Why Managing Expectations is the Key to Happiness

Photo Credit: Anthony Intraversato

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” ~ William Shakespeare

I was dreading the drive to Big Milly’s, an outdoor beach restaurant, and the flies, heat and humidity that would come with it.

Add to that the touristic environment, created by wannabes wanting to replicate The Beach, and the hawkers who invade both the beach and your being, and I nearly said no to going.

However, I relented to my teenage daughter’s request to do something different on Father’s Day, and we made the trek.

To my astonishment, I had a great time. Everything was novel—and different from what I’d expected.

Now contrast that experience with my visit to New York last month. I stayed in a highly-rated hotel that came recommended by friends as the best-kept secret in the city. Though it was certainly luxurious and central, I was unimpressed with the service and the 15-minute wait for the elevators.

It was not what I had expected.

In one situation, the outcome exceeded my expectations; in the other, it didn’t. This directly affected the quality of my experience and the level of happiness I felt.

A simple “happiness equation” sums up my point:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

Stephen Hawking once said, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

Similarly, my father grew up with great hardship. Programmed at a young age to have few expectations, he has since enjoyed whatever comes his way as a bonus, and as such he’s happy most of the time. I, on the other hand, was raised with an elevated sense of expectation, and so I get disappointed when an elevator in a superb hotel doesn’t fulfil my idea of excellence.

In a 2014 study at University College of London, author and neuroscientist Robb Rutledge explained, “Happiness depends not on how well things are going but whether things are going better or worse than expected.” He and his team went on to devise a mathematical equation to explain how contrasting high/low expectations affected happiness.

That equation proceeded to accurately predict people’s happiness. The experiment further revealed that individuals with low expectations see their happiness grow steadily with the passage of time, while those with high expectations feel happy at first, but then find their joy decrease with time.

Unfortunately, the world we now live in sets us up for high expectations and, as a result, less satisfaction. I fear for our children, and future generations, who are growing up in a world that demands high expectations and wants quick results. A world where achievement is devoid of any feelings, and chasing success is a robotic exercise.

The most branded phrases these days are “be who you want,” “follow your passion,” and “go change the world.” The belief that we can be anything we want to be—astronauts, painters, the next big entrepreneur of Silicon Valley—is now deeply instilled in our psyches. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and my own writings often extol this way of thinking.

What scares me, however, is that many of us today act out of entitlement. We behave as if we expect to become successful without doing the work—the 10,000-hour grind, the dedication, the perseverance, the endurance, the failures—that is required to meet our aspirations.

We have learned how to raise our expectations, but not how to reach them.

Technology has also made it more difficult for us. We can now easily measure our so-called success and compare ourselves to others. We forget that most people craft their lives digitally, showing only their best moments. Many social media users take 20 pictures before posting the best one. Most scan their feed and like only the people who liked their posts (and some buy likes), rendering “likes” meaningless. All this leads to yet more raised expectations. Maybe our photo got 80 likes, but we “need” 320 to be like that young fashionista we follow.

The virtual world is not an accurate reflection of everything that happens in our life. To the contrary, it inflates expectations ludicrously.

It’s not easy to lower our expectations, as they mostly form through subconscious processes. The subconscious mind offers a quick and accurate estimate of what we are to expect, like a computer fed with continuous data. For example, at McDonald’s we expect the food to be served quickly, but at a seated restaurant we expect to wait much longer.These flash calculations, are not always correct,however, which can repeatedly lead us to disappointment.

We must also be careful not to lower our expectations so much that we become unambitious and fall back into our comfort zones. We don’t want to end up becoming the big fish in our backyard ponds.

Rather, we need to find a balance between contentment and ambition. We must manage our expectations—not destroy them or inflate them unrealistically.

The world is full of opportunity and hope, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that we’re so exceptional that we don’t need to put in the hard work or suffer a few setbacks along the way.

Fuelled by my insistent daughter, I rallied to go to a beach restaurant, despite low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised. If we can similarly lower our expectations–but not our efforts–throughout our lives, we might just unlock the door to happiness.

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