Everybody has expectations. When a student comes to me, they have certain expectations for me to fix their problem. When I give them tasks and exercises to complete, I have expectations for them. Do these expectations help?
They don’t. The student might feel disappointed when I’m not meeting their expectations and I might feel frustrated when they’re not meeting mine. Even if you’re not a psychologist, this pattern probably rings a bell. You go somewhere with expectations and you come out unhappy, because the expectations were not met. Some people might tell you to lower your expectations, but that may not be enough. To be happy, you should strive for no expectations.
In this article, I will take a look at why we build expectations, why they aren’t always good, and some ways of letting go of them.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
What are expectations?
You are probably reading this article with some expectations of your own. Most likely, you clicked on the link because you want to have no expectations, and therefore, you expect this article to teach you exactly that.
However, I haven’t said anything about teaching you how to have no expectations, only that this article will include some methods of getting rid of them. So where did this expectation come from?
First, let’s look at what expectations are. Psychologically speaking, expectations are beliefs or wants that are centered on the future and they may or may not be realistic.
For example, I expect to get paid by the 10th of every month. This is a reasonable and realistic expectation because my employer and I have agreed on this condition and signed a contract. On the other hand, I may expect to get a bonus of a certain amount at the end of the year, which is not realistic, as bonuses change each year and no concrete agreement has been made.
Expectations can be based on agreements, just like in my payday example. If you have made an agreement, or expressed your wishes clearly and received an answer, then your expectations are realistic and justified.
Where do expectations come from?
Most often, expectations come from our experiences. If you’ve read a similar article before that taught you how to deal with a certain problem, you may have developed an expectation that articles like these can teach you how to overcome something. Or, if I receive a bonus one year, I expect the same amount next year.
These kinds of experience-based expectations can be realistic, but it’s important to realize that even though you may have been in a situation like this before, all situations are different. Just because something has worked a certain way before, doesn’t mean that it will work the same way the next time.
Rationally, most people are aware of this, and they understand that having expectations is not always justified. Despite this, we go into almost all situations with certain expectations, which can be controlled and deliberate expectations or automatic expectations that are made subconsciously.
In fact, a lot of our thinking is automatic. Expectations, stereotypes and judgments are like cognitive shortcuts and they do serve a purpose: they allow us to save some processing power so that we can do more things. Imagine if you had to consciously think about every single thing you do and every single person you meet in a day. You’d probably never get around to doing most of the things, because all of your time and cognitive resources are occupied by thinking.
Why expectations aren’t always useful
Even though they do serve a purpose, expectations aren’t always useful. Approaching a new situation with unfounded expectations is a recipe for disappointment.
For example, if you start a new training regimen and expect fast results, you’re probably in for a disappointment. Improving your health, strength and stamina takes time and even if the program promises quick improvement, you should approach the whole endeavor with caution and patience.
Expectations also play an important part in our relationships with other people, and often, the reason these relationships turn sour is that our expectations are unmet. At the same time, we often forget to express these expectations.
For example, you might expect your partner to realize that you prefer kind words over physical gifts, but they still keep bringing you small gifts instead of showering you with praise. You feel frustrated and hurt, but you should take a moment to reflect if you’ve ever told your partner that.
Expecting people to magically read our minds and meet our expectations, while being less than open about our wants, is delusional. Or, as psychologist John A. Johnson puts it:
Where do we get the sense of power to think that merely expecting others to behave the way we want them to will make them behave that way? And what entitles us to get angry at other people when they fail to meet our expectations?
The answer, of course, is nothing. If we haven’t expressed our expectations, we don’t have the right to feel resentment when they are not met. Even when we express our expectations, we have to take into account that people might be unable or unwilling to meet them, and that’s okay.
It is our right to have expectations, but nobody is under any obligation to fulfill them. This also goes the other way – others may have expectations for you, but it is up to you if you decide to meet them.
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
You have probably seen this equation before. It’s a short and elegant way to express a concept called the realization gap. In a 2014 article investigating the connection between happiness and expectations, the researchers write:
It is reasonable to think that people with higher expectations are more likely to face a negative realization gap; this is: they are more likely to be disappointed in the future and, as a consequence, more exposed to unhappiness in the future.
For example, you may live in the expectation of a pay raise, pin your hopes on it and start planning what you could accomplish with your increased income. If you do get the raise, you’ll be happy. But if you don’t, you will end up unhappier than you were before.
Facing reality and not getting your hopes up allows you to maintain your current happiness level.
Instead of expectations, it is wise to focus your energy on what you can control and how you can change your situation if it’s making you unhappy. Instead of thinking “Once I have a new job, everything will be better”, consider what steps you can take to improve your well-being.
It should be noted that the research paper I cited above, actually had a finding that contradicts this formula. The researchers found that realistic positive expectations have a positive effect on people’s current happiness. However, this effect is not sustainable if the expectations aren’t realized, and the future will probably be disappointing.
How to let go of expectations and be happier instead
If you’re prone to having great expectations, lowering them until they disappear altogether is not an easy task. However, it’s not impossible either. Here are three tips to try next time you feel your expectations rise.
1. Notice your expectations
When you feel frustrated or disappointed, take a moment to notice and reflect on your expectations. Try to put them into words, maybe even write them down. Examine them and ask yourself where did they come from and if they were realistic.
The first step to any change is noticing your current state and status. When you’re familiar with your expectations and the underlying reasons, you can start working on letting them go.
2. Look on the bright side
Often, expectations become a problem when they are unrealized and this brings up negative emotions and thoughts. But even when someone or something has let you down, it’s possible to find the positives.
Indeed, finding the positives is an important part of letting go of your expectations, because it forces you to notice what you already have, instead of thinking about what you could have.
Maybe your partner didn’t get you the gift you wanted, but if they made any kind of effort, it shows that you have someone who cares and thinks about you. Maybe you didn’t get the raise, but you have a job (and maybe you even enjoy it!). In the immortal words of Monty Python:
Always look on the bright side of life!
3. Enjoy the journey
Or, focus on the process, not the product. Stop trying to look into the future and thinking about how much better things will be if this or that will be completed. Instead, focus on the journey – enjoy the progress and small successes, take time to reflect on and learn from your mistakes.
More generally, this can also mean being in the present. Pay attention to what’s here and now, not what will be. Be kind to yourself and others, and don’t spend your time worrying over things that you can’t control.
A good way to get started with this mindset is to try mindfulness.
It’s natural to have expectations, but not everything natural is good for us. Having expectations means that you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to frustration and disappointment, which can have a detrimental effect on your happiness. However, you can lower or even completely let go of your expectations if you want to, but don’t expect (see what I did there?) something so ingrained to be easy to get rid of.
Now it’s time to hear from you, the reader. Have I missed something in this article? Do you have a unique experience that you want to share with the world? I’d love to know in the comments below!
Maili TirelSchool psychologist
School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“