Accept Reality

During the 2023 holiday season, I had a lightbulb moment while playing board games with my family. For the first time in a long while, I felt truly happy, not worrying about the past or the future, just enjoying the now. This was a big deal for me, someone who’s usually wrapped up in anxiety and mood swings. It made me wonder when I last felt this good and why these moments are so rare.

I realized the difference between now and my carefree days in the late 2000s, where I was a bachelor with no kids, was all about expectations. Back then, my life was simpler, with fewer demands and less anxiety about the future. My life was simply about me. But as life got more complex, so did my expectations, and with them, my anxiety levels.

It hit me that happiness is pretty much like a simple math problem: it’s what happens when your life exceeds your expectations. The more you expect, the harder it is to be happy, but if you manage to keep your expectations in check, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised.

So, just as you can increase your saving rate by improving income and/or lowering expenses, you can deliberately increase your happiness by improving your circumstances and/or lowering your expectations. But it’s usually easier to lower your expectations.

I remember when I started Luthuli Capital in 2016, I put immense pressure on myself to succeed, setting the bar incredibly high. One such goal was to churn out five quality articles every week, a target I often missed, leading to frustration and disappointment.

Then, I decided to shift my mindset. What if I aimed to write only when I genuinely had something to say? This small change in expectations reduced my stress and made me happier, even though my actual output didn’t change.

That one small change in expectations yielded an outsized increase in happiness.

Rest In Actuality

Last week, I read a (very) short piece that offered some insights into the link between expectation and happiness. In “An Ode to Low Expectations”, James Parker writes:

“Strive for excellence, by all means. My God, please strive for excellence. Excellence alone will haul us out of the hogwash. But lower the bar, and keep it low, when it comes to your personal attachment to the world. Gratification? Satisfaction? Having your needs met? Fool’s gold. If you can get a buzz of animal cheer from the rubbishy sandwich you’re eating, the daft movie you’re watching, the highly difficult person you’re talking to, you’re in business. And when trouble comes, you’ll be fitter for it.


Revise your expectations downward. Extend forgiveness to your idiot friends; extend forgiveness to your idiot self. Make it a practice. Come to rest in actuality.”

This excerpt struck home for me. “Come to rest in actuality,” Parker writes. Translation: Don’t allow your expectations to exceed reality. Not only do I tend to have high expectations — for life in general, but especially for myself — but I also tend to stew about my problems.

Am I doing enough? Am I good Father/Husband? Is my business growing fast enough? Do I add value to my client’s life? Does anyone care? Why am I always angry?! Why? Why? WHY! I fret and fret and fret about things.

I stew myself into a lot of misery instead of resting in actuality.

Burst Of Excitement

I’m sure that by now you’re seeing the connection between expectations and contentment, but also with various aspects of personal finance.

For one, managing expectations is directly related to lifestyle inflation and the hedonic treadmill. People naturally become accustomed to whatever it is they have. When your circumstances improve, you feel an initial burst of excitement because your new life is better than your old life. Your reality exceeds your expectations.

In time, though, your expectations adjust to the new reality. You grow accustomed to your improved circumstances. You’re not happy until the next time your circumstances experience a boost. This is lifestyle inflation. This is the hedonic treadmill. When you expect the best, you’ll never be better than satisfied. If you do get the best, you’re getting only what you expected.

There’s no way for anyone or anything to please you by exceeding expectations. And most of the time things won’t live up to your expectations, so you’ll be disappointed.

Managing expectations is the antidote to lifestyle inflation and the never-ending pursuit of more, where each new acquisition only brings temporary joy before we’re back wanting more. When we lower our expectations, we’re not aiming to diminish our quality of life; rather, we’re seeking to appreciate what we have and resist the urge to constantly upgrade our lifestyle with every pay raise.

This is crucial for wealth creation because every rand not spent on upgrading your lifestyle is a rand that can be saved, invested, or used to pay down debt. Over time, this disciplined approach can lead to fiancial independence.


In his book Waking Up, Sam Harris explains that “the Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha“. Dukkha is often translated as “suffering”, but Harris argues that “unsatisfactoriness” is a better equivalent.

“We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change”, Harris writes.

“Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction.”

Quite clearly, Harris is writing about our expectations and how we manage them. He continues: “Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determine the quality of your life.”

In other words, the Buddha was an ancient proponent of the fundamental equation of wellbeing: happiness equals reality minus expectations.

February has turned out to be one of my best months in years, filled with family time, reduced anxiety, and a strong sense of being present. It was all thanks to that holiday season realisation and a conscious effort to lower my expectations.

In short, adjusting our expectations doesn’t mean settling for less. It means opening ourselves up to more happiness, being kinder to ourselves, and finding contentment in the present moment. It’s a lesson in enjoying life’s journey, with all its ups and downs, without getting caught up in the pursuit of an elusive perfect destination.

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