Want to be Happier? Check the Thesaurus
The struggle to attain a deeply meaningful life may be an issue of language
Over the past two years, I have conducted more than 100 podcast interviews with best-selling authors, prominent academics, and other high achievers about the connection of money, happiness, work, and meaning. In each of these conversations, I make a point to ask these thinkers how each of us can lead a happier life. Again and again, the same answer keeps coming up: “Lower your expectations.”
The first few times I heard this advice, I refused to accept it. “Low expectations” sounds defeatist. It sounds like giving up on happiness altogether. But over time, I’ve realized that the gap between their advice and how most of us think is an issue of language — specifically, it’s an issue of conflicting interpretations of the word “happiness.” To close that gap, we need to examine the term more closely.
Let’s do a little exercise. On a piece of paper, draw a “happiness line” across the page. Write the word “sexy” on the far left of the line and “not so sexy” on the right (I promise this won’t get weird). Now think of all the synonyms for “happiness” and plot them on the line.
As you write them down, you may notice that the left side is heavy on words like “jubilation,” “bliss,” and “euphoria,” while the right side contains terms like “tranquility,” “peace of mind,” and “well-being.”
While all these words indicate some kind of happiness, they imply wildly different forms of it. The latter group fits pretty closely with Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, a word that has been translated as “fulfillment.” The former group characterizes what comedian Dennis Miller once described as “life in Heff’s jacuzzi,” in reference to the famed hot tub at the Playboy Mansion.
When my guests recommend lower expectations, I don’t think they’re saying we should all give up or stop working hard to find happiness. I believe what they are advocating is choosing the right side of this happiness continuum — the side that’s less about chasing highs, and more about keeping things steady.
Left-side happiness, while very exciting, is — at best — perishable. It might come from expensive toys or short-term companionship. You might feel it when your favorite team wins the Super Bowl or when you go viral on TikTok. But it dissipates as quickly as it arrives, and at worst, it beckons chaos into our lives. Fortunately or unfortunately, “sexy” doesn’t scale.
Right-side happiness, by contrast, is an enduring state of mind that has to be earned. You cannot buy, rent, or borrow contentment. While decidedly unglamorous, it is a slow-burning, substantive condition that leaves us free of want and secure in our okay-ness. This doesn’t disallow spontaneous moments of joy, but it eliminates the need to seek them out as a lifestyle. It also allows us to deal with whatever the world sends our way. And that’s key, because resisting life’s imperfections and discomforts can be a major source of dissatisfaction.
The author and former Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman, who was a guest on my show, wrote in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, “The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. Our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”
Said slightly differently, lowering expectations isn’t giving up. It’s letting go. Of outcomes. Of things that are beyond our control. Of the belief that life is going to be — or even should be — a trouble-free, smooth ride toward bliss and adulation.
That’s not how things work, and it’s okay. The sooner we embrace this unavoidable reality, the sooner we can focus on living in it. Consider what Jonathan Rauch, the author of The Happiness Curve, told me: “When we accept that we won’t be rock stars or astronauts, that is when we start to see the good with our normal lives.” Letting go of fame as the metric of success liberates us to savor the daily satisfaction that comes from playing the guitar instead of hoping that music will win us the spotlight, money, and a sauna full of groupies.
Lowering expectations doesn’t mean you don’t want to win. It means pursuing victory in the forms of unsexy but deeply meaningful and sustainable rewards. It’s focusing on financial autonomy instead of vast wealth. It’s working toward “healthy” as opposed to “skinny.” It’s striving for improvement over perfection.
Yes, you should still work hard, but only in pursuit of “right side” goals. Choose to win by prioritizing a lifestyle that leads to contentment and peace of mind. Your nights might not be sexy, but you’ll feel more secure in yourself — and you probably don’t want to find out what’s lurking in celebrity jacuzzis, anyway.
Paul Ollinger hosts the Crazy Money podcast. Previous guests include winners of the Nobel Prize, Heisman Trophy, PGA Championship, Grammys, and Olympic Gold medals.