Your job sucks. Traffic isn’t budging—again. Your husband forgot it was his turn to cook dinner or your wife forgot it was hers. Your child’s school grades are beyond disappointing, and your long-planned island vacation was so bad it wasn’t worth the hassle it took to get there.
Why not just accept all things as they are and get happy already?
It’s an intriguing idea, but here’s the catch: If we truly accept things as they are unconditionally, the world as we know it will come to a grinding—messy—halt.
- If you somehow get happy with a lousy job, you won’t bother to find a more challenging, more interesting, or higher-paying position.
- If you simply accept slow-moving traffic that makes you late for work, you won’t be motivated to plan accordingly or leave earlier. If everyone accepts it, new roads won’t be built or better public transportation won’t be developed, and it will get so bad nobody will get anywhere.
- If you cheerfully accept someone’s chronic forgetfulness, she might not be motivated to make changes, and you won’t have a friend or a partner you can depend on. If you accept poor treatment from everyone, you won’t learn to choose friends more wisely in the future.
- If you’re blissed out with your kids no matter what kind of grades they get, they might not be motivated to try harder or even study at all.
- If you happily accept a dirty hotel room that looks nothing like what was promised, you might miss out on a chance to negotiate for a better room or at least a partial refund—and a gorgeous room at half the price just two streets away from the beach.
You get the picture. If we just accept the way things are, there’s no motivation to improve anything, assuming some things really should be improved.
But that’s not how humans are. We have emotions, and emotions alert us to conditions that aren’t healthy, safe, reasonable, or good for us. Our emotions help us to differentiate between situations, people, things, ideals, or goals that are life-enhancing or energy-draining.
And since most of us prefer happiness, we’re constantly on the lookout for conditions that create—or at least enhance—that elusive state we long for.
What if we lower our expectations? Could that make us any happier?
Maybe, if we don’t expect anything to turn out the way we’d like, then whatever we end up with will make us happy.
- If we expect traffic to be jammed solid, we’ll be happy with it, even if it means hours spent driving every day. If it’s smooth, we’ll have some extra time for something else.
- If we don’t expect people to keep promises, we’ll be overjoyed when they do—or at least we’ll avoid disappointment.
- If we expect our island vacation to be the worst ever, we’ll be delighted no matter how awful or unhealthy it is.
- If we don’t expect our kids to do well in school, we’ll be content with any kind of performance, grades or otherwise, no matter how lousy.
In some version of nirvana, everyone would always be happy and we’d always do our very best.
But that’s not reality. Humans are social animals, and we don’t strive and thrive independently. There’s a constant push and pull as the whole of society seeks homeostasis or balance even while advancing forward or seeking excellence.
And humans don’t easily shut off undesirable emotions and turn on the good ones nor would we want to. Emotions have a purpose; when basic needs aren’t met, our emotions respond. And when our most basic needs are met, our emotions drive us toward higher levels of purpose and satisfaction.
How we react to those emotions is a separate issue altogether.
But there’s a different way to go in our quest for peace and happiness, something other than lowering expectations and accepting whatever we get.
What if we set high expectations and let go of the outcome?
Set the bar high, expect to reach the goal, but don’t worry if you or others don’t make it. That doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance. Be prepared to try again, regroup, or move to plan B without worrying about it, without fretting over the actual outcome.
It’s kind of like being a good sport: I want to win that race more than anything, and I know I will. I believe I will, and I prepare for it. I give it my all, and when I come in third I feel the disappointment but I’m thrilled—I know I gave it my best, my heart and my soul. As I hug and congratulate the winner, I share the victory because I’ve been training hard, and I wouldn’t even have finished the race only a year ago much less come in third.
- If an easy commute and light traffic is truly what we need, we can meet that expectation by working closer to home, taking an alternate route, or figuring out how to work from home.
- We can fully believe our friends or partners will keep their promises because we believe in their inherent worth, and if they don’t, we can work together toward a plan that works for both sides instead of wasting time feeling betrayed or angry. We might have to distance ourselves, however, from people who don’t respect us and never will, and if we consistently choose unreliable friends, we can learn to choose better instead of getting let down over and over again and trying to accept it.
- We can set the bar high for our children and do everything we can to support them, but the victory or failure is theirs. We don’t own the outcome; we just set the standard and make sure it’s reasonable even if high.
- We can look forward to the most fabulous vacation ever and expect it. Rather than spend time being miserable with our disappointing room, we dash out to the sunny beach and jump in the waves, knowing we can either make changes or spend more time outside our room than in.
We shouldn’t cling to the outcome of our expectations. But if we have low expectations, that’s all we’re going to get—or worse.
But there’s a caveat: expectations shouldn’t be unreasonable or unrealistic.
- We shouldn’t expect to get something we haven’t asked for or earned or worked toward.
- We shouldn’t expect the universe to just drop goodness in our paths because we expect it.
- We shouldn’t expect others to give us something they don’t have to offer or don’t know how to give.
- We shouldn’t expect anyone to be something or someone they’re not or don’t want to be.
Sometimes we need to look deeper to understand a basic need and explore different ways to get it met.
But even if we have to change our expectations, that doesn’t mean we have to lower them and expect less than the highest good.
We can fully expect the universe—god, goddess, higher power—to give us exactly what we need when we need it. And we can expect the same for others.
Keep the expectations high, work toward them, and let go of the outcome.
Don’t stress over the outcome or worry about it; work with it.
Outcomes always match our expectations in one way or another, or we get back what we give out. Even if we can’t see any connection or reason for a disappointing outcome, there’s always a hidden gem—an opportunity to choose, learn, grow—just waiting to be discovered.
Are your expectations unrealistically high? Too low? Comments are always welcome.