Adjusting Expectations Can Increase Happiness
As COVID derails us yet again, a common frustration among parents is the lack of ability to plan. Each time we’re forced to change course our endorphins (those happy little hormones we built up in anticipation of our plans) take a hit.
Managing expectations is an important part of the parenting journey and learning how to adjust both our own expectations and our children’s is essential to our well-being. However, during a prolonged crisis like the pandemic, when you're faced with growing uncertainty and diminishing points of reference, setting realistic expectations can feel insurmountable.
Several years ago, as I was working through my divorce, I bought a notebook that read “Lowering My Expectations Has Succeeded Beyond My Wildest Dreams.” I bought it because it made me laugh but also because I sensed an important truth beneath the flip surface. I was tired of nursing disappointment, and I understood that altering expectations was my only way forward.
I know lowering expectations feels counter to our over-achiever culture, but bear with me…
WHAT IS EXPECTATION AND HOW IS IT FORMED?
Expectation is defined in the dictionary as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.”
It’s interesting to note how the definition of EXPECTATION differs from the definition of HOPE (our final resilience building block in our We Are Raising Resilience Together pledge).
Hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Hope is visceral, thereby connecting us to expectation emotionally. It’s more focused on the process than the outcome. This is important because our emotional connection to expectation is related to how happy we are. More on that in a minute.
How do we arrive at the strong beliefs that fuel expectation? Experience.
According to neuroscientists at MIT, when we’re faced with uncertainty, “we automatically rely on our prior experiences to optimize behavior (and) help us make sense of what we are perceiving in the present, based on similar past experiences.”
WHAT PURPOSE DOES EXPECTATION SERVE?
In an article for Psychology Today, Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D. said, “Expectations are anticipatory. They can ease our way through life when they roughly fit the next reality we encounter. They can facilitate our capacity to adjust to the new and different.”
This gets tricky when our lack of experience limits our ability to set realistic expectations. Most of us have never lived through a pandemic. Most of us made it through school without social distancing, remote learning, masks, and rapid tests.
Add the escalation of the climate crisis and increasing social justice issues with calls to action delivered via social media platforms that we didn’t grow up with and we now realize - we have less in common with our children’s experience of adolescence than our parents had with ours. When our kids wail, “you don’t get it,” sometimes they’re right, we don’t. We want to. We’re trying, but even though we're experiencing this pandemic, too - the impact it has on our lives as adults is significantly different than the impact it has on our children.
So how do we adjust to the new and different with our children? How do we set realistic expectations given our current circumstances?
In an article on her blog, Christine Carter (author of The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction) said, “it’s not that we shouldn’t ever have high expectations; it’s just that we need to be aware of how our expectations can sometimes make us unhappy…
…Turns out, low expectations can be a key to happiness. Sometimes we expect too much from our spouses, our children, our jobs, and ourselves. When our expectations are unrealistic, instead of inspiring greatness with the high bar we’ve set, we’re more likely to foster disappointment, or resentment, or even hatred in ourselves.”
So, maybe lowering our expectations really will succeed beyond our wildest dreams if our goal for ourselves and our children is a happier life.
I’ll leave you with this suggestion from Christine Carter’s blog:
Take Action: This week, reset an expectation: what is a more realistic and joyful goal? Then, refocus on the journey rather than the destination. What mountain can you climb that you will truly enjoy climbing, whether or not you ever make it to the top? How can you focus on the present moment — whatever you are doing right now — rather than setting big goals and high expectations for the future?