The Power of Lowering Expectations

One tension that this blog explores is between the desire to be present and mindful and the impulse to be striving and planning. In some ways, my instinct for planning has served me very well. Without forethought and effort, I would not have gotten my MBA in the evenings and on weekends. My husband and I would not have been able to buy a nice home. My career would not have advanced. In more everyday terms, I pride myself on being someone who just gets a lot done. My Saturday task management is on point. My husband (who is a striver of a different variety) is mostly exasperated by all my running around. He has the remarkable ability to focus himself entirely on the task at hand. The thing is, it’s reaaaaally slow. I find it nearly unbearable to watch him do something like, say, make a sandwich.

Implicit in all this striving are expectations for how things will turn out. I don’t always handle it well when things don’t go as planned. I feel an outsized sense of disappointment and don’t adjust quickly. Many an average day has been ruined for me because I expected it to be extraordinary. So, I’ve been thinking some about the role that our expectations play in our happiness. Here are a few ways that I am trying to consciously lower my expectations and achieve greater happiness.

Get Real

This one is key for me. I tend to be overly optimistic about what I think I can achieve, both in the short and long-term. These days, I’m trying to let go of some of those self-imposed expectations. I’ve become, as it were, over-accessorized with things to do.

I’m taking Coco Chanel’s advice and winnowing down my list. Does the house need to be in tip-top shape? Nope. Do I need to get involved with the PTA thing? Nope. Don’t get me wrong, I still get a lot done. I’m just learning to be a tad more realistic about what’s really possible on any given day.

I’m also working on getting more real about special occasions – holidays, vacations, family gatherings etc. I tend to spend a lot of mental energy thinking about how wonderful and fulfilling these events will be. They usually are, just not typically in the way I expected. I’m learning to enjoy the planning and preparation without being burdened by all the expectations it creates.

Don’t Let Others Control Your Happiness

The thing with expectations is that they usually involve other people. And the thing about other people is that you have no control over them. None. Including, by the way, your spouse and children. I remember my parents had a flip chart in our house with a quote that said, “Let no man decide your day.”

This is especially true with the most challenging people in our lives. I will often plan out my approach to difficult interactions. The problem is, my imaginings usually also include how the other person will react to what I say or do. Bad plan. One of the hardest lessons in life is that we don’t control people around us and the way they behave is usually not about us. So, I’m resolved to give others less power over how I feel, both good and bad. As a classic Type A over-achiever, I really  crave positive feedback. But, I’ve come to understand that that can be a sort of trap that keeps me needing and wanting and gives the people around me way too much control over my happiness. Better to cultivate an inner contentment that is not reliant on the mercurial responses of the people around me.

Change Your Comparative Set

One of my first posts was about the power of gratitude and reframing your comparative set. There will always, always be someone richer, prettier, fitter, and more successful than you. I enjoy personal finance blogs, including Mr. Money Mustache and Financial Samurai. A common theme on these blogs is the notion of hedonic adaptation. Essentially, it’s really easy to get used to luxury and to start thinking of it as normal and required. Think about the device that you are using to read this blog. Could you live without it? You did, of course, and not that long ago. I’m not suggesting that you  get rid of all your earthly possessions. I do think, though, that it is important to guard against this tendency for lifestyle bloat and to consciously remind yourself of how comfortable your life really is.

Take Joy in the Mundane

Simple pleasures. A long bath, reading to your kids, a quiet dinner at home. Learn to savor these things. Most days are ordinary. If you can learn to take pleasure in everyday things, you’ll find more contentment. Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down for some of the everyday tasks that I particularly enjoy. I’ve not yet reached the level of mindfulness that allows me to savor, for example, scrubbing the bathtub. But, I am learning to take real pleasure in things like watering my plants, making my bed while I listen to the radio, or cooking dinner with my family. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time imagining my future and what my life would be like. It mostly isn’t what I thought it would be like, but it’s also more wonderful than I could have imagined.

How do expectations influence your happiness?