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5 Tips to Live Life Without Expectations (and No Disappointments)

by Hugo

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Key points

  • Managing expectations effectively is crucial for mental well-being.
  • Focusing on controllable aspects and knowing oneself mitigates disappointments.
  • Avoiding comparisons and preparing for various outcomes enhances happiness.

If you’ve been disappointed by high expectations recently, you know how difficult it can be. First, you have to allow time to heal your wounds, and after some time, you can forgive, accept the situation for what it is and move on.

If you try to have fewer expectations, you will be far less likely to end up disappointed. This comes down to the saying “happiness is reality minus expectations”. According to this equation, you’ll be happier when you lower your expectations. So how can you live your life without expectations?

In this article, I want to share some interesting studies that shed light on this topic, and more importantly, show you actionable methods that’ll help you live life without expectations.

Living with(out) expectations

It’s impossible to have no expectations at all.

Every conscious action we perform is based on a likely outcome, or in other words, an expectation. Trying to get rid of expectations altogether is nonsensical and, frankly, a waste of your time.

However, there are realistic expectations and unrealistic expectations.

Disappointments are caused by unrealistic expectations. Even though it’s impossible to completely ban these kinds of expectations from your life, there’s a way to prevent yourself from setting naively high expectations.

Anticipation and happiness

Most people will tell you that expectations are responsible for killing your happiness. But this is not something that’s supported by studies.

In fact, positive expectations such as anticipation for a nice holiday can actually increase your happiness. It’s been proven that people are typically happier planning vacations than after going on them.

In fact, the anticipation of an event is often more enjoyable than the event itself, and we’re happier looking forward to it than we are remembering it.

This is caused by something called affective forecasting. We overestimate how much a holiday or some other event will make us happy. But we love imagining it, planning it, and getting excited about it!

Even though this can result in a healthy dose of anticipation, there’s a flip side to affective forecasting. People often mispredict how much an anticipated event actually makes them happy.

Can expectations impact your happiness?

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 with 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.

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How to live with fewer unrealistic expectations

As much as you might want to, it’s impossible to live without expectations.

But there are ways to stop yourself from setting unrealistic expectations. Even though you may feel happy with the anticipation of a big holiday, it’s important to not let your unrealistic imagination take the lead.

You want to stop setting high expectations that will come around to bite you in your ankles. Instead, you might want to use the following tips to help you make more realistic expectations.

1. Try to notice your expectations

The next time you feel 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 they came from and if they were realistic.

The first step to any change is noticing your current state. When you’re familiar with your expectations and the underlying reasons, you can start to prevent unrealistic expectations from creeping in.

2. Try to only focus on the things you can control

The biggest reason for big expectations to result in disappointment is when they’re dependent on something we can’t control.

For example, if your day off is ruined because none of your friends were able to get a day off as well, your expectations were based on things that were outside your control.

It’s important to not build your expectations on things you can’t control, but on things that are completely within your control.

Using the same example, you would have been less disappointed if you were just expecting to relax and enjoy your day off. If your goal was to just go out by yourself, instead of with your friends, you would’ve been less disappointed when they couldn’t show up.

This will be especially difficult if you’re a bit of a perfectionist by nature. Perfectionists are more prone to trying to keep everything under control.

When you try to control too many things, you set yourself up for high expectations, and – frankly – you’re going to get on some people’s nerves.

3. Know yourself and what you’re capable of

Another big reason for disappointment stems from expecting too much of ourselves.

There’s this thing called illusory superiority, which basically makes everybody think that they are above average. It’s actually also known as the above-average effect, and it’s a cognitive bias that most people deal with.

One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon comes from a study released in 1980. The participants in the study were all asked to assess their driving ability. About 80% of the people claimed that they were above-average drivers.

In other words, it’s in our nature to overestimate our capabilities.

As a result, we often set our goals too high, thinking we’re capable enough of excelling.

This is exactly how we end up disappointed when we fail to meet our goals. For example, if you’re a student who’s never attended a lesson in Calculus, you may set a goal of scoring an A for the test because “you’re super smart”.

While it’s good to be confident, it’s better to set your expectations based on past results. If you’ve always been a B student, why would you set your expectations higher? If you can’t find a good enough reason, try to accept yourself for who you are and set your expectations accordingly.

When you find it hard to accept that you’re not above average in everything, this might be a sign you lack self-awareness.

4. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

While it’s good to be confident, you should also be realistic when it comes to setting expectations.

A good rule to live by is to “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”.

This is not only applicable when predicting things you can’t control, but also to your own capabilities. Instead of expecting the best end result, lower your sights to something that is far easier to reach and still acceptable.

This comes with 2 benefits:

  1. It still allows you to anticipate a positive outcome, and to be excited about a potentially positive outcome.
  2. It will keep you from being disappointed, as you already accounted for the more likely negative outcome.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others when setting personal expectations

We often set high expectations for ourselves based on the accomplishments of someone else.

For example, if you join your friend for a dance lesson at the gym, you’ll likely feel disappointed in yourself if your friend got all the praise when you were struggling to keep up.

This is something you have to look out for when setting expectations. Comparing yourself to others is futile, as we’ve discussed already in a separate article.

You should only set expectations based on your own circle of influence. Focus on your own journey, and don’t let someone else’s accomplishments get in the way.

Let’s say that you’re trying to become a better runner. Sure, you can compare yourself to world-class marathoners, or to your friend who can barely run a mile. But what does that information give you?

That’s right: pretty much nothing.

Instead, you should be looking at your own progress. If you need to compare, look at how you did a month or a year ago. Have you made progress since then?

To quote Hemingway:

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.

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Wrapping up

Setting expectations is part of the way our brains are wired, so to strive for a life without expectations would be futile. It’s however important to focus on setting realistic expectations in order to prevent future disappointment. For this to work, you need to develop self-awareness and not fall victim to common cognitive biases. In the end, your expectations should be based on your past journey, so that they won’t be affected by things you can’t control.

What do you think? Do you find it hard to lower your expectations? Or do you want to share another tip on how to live with fewer expectations? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

3 thoughts on “5 Tips to Live Life Without Expectations (and No Disappointments)”

  1. Hi Deidre

    sorry for your pain….dealing or not dealing with expectations are really difficult because I suppose we all have a different base of what we see as normal..

  2. Hi Hugo
    Thanks for your inspiring words of wisdom. You are so right in everything you have written here.

    My problems relate to more not expecting something to happen. I’ve always been very realistic in my expectations. Growing up in a family of 9 in a two bedroom house in Dublin with a very abusive father really leaves you with no expectations at all. When someone gives you a compliment not only are you grateful but shocked at the same time.
    I guess my downfall was not expecting things to happen. So let me explain. I had no expectations about success, career, love, family. But I was not expecting the really bad things that happened to happen e.g finding my brother dead on his apartment floor, my friend Sonka dying of Brain Cancer at the age of 38 and leaving 3 kids behind her all under 6, the youngest not even two. My husband and best friend divorcing me and moving back to Australia and marrying an older woman. You see I never had expectations but it was the not expecting the really bad things that happened to happen.

    • Wow, Deirdre, thanks for sharing this with me and the other readers.

      I’m really sorry for the bad things that happened to you. But if I may offer a potentially uplifting message: you may have had the right mindset about it. Living life “carefree” is better than always expecting (and preparing for) the worst. But then again, I’m just typing this on a keyboard thousands of miles away, so I hope my words are not too obnoxious.

      Either way, I wish you all the best. I’m happy to hear that you found our article valuable!



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