Lowering expectations to avoid disappointment is a form of mind control that leads to less sadness and greater happiness. Our minds generally are responsible for determining how “happy” we are in life, assuming we have enough to eat and shelter, though I have talked to homeless people who seem happier than some middle-class people. Those who exert some control over how their minds anticipate and react to events in their lives seem to be the happiest. Our minds generate expectations that make us unhappy if they are not fulfilled. What we expect is in the mind and nowhere else. As I learned to control my expectations shortly before and during retirement, I became a happier person.
We tend to set firmly in our minds what we expect to happen, how we expect to feel about a situation that may occur, and what others will say or do. When something different from our expectations happens, we are unhappy and respond in various negative ways; anger or hurt feelings, expressed or unexpressed, are the most common.
These feelings of anger and hurt often manifest themselves in action: verbal expression of these emotions; verbal attack on another; physical attack on another; withholding or modifying a relationship, such as withholding benefits that we normally bestow on the other person, or some sort of punishment, such as withholding affection, sympathy or empathy that we normally would express. Other forms of punishment of the other person for failing to meet our expectations could be withholding money, taking legal action or convincing others to take action against the person.
These reactions, rather than making us happier, exacerbate and deepen the negative, unhappy feelings. Feelings of unhappiness are caused by expectations that in many cases are too high. In marriages or domestic partnerships, for example, we expect our partners to have sex with us on a regular basis. Our expectation may even be specific, such as twice a week. We also may expect our spouse to cook the evening meal. We expect a close friend to call at least once a week. We expect a close friend not to say anything negative about us to other people. We expect drivers to follow the rules. We expect our adult children to call regularly. These expectations set us up for disappointment, unhappiness and negative emotions. If we don’t compound unhappiness by negative conduct, we may keep the negative feelings in and harbor resentment, which eventually will come out.
It is difficult to avoid expectations. At the first book reading I went to for my book Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages, four people showed up. I was disappointed because I had unrealistic expectations. I could have saved myself from that disappointment if I had not developed those expectations. Fortunately, I realized that, shortly after the reading, which helped to dissipate the disappointment.
One certainty in any relationship––with friend, family or lover––is that the relationship will change. Nothing lasts forever, especially relationships. Failure to expect changes often results in unhappiness. I try to expect changes––in effect, to expect the unexpected. It is not easy. The change could be a pleasant one that creates greater closeness, but it could be a distancing or even estrangement. If we expect change, it will reduce its negative impact.