Our modern world is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the services and technology that we have access to have given us an unprecedented quality of life that just a century ago was out of reach for even the wealthiest of people. The other side of the coin is a darker part of our society that we don’t think about very much: the entitlement that comes with having everything given to us without much being required in return. Most people in the developed world have little to really worry about, and our culture has morphed into something that has little patience for things not conforming to our preferences.
I am certainly guilty of this. When things are out of step with my expectations, I have a tendency to become agitated to the point where I’m unable to appreciate the things that I have because I’m so focused on what I wish was different. Rather than being grateful that I have a good paying job, I get annoyed when I’m asked to do things that aren’t really part of my job description. When I had a relationship with a great woman, I focused on the things she did that got on my nerves rather than appreciating that someone cared for me enough to take care of me. Instead of being content with my very comfortable travel trailer as a home, I pined after a boat because it’s higher up on my list of desires. The list certainly doesn’t stop there.
Unfortunately, I am not the outlier when it comes to this kind of behavior. Human beings in general seem to suffer from this acute need to have things exactly the way we want them to be. This by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but where we start running into trouble is when we allow our impatience to become the primary driver of our ability to be content. There isn’t anything wrong with having a list of things we want, but when we refuse to be willing to wait for those things to either work themselves our, or for us to put in the necessary effort to make them happen, we set ourselves up for some pretty harsh disappointments.
Even if we’re willing to wait, though, perhaps an even bigger problem is the fact that most of us have lost the ability to compromise. One of the most clarifying statements I’ve ever heard was something to the effect of “you can attain any dream you want as long as you can accept the fact that it won’t be exactly the way you want it to be”. There is perhaps no other concept that a person can learn to take the biggest step forward toward a life of happiness. Learning to accept that things aren’t going to be even mostly how you wish they would be is the most realistic way to get past the things in our lives that prevent us from enjoying what we have.
In reality, however, our society isn’t pushing this very reasonable idea as a mainstream concept. There’s no money to be made in teaching people to be down to earth with their expectations. If they didn’t pump up your desires for that sports car, you’d never buy one. If they didn’t make outlandishly romantic movies for lonely people to go to get their love vicariously through the screen, no one would buy a ticket. Much of the world’s economy is built on convincing us that our lives aren’t good enough the way they are and that we deserve so much more than what we already have.
For those of us in the developed world, it has bred this elitist mentality which convinces us that we’re too good to settle for anything less than perfection. If you look at most of the rest of the world, no one is clamoring for the latest iPhone and relationships don’t just fall apart because one person isn’t fitting the mold the other set for them. They’re too focused on survival for those things to matter. It is only because we’ve risen to the point where survival is no longer an issue that we have the luxury to demand what we want.
Yet, one of the craziest concepts that we hear about is that the poorest people in the world somehow tend to be some of the happiest. Perhaps it’s because they only have a few things to worry about, and their simple lives make it easy to focus on what’s important. They don’t have time for wishing they had this or hoping they get that. Perhaps it’s because they have no choice but to learn to compromise because the situation in which they were born afforded them no opportunity to even hope for anything more than just making it to tomorrow. It may be that they are the freest people in the world, unshackled by unrealistic hopes and expectations.
As I grow older and wiser, I begin to understand that there is a difference between being uncompromising versus being unrealistic. It’s perfectly acceptable to push toward something better as long as you can accept that it might not work out the way you hoped. As flawed human beings, it is unreasonable to expect anything we do to turn out exactly the way we imagine it. Perfection is beyond our capability, and the sooner we all start to remember that, the happier we are likely to become.
The alternative is a life of miserable disappointment, regardless of your status in life.