We tell ourselves that if we just get paid more or get promoted, we’ll stop being so miserable at work. Or we dream for months in advance about some vacation to paradise, only to find, once we arrive, that the hotel was not quite as glamorous as the photographs on the website implied. Maybe we do get that promotion or that raise and it does alleviate some old problems—then suddenly there are new ones like jealous co-workers or additional responsibility.
Our rosy expectations set us up to be disappointed. Our expectation that the modern world will not have any problems is why the so called “first world problems” are so vexing. Isn’t everything supposed to be awesome considering all that we’ve accomplished? People tend to think only about how amazing things are going to be…only to find that reality is more complicated. It is this gap—between what we told ourselves things were going to be like and how they actually are—that is the source of so much unhappiness and misery in people’s lives. It’s the reason that so many of us walk around frustrated rather than grateful and relieved.
Naturally, a problem like that is something the Stoics zeroed in on resolving. Because the source of it isn’t the outside world, it’s our thoughts about the world that are the issue.
“Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like,” was Epictetus’s advice. “If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse—the people who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. In this way you will be more prepared to start the activity, by telling yourself at the outset, ‘I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.’ Make this your practice in every activity.”
Basically, premeditatio malorum.
Think about how things really might be in advance. Don’t tell yourself how you want them to be. Don’t lie to yourself as a form of motivation. Be honest. Be clear. Be realistic.
If they end up being better than you expect (as things often can be), then wonderful. Enjoy the treat you’ve set up for yourself. If they end up being anything else? Well, you’re prepared now, aren’t you?
Better to be pleasantly surprised than unpleasantly surprised. Better to be realistic than delusional.
That’s the idea.
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