A number of years back, one of my co-workers excitedly came up to me while I was getting my morning coffee in the break room. “I have figured out the solution to all problems!” he exclaimed. “Really?” I answered, being very curious. “What is it?” “Just lower your expectations!” he explained. “Not happy with your job? Lower your expectations. Not happy with your significant other? Lower your expectations.” It works for everything!
He may have had a point. A study conducted at the University College of London found that lower expectations do indeed increase happiness. Their results showed that having lower expectations made it more likely that the outcome would exceed the subject’s expectations and therefore have a positive impact on their happiness.
This seems to make sense. For example, when I have high expectations of a movie because everyone raved about it, and it turns out to be good, but not amazing, I feel some disappointment. If nobody had told me anything about it, I might have felt more satisfied with a “good” movie.
But does that mean that the secret to happiness is just lowering our expectations for everything, as my co-worker had suggested?
That depends. Yes, if your expectations are too high, you will continually get disappointed and it will affect your happiness. . On the other hand, if your expectations are too low, then you and others don’t have much incentive to improve and your progress may be slowed.
So how do you know if your expectations are too high?
1. You assume control over things you don’t have control over:
“Everyone must like me.” – There is no way to get everybody to like you because everyone likes different things.
“Everything should always go smoothly.” – This is impossible – there will always be up and downs in life. Things never go completely according to plan.
“The world should be fair.” – That would be nice, but we cannot control the way everyone in the world operates.
2. Your expectations contain “always” or “never.”
“I (or others) should never make any mistakes.” – We all make mistakes – that is part of being human.
“My child should always be well-behaved.” – Again, nobody is perfect. It is unrealistic to expect yourself or others to be perfect.
3. You believe in mind-reading
“If my significant other really cared about me, s/he would know how I am feeling without telling him/her.” – That is simply not true. It is your responsibility to let others know how you feel.
“If s/he was really competent, s/he would know what to do without me telling him/her.” – Again, what may be obvious to you, may not be clear at all to others. You have to communicate clearly what you want, get agreement on it from the other person, and repeat it when needed.
So what can you do if your expectations are too high? You can begin to lower them:
1. Write Down Your Expectations
Start by noticing any expectations that come up during the week that fall into the “too high” category and write them down. Don’t judge it, just be curious about it. “Isn’t that interesting…”
For example: “I just told myself that it isn’t ok to be late. Isn’t that interesting…”
2. Engage Your Inner Champion
Get in touch with your Inner Champion, who is like your best friend, and write down what they would say about it.
For example: “It’s true that it isn’t professional or nice to be late to meetings, but it is unrealistic to expect to never be late to anything. The world won’t end because I was late one time, and I will definitely make sure that I will continue to leave 10 minutes early to do my best to be on time.”
3. Change Your Expectation
Is your expectation helping you? We often think that if we don’t hold ourselves and others to a high standard, we won’t be motivated to accomplish our goals. However, unrealistic goals can have the opposite effect and paralyze us. How could you change your expectation to be more helpful?
For example: Instead of “I always have to be on time” – “I will always do my best to be on time, leaving early to get to my meeting, whenever I can.”
What do you think? Are your expectations are too high, too low, or just right?