Less Expectations, More Joy

‘The Secret’, a book by Rhonda Byrne, is a collection of persuasive phrases, many of them inaccurate – “We are like magnets: like attract like; you become and attract what you think– that presents guidelines that if followed unfailingly will lead to success. To achieve any goal, you just visualize intently what you want to achieve and magic happens (no matter that it is the opposites, not the like, which attract each other). Stretching her knowledge of physics, says Australian writer: “The law of attraction is a law of nature; it is as impartial and impersonal as the law of gravity is.” Isn’t this amazing?

With similar ideas, American writer Napoleon Hill in his best-seller ‘Think and get rich,’ was seven decades ahead of ‘The Secret’. However, in publishing fanfare and marketing strategies, the Australian author left far behind not only this napoleon but all the inspirational gurus of self-help and success. Positive thinking seeks to take advantage of a hypothetical human ability for self-suggestion that would automatically move us toward whatever objective we choose to pursue; cosmetic surgeon and author Maxwell Maltz called this discipline ‘Psycho-Cybernetics’. Who doesn’t want happiness and success when you may reach them effortlessly and they are sold ‘well packaged and well festooned’?

Unfortunately the prescriptions of Rhonda Byrne, Napoleon Hill, Maxwell Maltz and company are wrong and misleading. The relentless visualization of yet unaccomplished goals –you already have that that you desire and visualize so intensely– does nothing other than growing the fantasy of daydreamers and increasing their expectations of love and victory.

Researchers from University College London developed a complicated mathematical equation that predicts people’s happiness, in terms of the feelings of elation they experience and that show in the brain when they satisfy their desires for specific things. Fortunately, the central conclusion of the study is hundred times simpler than the equation. According to Robb Rutledge, the director of the project, “lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and therefore have a positive impact on happiness.”

The research work had two stages. In the first one, in a game designed for the study, the 26 selected participants had to make decisions leading to monetary gains or losses, associated with the level of achievement in each move. Every time players had to answer the question “how happy are you now?” and, in parallel, their sensory neuronal activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging was recorded. The ‘happiness’ so quantified went in the opposite direction to the expectations of the bets. With these data, scientists constructed the aforementioned mathematical formula to relate this numerical ‘happiness’ with the expectations and the awards received in each move.

In the second stage, the resulting model was then verified with a very large number of participants (18,420 this time) through an application for smart phones (The Great Britain Experiment). Scientists were amazed to find that the same equation could massively predict the participants’ happiness while they took part in this game, in spite of the fact that this time volunteers would only win points instead of money. “We were surprised’, confirmed Dr. Rutledge, “to find just how important expectations are in determining happiness”.

The study of the University College did not make any reference to the dangers of positive thinking. Still scientists are optimistic that the model could be useful in the diagnosis of depression. However, this writer (who years ago travelled the roads of positive thinking), in line with the conclusions of the study, believes that the enforced, unnatural planting of ambitious objectives in people’s mind, as if they were already fully materialized, could become counterproductive. The imbalance between exaggerated expectations and poor results could become a ruthless boomerang that would hit hard the ‘artificial’ optimist, bringing about major frustrations, if not depressive states.

Guided by Dr. Rutledge’s conclusions and by the associations I just described, those who are pursuing the secret of Rhonda Byrne or are thinking to grow rich, following Napoleon Hill’s advice, should move cautiously to avoid major disappointments or even, in the worst cases, harmful depressions. They also should be reminded of Don Miguel de Cervantes‘s wise recommendation: “Don’t desire anything and you’ll be the richest man in the world”.

Atlanta, December 19, 2014​


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