Are your hopes and dreams accidentally making you less happy? Our hopes and dreams should, of course, increase our happiness – that’s the whole point. But the expectations that come along with hopes and dreams must be handled with care. To paraphrase author Brandon Sanderson, high expectations are like fine pottery: the harder you hold them, the more likely they are to crack.
We’re encouraged to have high expectations. In fact, in our culture, low expectations and lack of ambition are viewed as character flaws that signal laziness.
To be sure, expectations have their place. They challenge us and help us improve our lives. And an ability to make positive change in our lives and the lives of those we care about is key to a sense of well-being.
On the other hand, expectations can sometimes make life worse.
High expectations can cause us to quit when we face early setbacks. This negatively affects our ability to persist when persistence is key (such getting through a pandemic). When we need persistence most, high expectations can thwart our determination and stamina.
Similarly, expectations that are too rigid can be a recipe for stress and anxiety. “When we don’t hit our expectations,” says neuroscience leadership expert David Rock, “our brain doesn’t just get slightly unhappy, it sends out a message of danger or threat.” It’s important to adapt our expectations as we learn more about the situation, says Rock. Otherwise, they can sabotage our happiness and determination.
How do we manage our expectations so they increase our happiness rather than bring us down?
Think of expectations differently.
Instead of using your expectations as a yardstick against which you measure success or happiness, think of them as a compass. This more flexible mindset allows you to use your expectations to keep you pointed in the right direction – towards things you value, experiences you want to have, and relationships you want to nurture. Your expectations can improve your quality of life without setting you up for disappointment.
For example, I’d like to lose weight and I have a plan to achieve this goal. My plan involves many healthy-living strategies – regular exercise and smart eating among them. But I’m not gauging my self-worth by how strictly I adhere to my plan. Instead, my plan is a compass that keeps me pointed in the right direction of being healthy over time. If I slip up one day, it’s simply a small glitch on what I view as a broader journey. Sometimes, the wine and cheese after-dinner snack with a Doritos chaser is just gonna happen, and that’s OK.
By lowering your expectations – in effect, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst – you increase your of being satisfied with the outcome and therefore your happiness. “Happiness depends not on how well things are going but whether things are going better or worse than expected,” says neuroscientist Robb Rutledge.
How realistic are your current expectations?
Ask yourself these questions to determine if your current expectations are realistic or too high.
- How much control do you have over the outcome? Does your expectation involve managing your own behavior, or trying to manage people or circumstances beyond your control?
- Is your expectation based on accurate information or untested assumptions? “Sometimes, expectations are based on accurate information and negotiated agreements. Often, they’re not,” says George Pitagorsky, author of Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success. “Even if the original expectation was carefully negotiated, situations can change.” The key is to make sure we adjust our expectations as circumstances change.
- What does your past experience tell you? Are you hoping for something that your past experience tells you isn’t a likely outcome ? If so, consider modifying your expectation, or come up with a new one altogether.
- What’s the true motivation behind the expectation? Sometimes, we set expectations in hopes that they will solve a problem they can’t possibly solve, causing us to miss the true mark entirely. Consider whether your “not enough story” is driving your expectations. Misplaced expectations – especially those that are too high or too rigid to be successfully met – can backfire, making you feel worse rather than better about yourself.
Expectations as compass, not commandments
The strategies listed below will help you turn your expectations into a useful tool that will boost happiness in the months to come.
Clarify the underlying value.
Figure out what value is behind your expectation, and make pursuing that value more important than meeting the expectation itself. Perhaps you plan to show love for your family by buying the perfect gifts. This might not be possible. Instead, consider focusing on how your love and affection for these people can be expressed in a variety of ways over time.
Differentiate between “acceptable” and “ideal” outcomes.
Shift your mindset so that expectations become “nice to haves” instead of “must haves”. If you currently think, “My spouse needs to clean up after themselves,” try thinking, “It bugs me that my partner is a slob, but I love what a caring and present parent they are.” Or, “I should have gotten that promotion,” can change to “I’m disappointed, but I’m grateful that I really like my job and the people I work with.” If you’re stuck with the thought, “I need this pandemic to end already!” (and who isn’t?) you could choose instead to think, “I’ll be so glad when this is over, but in the meantime I’m going to focus on things that fulfill me and bring me joy.”
Be flexible about the timeline.
I really wanted to celebrate my “big birthday” in May in France as we’d planned. It didn’t happen. One of my goals is to get to France in the future. Would I love to go in 2021? Absolutely. Realistically, though, health and travel challenges make a trip in 2022 more likely. I’ll keep planning for the future, but will keep my expectations realistic.
“The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but significance – and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.”
– Oprah Winfrey
Focus on the quality of the journey, not the result.
By de-emphasizing the goal or expectation and emphasizing instead your day-to-day experience, you’re more likely to increase your happiness and find satisfaction.
As a personal example, I love meeting a writing goal, such as when I complete and publish a new blog. But I also strive to enjoy the process: the research on a topic that interests me; the sleeping dogs at my feet; the yummy tea I drink while writing, etc. It’s great when the blog is finished, but I also try to make a point to enjoy the journey of writing it.
The frustrations of this past year might discourage you from having hopes and dreams for 2021. But don’t give up! Know what you desire and make a plan to pursue it. Just be sure to manage your expectations along the way. With a bit of thoughtful management, your expectations can help increase your happiness in the months ahead.