Expect Nothing, Appreciate Everything: The Key to Lasting Happiness

“Expect nothing, appreciate everything” is a mantra you can use to live an amazing life regardless of how it turns out.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any goals.

Or that you shouldn’t have general expectations for a good life.

It’s about creating a situation where your happiness isn’t dependent on outcomes.

It’s escaping the hedonic treadmill where nothing is ever good enough. You can use this philosophy to level up your life without attaching your identity to every single goal or expectation.

Let’s look at how the expect nothing, appreciate everything attitude can help you achieve success in a more detached, relaxed, and useful way.


Expect nothing: the pragmatic path to happiness

Warren Buffett was once asked about the key to a great marriage.

Here’s his answer:

The quote was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but he was trying to make a point. No marriage is sunshine and roses all the time. There will be ups and downs. As you get older and the marriage lasts longer, you might lose some of the magic, fire, and passion.

The quote doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect to have a good marriage. It means that you should lower your idealistic expectations and appreciate it for what it really is.

If you come into a marriage expecting eternal bliss, zero conflicts, and endless romance, then you’ll want to leave the minute things get rocky.

Buffet also says that the secret to happiness in life is low expectations.

As one of the wealthiest people in the world, he’s no stranger to ambition, but this is about focusing more on your inputs than your outputs. It’s giving one hundred percent without needing or expecting a certain result to justify your effort.

Take his field of investing.

You can do all the research in the world, and have a long track record of success, but when it comes to each individual investment, you can’t always predict whether or not you’ll have a winner. Even the most successful investors are wrong more often than they’re right.

It’s helpful to adopt the attitude of a savvy investor who deals with probabilities. You can make informed decisions and calculated bets, but you should have zero expectations for specific results.

“Expect nothing, appreciate everything” isn’t a mantra of apathy. It’s the opposite.

When you adopt this attitude, you can develop even more lust for life because your happiness isn’t attached to outcomes. You’re playing the game of life for the sake of playing the game.

Let’s break it down further…


Expect nothing when it comes to other human beings

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have boundaries or  that you should allow people to disrespect you, backstab you, or treat you poorly.

If you expect everyone to live up to your standards, you’ll be let down over and over again.

If you understand human nature and see people for the way they are instead of the way you wish they were, you’ll get along with people better. You’ll also get caught off guard less often because you know what people are really like.

This is the problem with utopian thinking. People who believe in a perfect oasis where all human beings behave rationally and harmoniously are imagining a world that can never exist. This just sets them up for disappointment.

You can be optimistic and attempt to make the world a better place. But the only way to do this is by simply being an example for others and getting them to follow you voluntarily. 

People are gonna do what they’re gonna do. Period. You can only inspire, educate, and persuade. You can’t drag people to the finish line if they don’t want to run the same race.

This is something those who preach and finger-wag about morality will never understand.


Expect nothing when it comes to your goals

Goals are for losers.

—Scott Adams

Scott Adams said this in his best-selling self-help book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” Goals set you up for failure and disappointment because you attach your happiness to an outcome you can’t fully control.

Lots of variables contribute to success, including dumb luck, so to set a specific goal makes little to no sense. Instead, focus on building a system. A system is a set of actions you can do repeatedly that lead to great results overall.

It’s dumb to set a goal like “I want to make a million dollars next year.”

It’s wise to create a system that helps you make money in general—like studying personal finance, learning profitable skills, creating useful products and services, and promoting them consistently.

Goals and expectations also put you in a position where you can’t be happy until specific results happen. Or, like Naval Ravikant says:

Both Naval and Scott are quite successful financially. Same with Warren. What gives? Doesn’t it seem like they’re the type of people who set and follow goals? Aren’t they chasing success?

No, they’re attracting it.

When you play the game to play the game and build the type of life where good things tend to happen to you, you can still get great outcomes without expecting them.


Expect nothing when it comes to the grand scheme of your life

We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. 

—Chuck Palahniuk

This quote speaks to the frustration people experience when they expect their lives to be a grand fairytale, only to feel deep disappointment when they turn out to be average.

I don’t literally mean you should never expect anything good to happen. It’s good to strive and push yourself. Psychologists like Alfred Alder believe people are motivated by a need to overcome feelings of inferiority and strive for personal growth and mastery.

But if the bar is so high that nothing short of a dream job, millions in the bank, and superstar status will make you happy, then you’re setting yourself up for high odds of sadness.

Counterintuitively, if you focus on playing the game for the sake of it, you tend to get the best results. It takes a deep level of intrinsic motivation to pursue meaningful goals. It has to. Otherwise, the carrot of the “dream life” would effectively motivate people to work extremely hard. It doesn’t.

Have dreams. But focus on living and enjoying your life above all else. Cheryl Strayed put it well when she reached out to a young writer who was worried she hadn’t advanced far enough in her career yet.

“Don't lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don't have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching.

In your case, do keep the faith, do be true blue, and do your life’s work, but don’t lament so much about whether you’ll live the “good life.”

Just. Live.


Appreciate everything: the foundation for truly enjoying life

It seems like nothing is ever good enough for us humans, especially in the West, even though we enjoy a great lifestyle.

Let’s just take a look at some stats:

Our lives are objectively more comfortable, convenient, and easier than they’ve ever been—but more people are miserable than ever. There are many reasons for this, but the short answer is simple:

We don’t understand or appreciate how easy we have it. Humans tend to only compare up and forward, never down or backward. We don’t appreciate how hard it was for people in past generations. Most of human history is marked by extreme poverty. This fact makes it illogical to even complain about being poor, which most people in the West are not.

We don’t compare our situations to people living in third-world countries. Instead, we look up with envy at the mega-wealthy. When you lack gratitude, you put yourself in a position where it doesn’t matter how much your situation improves because it will never fill your endless pit of desire.

The expect nothing, appreciate everything mantra is all about having the proper perspective.

Yes, you’d like to improve your situation, but it’s already great as is.


Appreciate everything about human beings

Life would be boring if we all behaved perfectly.

The totality of the human experience gives life the contrast and color required to make it interesting—though it doesn’t always feel that way when another human mistreats you.

But you can find a way to appreciate people in general, even though we’re all capable of doing wrong.

You can reframe your thoughts to see others’ behavior in a different way, too:

  • You can appreciate the person who broke your heart because it taught you how strong you were when you came back from it.
  • You can appreciate the person who backstabbed you because they taught you a valuable lesson about human nature.
  • You can appreciate the people who doubt you because they give you fuel to prove them wrong.

Also, you can use this attitude to appreciate when people do treat you well.

Instead of expecting everyone to do right by you by default, you can show sincere appreciation when they do:

  • If someone gives you a genuine compliment, accept it.
  • When someone goes out of their way to help you, thank them.
  • When a tribe of people supports what you do, appreciate them, don’t take them for granted, and let them know how much you appreciate their support.


Appreciate everything when it comes to your goals

I’ve reached many of the goals I had in life and live a lifestyle I once dreamed about.

Because I’m human, I got used to it all. That’s just the way we’re wired.

The cliche is true. You won’t feel all that different when you reach the destination, but you’ll appreciate the journey you took to get there.

Even better, why not learn to appreciate the journey as it’s unfolding?

  • When you reach new milestones, celebrate and appreciate them.
  • When you overcome a difficult challenge, pat yourself on the back.
  • Even though you’re not directly aiming at specific outcomes, celebrate the little successes along the way instead of making a contract with yourself to be miserable until you hit it big.

The best attitude to have when you’re pursuing a certain lifestyle is one where you put your all into a meaningful life while you simultaneously do not get attached to worldly rewards.

The worldly rewards are just a natural byproduct of being in the arena. Putting yourself in the arena is the point, not whether you win or lose.


Appreciate everything about life

You can start by appreciating the fact that you’re even alive. Your being born is a statistically improbable event. Appreciate the fact that you get to play the game at all.

Focus on being present, and you’ll start to appreciate each individual moment.

  • When was the last time you had a conversation where you were fully present and appreciated the other person’s words?
  • When was the last time you went for a walk with no phone and appreciated nature?
  • When was the last time you appreciated and enjoyed a meal?

Presence teaches you to appreciate life for the crazy high number of sensory experiences it has to offer. It also teaches you to slow down time by focusing on the “now,” which is the only state that exists. The past and future are just constructs in your mind. 

You can change the way you see by taking more time to appreciate what currently is.

Be grateful for the highs and lows. Don’t resist your emotions. Feel them fully and appreciate the totality of them. You wouldn’t want a life where you were only happy all the time. Happiness doesn’t exist without sadness. Love doesn’t exist without the potential for heartbreak. Joy doesn’t exist without pain.

You need the entire experience.



What “expect nothing, appreciate everything” truly means

It’s the energetic yet relaxed, purposeful without being needy, optimistic yet detached life.

Zen philosophy calls this the “middle way.”

You’re not some lethargic, apathetic blob, nor are you a workaholic world-conqueror who needs to dominate to be happy.

You can have desires. You can want a certain lifestyle. But you can get all of the above without needing them. You can enjoy your lifestyle, including material possessions, without being defined by them or endlessly desiring new toys.

Expect nothing, appreciate everything is the counterintuitive path to a life well lived.