How to close the expectation gap

Letting go of expectations which undermine our happiness

The ‘happiness industry’ of books, therapy, courses, and conferences – often sold as ‘self-improvement’ resources – comprises $10 billion per year in the United States alone.  Many of those who bought a book on how to be happy this year also purchased one last year.  If the advice we’re getting is so sound, why can’t we get what we need and go away happy the first time?  What’s getting in the way?
The expectation gap
Today’s post looks at ‘the expectation gap”’  the often unconscious expectations that most of us carry about what we might be, have, or do which are in excess of what everyday reality can deliver.  These expectations cannot all be met, and the width of the gap is the measure of our unhappiness.  We look at three aspects:  imagining, comparing, and remembering.
1.      Imagining:  the ‘could be’ gap
Creating this gap with our human ability to visualise, we experience our imaginings as greater than reality.  We have a comfortable home, but imagine the mansion we’d like.  We have a decent relationship, but fantasise about that perfect romance with the beautiful, adoring stranger.  We have a solid career, but find ourselves thinking that we’d be happy if only we could make it to the upper rungs of management, and so on.
2.      Comparing:  the interpersonal gap
With this, we experience that our situation is never as good as others’.  Look at the Smiths.  They don’t just have the new house like we do; they also have a recreational vehicle, membership at a prestigious golf club, and an international holiday every year.  Or we cast a covetous glance at Jane, who really seems to have it all together:  interesting work, a lovely family, and she still finds time to exercise regularly and volunteer for the local charity. We moan; “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not able to do all that?”
3.       Remembering:  the inter-temporal gap
Opposite to imagining, we remember what we did have before in the ‘good old days’.  “Life was easier as a student,” we say, forgetting the many all-nighters to get assignments in and constant hunger from being broke.  “My old job was more interesting,” forgetting the deplorable work conditions.  The problem with remembering is that we do it selectively, expecting life to be rewarding in the same ways that it used to be, regardless of how bad the rest of life was then, and making ourselves unhappy when it is not.
How to take action:  letting go of the expectations
What to do?  An internet search into happiness and expectations yields advice to surrender expectations in order to gain happiness.  Research shows that lowered expectations (in the sense of entitlements, not in the sense of standards we set for ourselves) means greater happiness, and that what we focus on grows.  What does that mean?  Current thinking reflects both scientifically-based studies as well as spiritually-based reflections.  The confluence of those two yields a few widely-held (but not always easy-to-follow) pieces of advice.
For Gap 1:  gratitude and generosity
You want more in your life?  Focus with gratitude on what you do have, so that you are attractive to greater good flowing to you.  Along these lines, generosity (in the form of service and philanthropy) are reliably proven to increase happiness.  Let go of negative thoughts about what could be; grateful altruism is a winner.
For Gap 2:  no comparisons and treasure your connections
The positive psychology folk are clear that comparisons with others are problematic if we choose our reference group unwisely.  That is, we make ourselves unhappy by expecting to be as well off as some group with whom any comparison is unfair to ourselves. Even better, let go of comparing and cherish your interpersonal connections.  It is our quality relationships with others and the social support we derive from (and contribute to) them that ultimately make us the happiest.  We best appreciate what we have when we do not expect to have what some (presumably better off) person has.
For Gap 3:  be optimistic, and enjoy the present moment with compassion
Happiness researcher Ed Diener notes that happy people see possibilities, opportunities, and success.  They see the future with optimism and find the positive aspects of the current situation.  Letting go now of expectations to recreate past conditions ushers in the means to savour the present moment fully, and to view others with compassion.
We can’t solve the endemic problem of discontent in today’s little post, but what we can do is reflect on whether we really need to maintain the illusory controls, seen in our many rigid expectations for life, that guarantee our unhappiness.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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