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?

A Practice of Gratitude

This is a post about how to create a practice of gratitude. I have a great deal for which to be grateful. I live in a beautiful place, I’m healthy, my children are thriving, I have enough to eat, and I have a warm, lovely home. But, still, I sometimes find myself wallowing in self-pity and frustration. Over the past year or so, I’ve been consciously trying to strengthen my gratitude muscle and I’ve found that the more I do it, the more naturally it comes. It really is amazing how gratitude can change your whole outlook on life. Here’s a few tips to get started:

Reframe Your Comparative Set
The first and most important recommendation I have for gratitude is to reframe your comparative set. If you are a striver like me, you may have a competitive streak. You may be drawn to compare your life to your colleagues, your college friends, your family members. That’s all good and well and the subject of a different post for the future about the power of being aspirational. But, it is also really important to remember how great you have it. I find that reflecting a bit on what life is like for so many people in the world who lack access to clean water or medical care, live in war-torn places, or struggle to provide for their children, reminds me how basically awesome my life is. I have won the life lottery in so many ways. If people who have struggled and suffered can rise above their circumstances and contribute to the world (e.g.Malala), then I can let go of the fact that my commute took too long. Along those lines, finding a way to spend helping time with people whose challenges surpass your own can be a wonderful way to be of service and put your own woes in perspective.

Write it Down

About a year ago, I started a Gratitude Journal. There are a lot of great apps out for this. I like the “Gratitude Journal – The Life-changing app” because after I make an entry it gives me a gratitude related quote and I LOVE a good quote. It’s very simple and straightforward and I usually end up writing about the same things – my kids, my health, etc. I also end up listing people in the journal. I’ve had a couple of times at work where I’ve told someone that they make it to my gratitude journal and they emit a palpable  warm glow. I try to do my journal entry on my morning commute and I’ve noticed a qualitative difference in my mental outlook on the days that I’ve written in the journal. 

Share Gratitude with Your Kids

Shortly after she started school, we noticed that it was hard to get my then 6-year old daughter to tell us much about what had happened during her day. So, we started a new practice with her that we call What Went Well. Right before bed, we each list three things that went well on that day. Because of What Went Well, she has told me about people and situations at school that I would not have heard about otherwise and it has helped her to focus on all the wonderful things in her life. And, it usually gives me a good chance to tell her about some way in which I am grateful for her. She loves to be listed on our What Went Wells!

Meditate on It

Meditation is awesome and if you are reading this blog, maybe you’ve tried it. If not, no time like the present to be present. I use the Calm app, which I love. They have a 7-days of gratitude series that I highly recommend. The single most helpful tip I’ve used in meditating is to focus on a particular idea or word or feeling. That helps to quiet my busy mind. Gratitude is a particularly powerful idea on which to meditate because it infuses you with such a sense of abundance and well-being. And, you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion in a quiet place to do it. You can stop anywhere, anytime, and spend a few moments of quiet breathing, focusing on all the wonderful things in your life.

Say Thank You

Maybe the most foundational move in the gratitude playbook is to share your gratitude with the people in your life. This practice has the dual impact of uplifting both you and the recipient of your gratitude. At the suggestion of the Calm 7-days of gratitude series, I recently sent my husband an email articulating all the things about him for which I am grateful (or at least a lot of them). He loved it, and I loved sending it. When we really reflect on the people in our lives, we find that there is much in them that we love and cherish. Tell them! It will strengthen your relationships in profound ways.

I believe that a practice of gratitude is the foundation for a happy outlook on life. Thank you for reading this post. For what or whom are you grateful today?