“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Dan Ariely’s incredible book, Predictably Irrational. As is made obvious by the title, Ariely compiles all of his research on human behavior and catalogues the different ways humans predictably and consistently act irrational. And boy, there are a lot of examples in there!
The one that has stood out the most so far is that of expectations. Ariely provides compelling research that demonstrates how expectations actually affect how you perceive an experience.
For example, let’s say you just went on a trip to Disney World for the first time. You had zero expectations prior to the trip, and you received 30 enjoyment units from the experience (let’s pretend enjoyment can be measured by units). However, if you read a horrible review of Disney World the night before your trip (which significantly lowered your expectations), you might receive only 20 enjoyment units, even if you had the exact same experience as the previous scenario. In other words, if we have pre-existing expectations, our brains can override our perception in an effort to match that expectation.
Ariely concludes by letting the reader know that it can be advantageous to raise people’s expectations prior to an event or experience, because doing so will make the perception of the event more positive. This is absolutely true – when we believe something will be good, it generally will be good, and when we think it will be bad, it will be bad. In fact, this information is tantamount to common sense to people in marketing and sales. So why am I writing a blog post on it?
I’m writing this post because I don’t think Ariely’s recommendation is complete. If you want to use fancier dishes and varietal-specific wine glasses to make your dinners feel more luxurious, his research is right on the money – you’re more likely to enjoy a meal when presented in a nicer way. However, for people wishing to borrow this research to live a happier, more successful life, I think there’s much more to the story. An article from The New York Times, entitled Lowered Expectations, explains a phenomenon that runs contrary to Ariely’s research:
About once a year, some new study confirms Denmark’s status as a happiness superpower. Danes receive this news warily, with newspaper headlines that invariably read: “We’re the happiest lige nu.” Lige nu is a Danish phrase that means literally “just now” but strongly connotes a sense of “for the time being but probably not for long.” Danes, in other words, harbor low expectations about everything, including their own happiness … Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.
I read this particular article back in 2009, and it has made a significant impact in how I choose to view the world and my place in it. As someone who used to read books espousing the idea that anything is possible with the right set of beliefs, I believed that by setting my sights high and believing in my myself, I’d be putting myself in the best mindset to actually get there. But setting such high expectations for yourself can be dangerous, as I eventually learned. The next few years were filled with frustration as I wasn’t meeting my expectations of who I could become. Why was I failing so often? Why wasn’t I progressing faster? Why didn’t I have the confidence and energy to seize every opportunity? What was I doing wrong?
I’m not the only one to recognize this cycle of unrealistic, high expectations masquerading as confidence and positive beliefs, and how it can lead to feelings of despair, frustration and a lack of fulfillment. Alain de Botton captures this thought perfectly in his famous TED talk: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.
So although Ariely’s research demonstrates that a high expectation can positively influence your perception, don’t take that to mean that you should be expecting the best at all times in order to improve your experiences in life. The modest uptick in your enjoyment will often be nullified by the disappointment from your expectations not being met – after all, there’s only so high your expectations can go before they become unrealistic. Remember, Happiness = Reality – Expectations.
Despite my belief that keeping expectations low is a better strategy for happiness, I’m not here to take an extreme stance. Ariely’s research is rock solid, so there is benefit to following his advice. You just need to do it properly. Here’s the technique I use to get the best of both worlds, which I have borrowed from people much smarter than I could ever hope to be: Hope for the best but expect the worst.
Before an experience, hype yourself up. Going to see a movie? Read the positive reviews. Going to a new bar? Ask a friend for recommendations and personal favorites. Starting a new goal? Read some online discussion on the benefits of reaching that goal. This will give you a clear image of what the best case scenario will be.
However, once you’ve hyped yourself up and are excited for the experience, you must bring your actual expectations down to modest levels. You can do this by then imagining a just-as-likely poor outcome. Remember that movie you wanted to see? The reviews looked good, but you’ve seen crappy movies with positive reviews in the past, so it still might suck. The new bar you’re going to with your friends? Looks awesome, but you should be prepared to deal with insane crowds and lines, since it’s a popular place. That new goal you want to pursue? It will make a very positive difference in your life, but it involves grueling work, and many weekends burning the midnight oil in front of your computer. Better get ready to handle that.
By using this technique, you’ll still feel that initial excitement of trying something new (making you more likely to have a positive experience, a la Ariely’s research), but should things go sour, you’ve already acknowledged that this was likely to happen and have mentally prepared for it. This immunizes you to the gnawing disappointment so many of us feel when our expectations are set too high.
Some of you may find the technique above to be a little controversial, but I’ve been using it to great effect lately. I rarely find myself disappointed with outcomes anymore because I’ve already mentally prepared for the negative outcomes in advance. This has made me more resilient in the face of failure and has improved my happiness levels, not unlike the Danes referenced in the NY Times article above. However, because I still take the time to remind myself about the awesome qualities of my daily experiences, I’m ready to have a good time when things go as planned, allowing me the benefits mentioned in Ariely’s research.
One final example of this technique in action: starting this blog. I knew that having a blog would allow me opportunities to meet interesting people, speak at events, and possibly even make some money. This has happened in small doses, which is great. But before getting started, I also made sure to prepare for a very likely scenario: that I’d spend hundreds (if not thousands) of hours blogging in my lifetime, and probably wouldn’t see much return at all for a majority of those hours. By being ready to accept that fate, I was given the strength to spend many weekends sitting in coffee shops writing, despite a low readership. My expectations were kept in check, so I never felt disappointment, failure, or regret. Yet, I never lost sight of the potential benefits of blogging, which gave me the hope I needed to make it all worthwhile. It’s incredibly hard to strike the balance between managing expectations and maintaining hope, but magical things happen when you figure out the right balance for you.
To conclude, I hope I’ve demonstrated that while Ariely’s research is very clear on how expectations directly influence our perceptions, it’s not the complete story for those of us who want to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. We need to also take a page from the Danes’ book and constantly keep our expectations in check. Remember: Hope for the best but expect the worst.
For more on the power of expectations, check out Goals, Sacrifices, and Expectations: How They Can Make You Happy (or Miserable).