this mean when it comes to frustration?
Take a good look in the mirror. Better yet, take a walk into a crowded room where people can get a good look at you as you walk in. If you notice people turning their heads, you’ve either missed a beltloop or some folks are noticing your physical appearance. If the attractive ones continue to look at you after you look at them, there’s a good chance they find you attractive. If they immediately look away, chances are it was something besides attractiveness that caught their eye. If nobody seems to notice you as you walk in (which is what happens to me 99% of the time when I walk in a room), it means you’re not pegging anyone’s attractive meter. This is not to say you’re not attractive. It just means that it is probably unlikely that you’ll be sailing through life on your looks. And that’s really the point of all this.
If you want to avoid frustration when it comes to expectations of self, you have to have a realistic self-image. If you’re not super-attractive but you want to date super-attractive people, you’re going to need a gimmick. You’ve gotta have some quality or qualities that offset your deficiency in the looks department. To breeder guys, I always say that your gimmick is the first thing the girl you met tells her friends when she tells them about you. “Oh he’s really funny.” Or, “He’s the CFO of a big company.” Or, “He’s a musician.” The reality of the situation is that looks are just like everything else – they’re cards to be played in interpersonal endeavors. Look closely at your hand and then plan and act accordingly.
In the final analysis, our minds were not designed for the world in which we live. But getting what we want out of life is not hopeless. We just have to see it for what it is. We have to honestly look at where we are and where we want to go and then have the courage to do what it takes to get there. If we expect life to be what it is, not what we would have it be, we will find that frustration withers away, and happiness becomes easily attainable. Give it a shot. It’s working for me.