The role and importance of “expectations” in being happy


Anticipation and expectations

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of having high expectations for something, only to discover the actual experience is not as rewarding as we imagined it would be. Either the actual experience is below our expectations, making us disappointed, or it matches our expectations (or overachieves them), but because we’ve already expected it, we are only slightly more happy.

The same is true for the opposite: when we experience something surprising, and it turns out to be enjoyable, we perceive it as especially satisfying as we did not expect to get anything from it before.

Why are expectations so important?

Asking “why” might appear unnecessary at first, because it is such a common and seemingly well understood phenomenon we don’t see any point asking (just like with what is happiness?). We know it from experience; however, this is only an observation. This article aims to initiate a discussion about possible explanations.

It is possible this phenomenon exists because by expecting something, we actually already pre-live the expected moment today and if it does not materialize in reality it is an actual step down on the ladder. When we are expecting something to a high extent, and therefore are partly in the state of living it, it is already part of our reality.

Expectations and happiness

Another angle to look at it: we are comparing “imagination” (2.) with “reality” (3.) here, but what does “reality” actually mean? The situations are not as different as they first seem: both are modelling of the world in our head, and therefore are on the same fundamental level. Pre-living or living, it’s our brain that does the interpretation either way.

What are the statements/implications of this model?

  1. The more we can pre-live the future moment (or “emotionally model it in our brains”), the higher the expectations can be, and the higher the potential disappointment
    Our capability to pre-live future happenings is different from event to event, which therefore also has an impact on what we “emotionally expect” from it, and thereby the implications on happiness are different.  

    For example, “taste” is one of the dimensions which is not easy to pre-live. On an intellectual level, you can expect a lot from a restaurant you are visiting where you’ve heard they serve good food, and therefore can also be disappointed if they don’t, but the emotional letdown is limited, because you couldn’t pre-live the experience authentically beforehand.

    On the other side, there are events that you can picture very strongly, and might even be a victim of incorrect or overblown, vivid expectations. A classic example is a holiday. We tend to remember the positive peaks of our last holidays, which we can re-live very well (by remembering of how great it was), and therefore run the risk of expecting it for future holidays as well, which may make the holiday not as enjoyable as it could have been.

    Another example is wealth. We can picture very well of what it would be like to be very wealthy (we tend to focus on the positive, thinking of all the things we could afford which we couldn’t in the past, leading to positive emotions), therefore the letdown can be very high when we realize it’s not as good as we imagined it to be (also see “Money: how much should we strive for it to become happy?”).

  2. An event that would have given us happiness (if we hadn’t expected anything from it) can cause us to become unhappy/less happy than our initial state due to our expectations 
    Due to a potentially strong letdown effect if our expectations are not met, it’s possible that they cause an event to make us actually unhappy and worse off than the initial state, although the event did have the capability to make us happy if we hadn’t had the chance to build up expectations.  

  3. Vice versa is true for negative events
    The same implications seem to be true for events that are not expected to raise our happiness, but do the opposite: if we expect a dramatic event to happen which would make us substantially unhappy, the better we can picture and pre-live it emotionally, the more the relief if it does not come true.
  4. Pre-living is just as a real joy than the actual happening (and has to be taken into the equation)
    As expectations can have negative effects on our happiness one is tempted to search for tools to batter down expectations as much as possible. However, this would ignore that the joyful pre-living and looking forward to events (which is also “real”) is happiness as well, and one which can be substantial in some cases.  

    Also, a positive spirit driven by expectations can help us to make most out of the actual event (a depressed traveller who “succeeded” in imagining the trip to be horrible does not act in a way that can make it as enjoyable compared to the traveller who is open for experiencing many new things due to his positive, expectation-driven mindset).

    Likewise, expectation of a negative event may cause real unhappiness despite the event never materializes. People who live in constant fear of terrible things can hardly be called happy, independent from whether the fears come true or not.

One of the following posts will aim to provide a practical guide on how to try to get the expectations under control. Unfortunately, the recommendation “lower your expectations” alone does not work, because emotions seem to have some difficulty understanding advice on an intellectual level. Before that, however, I am happy for feedback as always.

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