I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “The key to happiness is low expectations”. It’s common wisdom, but is it really true?
It seems to ring true: when you don’t expect much, and then get something good, your expectations are exceeded, which, in turn, should theoretically make you happy. (Unless you immediately start questioning whether you have set the bar too low. This doubt will devalue anything good that you have received.) If you don’t expect much, and you get something bad – well, you didn’t expect much anyway, so no big deal, right? (Although to me, it’s questionable how happy it “not being disappointed” can make you when your low expectations were met.)
If you don’t expect much, it seems that you don’t have much to lose, but is that the way to go? There’s a great Russian song that goes along these lines: “If you don’t have a house, you are not worried that it will burn down. If you don’t have a wife, she won’t leave you for someone else.” And then, the grand finale: “If you don’t live, then you won’t die.” All of a sudden, “low expectations, nothing to lose” doesn’t sound so appealing.
“The key to happiness is low expectations” is contradicted by another common wisdom advice: “Always leave yourself something to look forward to”. Then, sounds like having great expectations could be a good thing after all…
So, what’s the verdict? Should you, or should you not have high expectations?
Numerous pop psychology articles and some studies seem to support the idea of keeping expectations low. For example, according to the World Happiness Report, this nation is the happiest in the world, and researchers are partially attributing this fact to the nation’s habit of low expectations. (Personally, I would go with the theory that their happiness is due to the nation’s importance of “hygge”, described in this CNN report as “a complexsense of intimacy, community and contentment”, but that’s just my personal bias).
The thing is that if you want to feel engaged, if you want to feel something and put your skin in the game, it is difficult Not to have expectations. You want your kid’s soccer team to win; you want that next date to be The One; you want to close that next deal, on your terms. So, you hope. And expect the best, especially if you are an optimist by nature.
Thankfully, there are studies showing that anticipating a positive event can give people a happiness boost, even more so than the event itself. For example, anticipation of a vacation can make a person happier than the actual vacation. (So, if you’re thinking whether to keep your upcoming trip to Disney a surprise for your kids until you get to the airport, think again. The kids’ anticipation of the trip can account for a great deal of their happiness related to the Disney experience.)
According to this study, having positive expectations can boost your happiness, regardless of the way that the actual event turns out. So, if you are going on a blind date, meeting a prospective employer, or looking at a new house, sounds like you might as well enjoy the anticipation rather than set expectations too low.
If your end game is success rather than happiness, research seems to be less conflicting: high expectations are definitely the key to success.
While it feels good to be pleasantly surprised when we don’t expect much (think “Simon’s reaction at Susan Boyle audition for Britain’s Got Talent”), there’s evidence that setting expectations high are more likely to lead to successful outcomes.
Evidence suggests that when we set high expectations for children, they are more likely to do well. There are numerous studies citing positive correlation between high expectations and success. When teachers have high expectations of students, and when students have high expectations of themselves, these expectations translate into self-fulfilling prophecies. As Henry Ford put it, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you are right”.
Then, how do you keep yourself from being disappointed when your expectations are not met? Also, if you aim for happiness rather than success (as they are not always the same thing), how do you allow yourself to have expectations, and still have a shot at happiness?
Do these two things:
1. Have a VISION for what you want to happen, rather than an expectation.
We tend to see what we want to see, as our brain is wired to reduce disparity between our thinking and the world around us. For example, we evaluate differently an action by a close friend and the same action by a person whom we dislike, precisely because we aim to close the disparity between the way we perceive a person and his actual behavior.
We are wired to see patterns, and we are more likely to see patterns that we are pre-conditioned for. Do you know that feeling when you buy a new car, and all of a sudden you notice that everyone is driving the same model? Yep, we simply recognize a pattern easier because we are now pre-conditioned for it, having bought the new car of a certain make. So, it is worth to program our minds to notice what we want rather than what we don’t want.
An expectation is a strong belief that something will happen. A vision is allowing in your mind’s eye a possibility of something happening. Don’t expect a winning outcome. Instead, allow in your mind’s eye a possibility of a happy, winning outcome: see your kid winning a race, feel what it would feel like to be in love with the person you are about to meet, and allow yourself to experience in your mind’s eye how wonderful it would be for you to be working for the company where you just had a great interview. Embody your vision, allowing yourself to feel it with all of your senses. Embodying a winning vision will give you the benefit of a happiness boost from positive anticipation.
2. Don’t be married to your vision.
If you can learn to preserve your inner comfort whether or not your vision has materialized, then you can have the best of both worlds – high expectations (or rather, a winning vision) with subsequent promise of higher success rate and a happiness boost from anticipation, AND be immune to the crash of unmet expectations.
Not being married to your vision is about teaching yourself to be content whether you have that piece of chocolate or not (not that you don’t care about the chocolate, but you are not a slave to it). It’s about learning to be content whether your kid scores that goal and or not (not that you don’t care whether he loses, it’s just that your fundamental feeling about your kid and about yourself doesn’t change as a result of scoring or not scoring the goal).
I can not tell you in 2 minutes how to learn to preserve your inner comfort level when your vision doesn’t materialize as you perceived it. It’s a practice that can take a lifetime to acquire, and it’s a high aim to take. (Ok, honestly, I’m still working on this myself.) This book has been a great resource for learning to deal with discomfort while maintaining the inner sense of well-being.
So, here’s the verdict: don’t expect anything, but do have a great winning vision, and teach yourself to maintain your inner peace whether or not your vision materializes.
I don’t expect that each person reading this blog post will reply to me, sharing his experience with expectations, but I do have a vision that readers who find this article useful and relevant will let me know that ( Alina@MindTerrainCoaching.com ) and share the post with their friends. Would you do it, please?
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