When You Can’t Change Your Reality, Change Your Expectations

Happiness is third-grade math

Niklas Göke
3 min readSep 28, 2022
Photo by Nick Dunn on Unsplash
This is an excerpt from my new book, 2-Minute Pep Talks*. If you enjoy it, you can buy a copy for as little as $3.99 here*.

James Altucher says happiness is third grade math: All you have to do is divide your reality by your expectations.

In a fraction, when the denominator outgrows the numerator, the result falls below 1 and moves towards 0. Similarly, when your expectations grow far beyond your reality, your happiness goes to zero.

Let’s say you come home and find a big, unexpected gift on your doorstep. A handbag perhaps or a new gaming console. Your reality skyrockets. You had no expectations. Your happiness goes through the roof!

Now imagine you spill your coffee as you sit down to work. The numerator decreases. Reality threw a curveball. You didn’t expect stains on your desk today, so the denominator is still the same — and your happiness goes down.

We can’t control our reality, but we can change our expectations. That’s the only “trick” there is. Whenever your reality fails you, immediately adjust your expectations. This is the one lever you can truly pull, and with some practice, you can pull it within seconds each time.

As your coffee races towards your stack of notes, shift your expectations from “I’ll have a productive start to my day” to “I’ll have a nice, shiny desk when I’m done cleaning this up.” When your software won’t send the email, go from “I’ll be out of here in five minutes” to “I’ll feel relieved once I close my laptop for the day.” If your partner breaks up with you, go from “I’ll never have to worry about dating again” to “I’ll learn something from this situation.”

Like that last one, not all of these shifts are easy to make. Some will take years to fully embrace, but you can start all of them in a matter of seconds — and many you can finish just as quickly. Sure, a breakup is something to chew on, but spilling your coffee? Tech problems? You won’t even remember those next week, so there’s no point in spoiling your happiness over them today.

Making these micro-shifts won’t turn you into a doormat. You can still expect others to treat you well. You also needn’t lower your aspirations, just let go of the artificial timelines you’ve constructed for them. Patience, flexibility, and a balanced life — these are the rewards for adjusting your expectations whenever reality changes.

A perpetual state of low expectations sounds nice in theory. If they were always at zero, nearly everything would be a pleasant surprise, and even bad news would hurt a lot less. That’s an ideal we can strive towards, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever reach it. For now, let’s do what we can with what we’ve got.

Whenever your reality falls short of your expectations, immediately adjust. Direct your vision to a new five-minute future. How can you course-correct right now? How can you shift the formula based on your current situation? Practice, practice, practice.

Your expectations only add to your happiness insofar as they fall short of your reality. You can’t prevent the world from turning against you on occasion, but you can ensure your expectations never trail far behind.

Happiness really is like third-grade math: We can figure out most problems quickly, but if we want lifelong mastery, we must solve a few equations each day.

This is pep talk #29 from my new book, 2-Minute Pep Talks: 67 Jolts of Inspiration for More Hope, Comfort, and Love in Any Situation*.Pep talks are vitamins for your spirit: You don’t have to take them every day, but if you don’t take them at all, eventually, your soul will feel their absence. With 67 daily messages full of hope, love, and comfort, 2-Minute Pep Talks will make sure you maintain your inner balance.Whether you’re looking for a pick-me-up, new perspectives, or more fuel to accomplish your dreams — if you’re ready to regain that light, optimistic feeling we all used to have as kids, this book is for you.You can get the book on Amazon*.



Niklas Göke

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. Read my daily blog here: https://nik.art/