Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Could Lower Expectations Result in a Happier Life?

What is a good enough life?

Recently, I've noticed a common trend in many of my clinical patients who have been struggling with depression, life dissatisfaction, and stress. Many wonder if their mate or their career were the perfect choice for them after all. The theme seems to be "I could have done better."  

This might sound sacrilegious coming from a psychologist but maybe we need to consider lowering (rather than raising) our expectations for our lives. 

There seems to be a growing expectation that we should be able to secure the perfect spouse, the perfect career, the perfect home, engineer the perfect children, and so forth to be happy and if that doesn't happen according to our plans then something is wrong that needs fixing. While we all likely believe that we should have high expectations for ourselves I wonder if unrealistically high expectations are counterproductive and destructive.

Maybe Hollywood is to blame. Perhaps watching the lives and fortunes of the rich and famous influence our views of what kind of life we should expect. For example, are we likely to feel better or worse about our lives after watching the Academy Awards later this week?  Perhaps our increasingly self centered and narcissistic culture plays a role too. If it's all about me (i.e., my needs, my pleasures, my success) then we may never secure what we feel we deserve and are entitled to. So many people seem to have unrealistic expectations of what they can expect from a spouse, a career, their children, and life in general. They want it all and they want it all perfect.

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While it certainly makes a great deal of sense to try and improve an unhappy marriage, an unsatisfying career, or a conflcit in family relationships, it also makes good sense to try and be realistic as to what one can expect from relationships, work, and life in general.

So, how do we manage this conflict of expectations?

While there are no magic answers there might be a few principles that can help. Four that immediately come to mind include...

1. Talk about this tension with important others. Comparing notes with those with whom you most trust might help in getting some perspective of what is and is not realistic expectations.

2. Take stock of the things you are grateful for. If we attend to our blessings perhaps we won't focus as much on our unfulfilled desires.

3. Watch less media. Focusing on the charmed lives of the rich and famous may not help us in our own efforts to live a more realistic life.

4. Don't read self-help books. Too often self-help books ultimately state that you can have it all and that you should settle for nothing less than the best. Sounds good but the unintended consequences of this perspective might be more unhappiness and disappointment due to unrealistic expectations.

So doing the right thing for ourselves might actually include lowering (and not increasing) our expectations for love, work, family, and life.

What is a good enough life for you?

What is a good enough relationship, family, career, health, and so forth?

What do you think?

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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