This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Atlas of the Heart" by Brené Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you feel like something is missing from your life? Do you feel like your life is devoid of direction and fulfillment?
When reality falls short of expectations, you may experience either boredom or disappointment (or both). You may feel like there’s nothing engaging or fulfilling to do (boredom) or upset at the fact that your expectations are not being met.
If you’re feeling disappointed or bored with your life, here’s some food for thought that may help you put these feelings into perspective and channel them into productive ends.
When Reality Falls Short of Expectations
In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brown describes boredom as wanting to do something fulfilling and not being able to. You feel understimulated, your tasks (if you have any) seem meaningless and unsatisfying, and time seems to stretch out.
If you’re in control of the situation, boredom is likely to leave you feeling lazy and lethargic—for example, if you’re sitting at home and simply can’t find anything to fill the time. Conversely, when you’re not in control, boredom is more likely to make you feel antsy and frustrated; like being stuck at school or work and wishing you could do something else.
(Shortform note: In Atomic Habits, James Clear has a different idea of where boredom comes from: lack of novelty and lack of challenge. In other words, if we’re doing something that’s both familiar and easy, we’ll quickly become bored with it. Clear’s solution to boredom is to keep things interesting by coming up with new challenges for yourself—make these challenges tough enough to be interesting, but not so difficult that they’re frustrating. For example, if you’re getting bored at your job, you might challenge yourself to do your work more quickly (but just as well) or look for a new skill to add to your repertoire.)
Disappointment is the negative state that you feel when your expectations aren’t met. Brown says the more important the expectation was to you, the deeper and more painful the disappointment will be. For example, if you wanted pizza for dinner and wound up eating chicken, you might experience mild discomfort from your disappointment. On the other hand, if you were expecting your partner to throw you a birthday party but he forgot that it even was your birthday, you might feel deeply hurt.
Brown adds that regret is similar to disappointment, but it’s specific to times when you think the outcome was in your control. In other words, regret is disappointment plus guilt: Things didn’t play out the way you wanted, and it feels like it’s your own fault.
Overcome Disappointment With Hope
In Grit, Angela Duckworth defines hope as the belief that you can make things better; not just that things will get better, but that you personally have the power to make it so. If you’re feeling disappointed or regretful, hope can counteract both. Hope leads you from, “Things didn’t work out” to, “I’ll make sure things work out next time.”
Duckworth also ties hope to what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset, which is the belief that people can change and improve over time. Hope goes hand-in-hand with a growth mindset because, in order to believe that you can make things better, you have to believe that you can become better.
The alternative to a growth mindset is a fixed mindset: a belief that people’s abilities and personalities are ingrained from birth. Here’s how each mindset might respond to disappointment or regret:
- Fixed mindset: Things didn’t work out because I’m not good enough.
Growth mindset: Things didn’t work out this time because I didn’t do well enough this time.
Dealing With Disappointment
Brown briefly touches on three other common responses to events playing out differently than you hoped or expected:
- Frustration: It feels like you could create the desired outcome, but something outside of your control is preventing it.
- Discouragement: You’re losing confidence in your ability to create the desired outcome. As a result of that, you’re also losing the motivation to keep trying.
- Resignation: The endpoint of discouragement—you no longer believe that you can change the situation, and you’ve totally given up trying.
(Shortform note: In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie discusses how to let go of these feelings by accepting what you can’t change and focusing your efforts on things that are within your control. His advice includes taking things one day at a time instead of fretting about what might happen later, keeping yourself busy with what you can do, and making the best of the situation—for instance, if a power failure ruins your dinner plans, that could be an opportunity to go to that new restaurant you’ve been meaning to try.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Atlas of the Heart summary :
- Brené Brown's guide to the many emotions and mental states that people feel
- Explanations of 87 emotions, along with the situations where you’re likely to encounter them
- How to form deeper connections with the people around you