Be Pleasantly Surprised
Or, Don't Expect Too Much
I tend to think of myself as an optimistic person.
If you want to understand the very practical benefits of optimism then spent 10 minutes watching this TED Talk by Kevin Kelly
According to Kelly, we can only shape a better future if we are optimistic. One great example he uses to help us understand why it's so difficult for people to continually be optimistic is the news cycle. He says imagine a newspaper that publishes once every hundred years. What wonders would it cover?
Writer and investor Morgan Housel points out how unfortunate life was for John D. Rockefeller, whose net worth in 1924 equaled about 3% of GDP (which would be something like $700 billion in today’s world):
But make a short list of things that did not exist in Rockefeller’s day:
- Flu, tetanus, measles, smallpox, and countless other vaccines
- Insulin for diabetes
- Blood pressure medication
- Fresh produce in the winter
- Overseas phone calls
To say nothing of computers, iPhones, or Google Maps.
If you’re honest with yourself I don’t think you would trade Rockefeller’s $700 billion in the early 1900s for an average life in 2022.
But that’s hard to admit, because all the insane luxuries Rockefeller didn’t have are now considered basic necessities. Everything works like that. All luxuries become necessities in due time. It’s why “everything’s amazing and no one’s happy,” as Louis C.K. says.
Here's the comedy sketch from Louis C.K. where he discusses how we get used to miraculous things yet continually want more:
Then Housel hits you with the punch line about how to solve the puzzle that everything is amazing while no one is happy:
The only way to counter that truth is going through life with purposely low expectations.
I find that living in a developing country makes it easier to keep one's expectations low. After all there's at least one electricity blackout per month (not for long: between 5 - 45 minutes). But it's enough to make one appreciate the marvel of having abundant light at night, cool drinks in the tropical heat - as well as a myriad of other truly fantastic things.
Imagine NOT taking electricity for granted.
There's also a cultural shift when you are around spiritual people (the Balinese). Of course everyone still needs money and things. But it's a matter of priorities. Is the money a means to proper ends, such as having a dry roof over your head in the rain? Or does it become an end in itself? To a spiritual people like the Balinese the material world is only one of many dimensions.
Setting low priorities also helps one's optimism. I can be better prepared when progress towards solving something major, like global warming or economic inequality can leave one hopeless. But as Keven Kelly points out in the TED video above, as long as we're making 51% percent progress as a civilization we will experience a better world over long stretches of time. Not utopia by any means, but improvements that, for the most part, we much too easily take for granted.
Perhaps we shouldn't.