I’ve noticed that what we expect out of life has a lot to do with how happy we are.
Take my friend Maria, for instance. She’s an idealist. She expects a lot out of herself and a lot out of life. When life doesn’t meet her expectations, she doesn’t understand why and becomes unhappy.
My friend Brian, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. He’s a cynic. He expects very little of himself and very little out of life. He believes that only bad things will happen because life isn’t capable of delivering anything good. And when it does, he views it with suspicion.
Somewhere in the middle is Colleen. She’s a realist. She expects good and bad things and realizes that it’s hard to predict which will happen. The good and the bad can go hand and hand and neither shakes her resolve because she expects both of them to happen.
This is the foundation of my “Happiness from Expectations Theory“. I call this foundation the Expectations Continuum. Within this gamut is Idealism (high expectations) on one side and Cynicism (low expectations) on the other. Realism is right in the middle.
I believe that both nature and nurture inclines us to a particular place on this Continuum. It could be over-protective parents or a low-income neighborhood or a genetic predisposition.
That doesn’t mean we can’t change our expectations, however. The first step is to know where you are on this Continuum and admit it to yourself. That’s a tough but very necessary step.
The next step is to take action and change your expectations of life. This is an even tougher step. But to succeed is to have a much happier outlook in life.
I remember when I first realized this in myself. I was a much younger, much more idealistic kid. But somewhere in my childhood, that idealism collided into a perceived life of unmet expectations, sending me sprawling into a cynical view of life.
It was Spring in New York City. I looked up at the sky and said to my girlfriend back then, “Look.” She looked up with me. “Dark clouds. That means rain is coming.”
She looked at me and sighed. “It’s funny that you noticed the rain clouds. When I looked up, the first thing I noticed were the beautiful blossoms on that tree. That means Spring is coming.”
Although I outwardly dismissed her words, inwardly, I’ve never forgotten them. Slowly, over time, I made myself look at both the dark clouds and the beautiful blossoms. And over time, it became a habit, a regular part of my life. I had changed my expectations of life.
I was born an idealist. I hoped for fairness and expected a lot out of myself. A childhood of shyness and racism pushed me to the other side of the spectrum, to cynicism. Thus like a pendulum, I swung back and forth many times throughout my youth.
That’s one of the hazards of changing your expectations. Without a strong guide, we tend to overcompensate when we shift directions. It happens when we drive and it happens when we try to change ourselves.
A strong guide is basically a role model. Without one, you’ll swing. But ultimately, the pendulum will settle down. That’s what happened with me. It wouldn’t have been possible, though, without taking the first step.
I feel bad for Maria and Brian sometimes. Maria expects so much. She looks at life with such wide eyes and hope. But when things don’t go her way, she takes it hard. “This isn’t what I expected,” she says. “This isn’t how it should be. Life shouldn’t be this hard. It should be easier.”
Brian is mired with the same unhappiness. He expects so little that it imbues him with a sense of helplessness. When we talk of the job market getting better, he becomes suspicious. “So what if it gets better? It will get worse again someday too. You’ll end up getting a job just to get laid off again in a few years. That’s how it always is.”
All the while, Colleen sits there between them, sipping her coffee. Vapors rise from it. “Too hot?” I ask.
“Yea, but it’ll cool down in a bit. I just have to wait. But in the meantime, I can sip it.” And so she smiles and enjoys her coffee.
Are you more of an idealist or realist?