Could Lowering Your Expectations Be The Key To Happiness?
“Trade your expectation for appreciation and the world changes instantly” ~ Tony Robbins
I once had a conversation with a colleague who was sorrowfully describing how she felt so dissatisfied with her circle of friends and how they had let her down so many times. Being the active listener sort, I responded to her requests for help by advising her to simply “lower your expectations.” She promptly sat up straight and looked me directly in my eyes, and in utter dismay, she questioned how I could say something like that!
Coming from a counselor, this might sound rather irreverent, but maybe we need to consider lowering, rather than raising, our expectations for our lives. Indeed, lowering our expectations seems to be counterintuitive. Shouldn’t we hold ourselves and others to higher standards?
For a myriad of reasons, there is a growing expectation amongst people today that we should be able to land the dream job, marry the ideal mate, live in a prestigious neighborhood, raise perfect kids, have droves of trendy friends, and so on, in order to be happy. Yet, invariably, things in life don’t work out according to the way we envisioned them, and therefore needs fixing. While believing we should hold high expectations for ourselves, I wonder if our expectations are unrealistically high, causing increased emotional distress and dissatisfaction with what life has given us.
While it certainly makes a great deal of sense to try to restore an unhappy marriage, or make steps to change an unsatisfying career, it also makes good sense to take time for a reality check by taking look at your circumstances, and to really think about what can be expected from your relationships, your job, and life as a whole.
This reminds me of a woman I once worked with who arrived at the office one day in a flood of tears. It turned out that her husband had forgotten their wedding anniversary yet again. Of course, if he really loved her, she shouldn’t ever have to remind him that such momentous event was on the horizon. He’d already missed Valentine’s Day that same year, but in her mind, telling her husband what she wanted rendered the occasion void of all romance. In an situation like this, lowered expectations would have served her much better. By expecting her husband to be Mr. Perpetual Romance, all she got was a load of sadness and heartbreak. Yet, if she were to put her romantic aspirations aside, and express her desires, she’d probably have got what she wanted all along. And everyone would be much happier for it!
It is likely that lowering our expectations or standards for the people who annoy us or let us down helps to increase our compassion for them. Like happiness, compassion can be seen is a function of lowered expectations. Certainly, when we expect less from other people, and put aside our unduly high standards, we are happier to accept their quirks and difficult behaviors.
While happiness is something we all desire, so is self-improvement, which also works to increase our happiness. To improve ourselves, a realistic measure of expectations is required to move us forward towards our goals, even if it sometimes bring about temporary disappointment and loss of contentment. The plan is to manage the “aspiration gap,” the gap between life right now and what could be, what you have and what you want. I like to refer to this as “expectation management.” The purpose here isn't to dispense of expectations altogether, but to avoid setting the bar too high!
Finally, rather than lamenting what should have been, or striving for future things unknown, the best strategy for keeping ourselves firmly in the present is to maintain a sense of gratitude in all things. When we are grateful, there is no room for disappointment!