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Hey! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all 🎄 I hope you are having some well-deserved cozy time with your loved ones.
When I was younger, I couldn’t grasp the meaning of festivities. It all looked so arbitrary — gathering with all the family once a year, eating a lot, and exchanging gifts.
Now I do. As they say, traditions are solutions to problems we have forgotten.
In the spirit of this time of the year, today I will cover something personal on which I have been reflecting lately, about expectations and happiness.
I apologize if this swims a bit far from the usual engineering advice, but I hope it helps those of you who are reflecting on the year that passed, and on resolutions for the new one.
🌤️ I am happy
I consider myself a cheerful person.
I have always kind of been: if there exists a baseline level of happiness for people, I am blessed to have a high one.
Of course, I am a lucky guy — I am in decent physical shape, I have no particular illnesses, I have a good family, and I work on things that I love. So you might be thinking: “Luca, of course you are happy!”
However, I know plenty of people who are better off than me in most of these areas, and yet they are not happy.
Not only that.
I also know people who haven’t had as much luck or success, and yet they radiate so much energy and joy to make me look like a sad panda 🐼
Now you may argue that we can’t really know other people and what’s going on in their lives, so these observations are shallow at best. This is fair, of course. But even when you account for that, it is safe to say that some people handle what life throws at them better than others.
There has to be something else at play here.
⚖️ Happiness vs Expectations
The way I see it is that the things we have going on in our lives are just one piece of the happiness puzzle. The other big one is expectations.
We are happy whenever we our reality is better than how we expected it to be.
Of course, this is just one way to look at it — there are plenty of models and metaphors for happiness — e.g. I am a big fan of the elephant and the rider by Jonathan Heidt. But I have found this idea to be particularly useful so let’s stick with it for a moment.
If this were an equation, it would be:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
Our brain is constantly evaluating the reality we are in, and comparing it to our expectations about such a reality. The more reality exceeds expectations, the happier we are. Conversely, the higher our expectations compared to reality, the more miserable we feel.
As simple as that? Not exactly.
📈 Expectations change over time
The tricky thing is that expectations don’t stay put — they adjust over time to match reality.
This is both a blessing and a curse. It means that both positive and negative events in life do not necessarily result in a permanent gain or loss of happiness.
This tendency goes by the name of Hedonic treadmill. It has been studied extensively since the late seventies, since the famous “Lottery winners and accident victims” paper, by Brickman et al.
Adaptation level theory suggests that both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. […] Study 1 compared a sample of 22 major lottery winners with 22 controls and also with a group of 29 paralyzed accident victims who had been interviewed previously. As predicted, lottery winners were not happier than controls and took significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events.
The fact that our expectations adjust explains why happiness is a moving target. The adjustment, however, takes some time 👇
⏲️ Expectations lag behind reality
Expectations tend to lag behind reality, so the faster our reality changes, the more this delta can become temporarily large, resulting in spikes or dips in happiness.
For example, winning the lottery—as in the study—results in a big (temporary) spike. Conversely, getting rich gradually, over many years, doesn’t bring nearly the same excitement.
This is like when you lose weight over a long period of time: you don’t see it when you look in the mirror. You see it when you look back at the pictures.
I can also give a personal example about Refactoring. This year all my dreams came true: I went full time on the newsletter and I am now living off my 1000 true fans. This is insane. I swear, I get it! But do I feel all that different than before? I mean… maybe? Am I noticeably happier than one year ago? …probably? I am not sure.
That’s because this change happened over so long, that my mind had plenty of time to adjust and trick me into thinking this was the new normal.
Interestingly, people from the outside have a totally different perception of your reality.
They don’t live it every day, so, for them, time is compressed. These days I got in touch with relatives I hadn’t seen for 6+ months; I told them about the Refactoring progress, and their reaction was wow. Which is like—back to the previous example—when you lose a lot of weight and somebody sees you after a long time.
So, how can we use these ideas to become happier?
☀️ Using expectations to become happier
If you trust the equation, you have two ways of becoming happier:
⬆️ Improve your reality
⬇️ Reduce your expectations
You can tell I am good at math.
However, since the two converge over time, you also have to figure out ways to do this constantly, so that you always keep a healthy, positive gap between the two.
Now, many people work hard to improve their reality, while also allowing their expectations to inflate.
The way I see it, this is just the wrong strategy, because, if anything, your expectations are 100% under your control, while reality is not. We all meet setbacks, bad luck, and more generally we may not achieve what we want, or deserve.
In comparison, keeping expectations in check is easier. Here are three solid ways to do so:
📔 Keeping a journal
🙏 Practicing gratitude
🏃♂️ Focusing on the journey
Let’s see all three:
📔 Keeping a journal
Remember the example about losing weight? People take pictures of themselves along the way—or just before they start—so that they stay aware of their progress. Such awareness makes them more motivated, and simply happier, because they never lose perspective.
Now, imagine not having those pictures. Imagine losing 30kg and totally forgetting were you started from.
This is how you live your life when you do not keep a journal.
I know this might sound overly dramatic, but really, people do amazing things all the time and then fail to recognize them. They do not give themselves credit, simply because they do not realize how much progress they have made.
Keeping a journal counters that.
I won’t go into details about how you should do it, because there are plenty of ways and everyone should find their own style, but there are two main habits you should implement, in a way or another:
✏️ Write regularly — ideally everyday. Just write down what you are thinking, interesting things that happened, or anything, really. People do so early in the morning, or before going to bed, but it’s up to you to find your own way.
🔍 Review periodically — set recurring times to review what you wrote. Reviewing might just mean reading things back. You can do so weekly, monthly, quarterly, or any cadence you like.
That’s it! Writing and reading back.
When you do this for long enough, two main things happen:
You become more sensitive — to what happens around you, and you will find more and more things to write about. Writing is like a muscle, and it comes from your thinking: the more you write, the more your thinking improves.
You recognize patterns — about yourself, about things that worry you, and those that give you joy. You simply get to know yourself better. Changes that happen over a long period of time, both good and bad, are tough to spot, so being able to review your thoughts over months or years is a superpower. Spotting bad trends allows you to take action, but spotting good trends is just as useful. You might see how you overcame your fears, or achieved more in life than you realized. This, in turn, develops gratitude, which is the most powerful way to keep expectations in check 👇
🙏 Practice gratitude
I keep my daily routine very lean. In the past I have been guilty of setting up overly complicated habits, just to scrap them after a few months because they were unsustainable.
One of the few that has stood the test of time is about gratitude.
Every day, before I start to work, I write down something I am grateful for. When I started — about two years ago — I naturally focused on the big things: family, health, work, etc. I still come back to them sometimes, but since I don’t want to repeat myself, over time I started being grateful for other things, too. Smaller things. Like receiving the call of a friend. Or, like today, for getting better at blitz chess lately 🤷♂️
Being grateful for something means not taking it for granted, which is like lowering your expectations.
It forces you to be aware of what you already have, so you don’t raise the bar of your expectations uncontrollably.
This, in turn, makes you happier.
🏃♂️ Enjoy the journey
We all make investments expecting them to pay off in the future. We may sacrifice something today to get something more tomorrow, and, more often than not, this is a good play.
There is a flip side, though.
It is risky to do something you don’t like for a long time just because of some ideal reward at the end. Seen through the lens of our equation, you are making your current reality worse, while also increasing your expectations about the future.
When it comes to happiness, it is like shooting yourself in both feet.
Furthermore, the outcome you wish for might 1) never materialize, or 2) not be as good as you expected.
So, I am all for playing long games, but a key difference from when I was younger is that now I focus on those I also enjoy playing, rather than just enjoy winning.
Great outcomes might eventually come, but even if they don’t… hey, it’s been a good ride!
Thank you so much for reading through this 🙏 I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 🎄
See you in 2023!
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Thank you for writing this, Luca! I'm glad you've included some practical ways of managing expectations. I recently discussed this topic with my friends and colleagues, and this fills another piece of the happiness puzzle :D
Happy new year!
Thank you for writing this, Luca!
Happy New Year!!