Expectations vs. Happiness

Expectations vs. Happiness

We’re wired to expect the world to be brighter and more meaningful and more obviously interesting than it actually is. And when we realize that it isn’t, we start looking around for the real world. – Lev Grossman, The Magicians

A recent New York Times article points out that the way we manage our expectations heavily influences our ability to experience happiness in life and work. Several examples of medical interventions demonstrate how patient expectations and sense of hope can affect health outcomes.

We consciously and un consciously set expectations all the time: for ourselves, coworkers, family members, items we buy and even the movies we see. Our internal mindset/perception relentlessly measures performance against our assumptions and expectations.

Expectations can have a profound effect on our energy and drive. There are two variables in the equation: what we expect from others and what we expect from ourselves. How we view our experiences is critical to the way we pursue our dreams, goals and achieve success.

Happiness cannot be achieved without expectations, but our beliefs must be based on a reality within our. Your daily happiness level can ultimately be measured by the number of expectations you meet.

Unrealistic expectations create an expectation gap, according to James P. Leahy, author of Bridging the Expectation Gap: The Key to Happiness. This gap leads to unhappiness and feelings of failure.

If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Having no expectations is an unrealistic and pessimistic approach, not to mention impossibly difficult to achieve. It creates a void a life without hope. Along with avoiding disappointment, you also avoid the experience of joy and pleasure.

Things are. People are. You are. What you expect of them–and yourself–makes all the difference in your personal level of happiness. You can’t change people, things or events. You can, however, adjust your expectations.

The secret self knows the anguish of our attachments and assures us that letting go of what we think we must have to be happy is the same as letting go of our unhappiness. – Guy Finley, Letting Go: A Little Bit at a Time

What Happens in the Brain?

There is a physiological response to disappointment when life fails to meet our expectations. When something positive happens, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released into the brain and makes us feel good.

With unmet expectations, our brain becomes more than slightly unhappy. It actually sends out a message of danger or threat. As dopamine levels fall, we experience real pain. If we expect to get x and succeed, there’s a slight rise in dopamine. If we expect to get x and get 2x, there’s a greater rise. But if we expect to get x and get 0.9x, then we experience a much greater drop.

“Hope for the best, but expect the worst” would seem to protect us from this physiological phenomenon, but it doesn’t. The real solution lies in our being adaptive and agile.

What You Can Change

There were two ways to be happy: Improve your reality, or lower your expectations. – Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes

To manage your happiness/expectations successfully, you must understand what’s in–and out–of your control.

For example, if you’re looking for a job, you may assume it’s impossible to find a position right now and that there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. You may have unreasonable expectations at two extremes: that you’ll be hired quickly or that you’ll never work again.

One choice is to focus on what you can control. Research the job market thoroughly. Make contacts, and apply for positions for which you qualify. Then, expect something in the middle: Trusting that you will find a job at some point.

We need to differentiate between having low expectations for uncontrollable factors (like the weather) and those we can control (our personal standards), according to Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

“Having low expectations for yourself is a recipe for feeling good about yourself at any particular moment, but not getting anywhere,” she writes. “A good teacher sets really high expectations, but lets a student think he can reach them. That’s most motivating for students.”

A master can tell you what he expects of you. A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations. – Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal

Acknowledge Progress

The same principle applies at work. Managers are most effective when people are appropriately challenged. They must set goals that are difficult, but not out of reach.

It is important to acknowledge small victories and signs of progress, according to Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle. You will then become motivated to give maximum effort. Managers can work with their teams to set and manage expectations.

Unmanaged expectations can provoke disturbing emotions: anxiety, depression, confusion and stress. We often ignore their destructive potential and may not realize we’ve set ourselves up for failure where we could have had choices.

When your expectations are realized, you’re undoubtedly happier. When they’re not, you’re bound to be unhappy. Carefully identify and assess your expectations. If they’re unrealistic, adjust them so you can enjoy greater personal and professional satisfaction.

A wonderful gift may not be wrapped as you expect. – Jonathan Lockwood Huie


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