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Managing Expectations: A powerful happiness tool!

Posted Apr 07 2010 2:43pm

When people graduate from our anger management classes, we ask them which of the eight tools of anger control helped them the most. Often graduates tell us that it was Anger Tool # 6- “Adjust expectations” that was of most help to them. But managing expectations helps in more life areas than just anger; it also is a very useful tool for happiness, to fight depression, and generally to have a more balanced life.

What is an expectation?
An expectation is a mental prediction of what will happen in the future when we don’t know for sure. If what does actually happen matches or exceeds our expectation of it we experience positive emotions such as satisfaction, joy, surprise, or gratification. If, on the other hand, what occurs is different from what we expected or is less than what we expected, we experience negative emotions such as disappointment, anger, or frustration.

To fight depression, to be less angry, to have less life frustration, it is important to develop the skill of closing the gap between what we have and what we expected in the first place. This is not easy because it is a real challenge to decide what is reasonable to expect of ourselves, our loved ones, our employees, our friends, or our marriage partners. To complicate matters, we live in a culture that often encourages unrealistic expectations of our marriages, our sex lives, our financial success, our body beauty, our children, and our “rights” to unlimited material things.

Given our culture and our attitudeshow can we NOT be disappointed when we actually look our age, when we only have a normal sex frequency of once or twice a week , when we can only afford one family car instead of that second SUV, when our children our good citizens but only average in achievement, and when we “only” earn $80,000 a year at age twenty-eight.

Shouldn’t We Aim High?
Not that we shouldn’t aim high. Achievement and success often follow dreams. But, as we are looking toward the sky we also need to remember to keep our feet on the ground. Lowering  or at least having different expectations gives us emotional room to be surprised, delighted and awed by good things that occur that we didn’t demand or depend on for our happiness. With this attitude, good things  are like a bonus of life rather than a condition for happiness.

What should we expect in marriage?
In relationships, unhappy people often expect something different than what they get. Again, this is sometimes due to children growing up with the Hollywood fantasy of what marriage is like. Later, these same children expect, for instance,  that their marriage partner’s purpose in life is to satisfy all their needs, that making a marriage succeed shouldn’t be hard work, and that you should be able to “be yourself” and still have your partner love you (even though you are a very poor marriage partner). Unfortunately, sometimes we discover that we don’t know our partners very well at all, even though we thought we did back when the hormones were still distorting our perception during courtship. Some psychologists maintain that many of us don’t marry a real person; rather we marry a “concept” (or an expectation) of what we want them to be.

Marital trouble then strikes when reality sets in!

What are some ways to Adjust Your Expectations for More Happiness?
To examine your expectations and adjust them, it often helps to talk to trusted friends or older people that you respect and look up to. Research show that it really helps to talk to trusted people who have been through what you are confused about. You might also have  sessions with a qualified therapist to help you sort things out. Other suggestions would include

  • Mentally prepare yourself and others ahead of time for what may or may not happen.  Sharing possibilities and outcomes with others can do much to reduce conflicts.
  • Stop “shoulding” in your self-talk. Think of the word “should” less often because that word is a sure-fire formula for frustration and upset.
  • Try to see disappointing things or people from a different perspective, focusing on different aspects of the person or situation.
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