I have an apology to make to anyone who has been reading my posts weekly. By posting on the same day every week for a while I created an expectation that this week I didn't meet, and this may have upset your limbic system. Sorry about that!
The brain is finely tuned to expectations, and an expectation that isn't met, no matter how seemingly unimportant, can sometimes pack a punch. This stands out a lot with young children, who can lose the plot at the smallest unmet expectation (not having one more expected cookie can send a 4 four year old into a total tizz.) Unmet expectations can pack a punch for adults, too. Here's why.
Dopamine and expectations
The best brain research on expectations comes from Professor Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University in England. Schultz studies the links between dopamine and the reward circuitry. Dopamine cells sit deep within the brain, in the nucleus accumbens, and fire off in anticipation of primary rewards. Schultz found that when a cue from the environment indicates you're going to get a reward, dopamine releases in response. Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. Thus, the surprise bonus at work, even a small one, can positively impact your brain chemistry more than an expected pay rise.
However, if you're expecting a reward and you don't get it, dopamine levels fall steeply. This feeling is not a pleasant one, it feels a lot like pain. Expecting a pay rise and not getting one can create a funk that lasts for days. However, low levels of unmet expectations are something we all experience constantly: expect the lights to change and find they take a long time and your dopamine levels fall, leaving you feeling frustrated. Expect the service at the bank to be fast but find a long queue, more frustration. Not only does dopamine go down in these instances, you also get a mild threat response, reducing prefrontal functioning for deliberate tasks.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of desire. Dopamine levels rise when you want something, even something as simple as wanting to cross the road. (Dopamine is a driver of the reward response in most of the animal kingdom too. At last, we know the real reason the chicken wanted to cross the road...it was craving a burst of dopamine!) Put simply, dopamine is central to the toward state, to being open, curious, and interested.
The number of connections made per second in the brain is also connected to dopamine levels. A hit of cocaine dramatically increases dopamine levels, with people chaotically jumping between ideas as the number of connections per second increases. When dopamine levels are too low, the number of connections per second in the brain falls. The movie "Awakenings" with Robin Williams illustrated the story of a patient who went from comatose to manic, after being given a dopamine-producing agent, L-dopa. When the L-dopa stopped, the patient plummeted back into a comatose state.
The dopamine cells in the nucleus accumbens connect to many parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where the right levels of dopamine are critical for focusing. You need good levels of dopamine to "hold" an idea in your prefrontal cortex. Positive expectations increase the levels of dopamine in the brain, and these increased levels make you more able to focus. This makes sense intuitively: teachers know that kids learn best when they are interested in a subject. Interest, desire, and positive expectations are slight variations on a similar experience, an experience of having an increased level of dopamine in the brain.
The link between expectations, dopamine and perception may explain why happiness is a great state for mental performance and problem solving. Lots of research has been done, such as by Barbara Frederickson from the University of North Carolina, showing that happy people perceive a wider range of data, solve more problems and come up with more new ideas for actions to take in a situation. Perhaps the elusive search for happiness is really a search for the right levels of dopamine. From this perspective, to create a ‘happy' life perhaps you should live a life with a good amount of novelty, create opportunities for unexpected rewards, and believe that things are always going to get slightly better.
Creating the right expectations
Whether your goal is to be eternally happy, or just improve your performance at work, clearly it's going to be useful to improve how you manage expectations, to create the right levels of dopamine. To be clear, I am not an advocate of consuming L-dopa, cocaine, or any other substance that induces greater dopamine levels. The best way to manage your expectations (without any side effects) is to start to pay attention to them. Managing your expectations is also an opportunity to be more proactive in the way you regulate emotions, setting the scene for good performance rather than just sorting out problems when things go wrong.
Unmet expectations are one of the important experiences to avoid, as these generate the stronger threat response. Great leaders carefully manage expectations to avoid not meeting them. When Barack Obama was sworn in as the new US president in 2009, he took care to ensure people reduced their expectations both of him and the years ahead.
Consciously altering what you expect can have a surprising impact. Imagine you are trying to get an upgrade for a long international flight. If you keep your expectations low, you will either be okay if you don't get the reward, or thrilled if you do. Whereas if you allow yourself to get excited about the possible upgrade, you will either have a terrible flight if you don't get the upgrade, or only be quietly happy, though not thrilled, if you do get it. When you step back and look at all the possible outcomes this way, it makes sense to minimize one's expectations of positive rewards in most situations. Keeping an even keel about potential wins pays off.
As well as making sure you keep your expectations low, another way to boost your mood is to pay additional attention to positive expectations you know will be met for sure. A colleague recently said, "I like to use the fact that I have a holiday coming up, even if it's months away, to help me be positive. If I focus on this, though it's not logical, I have learned this helps keep the doldrums away." Choosing to focus on things always getting a little bit better, even with evidence at times to the contrary, helps you maintain good levels of dopamine.
The 'P Principle'
There's another way expectations appear to impact experience. This one is entirely unscientific -- I have no evidence whatsoever for this idea, except personal experience. However, there's an idea I call the ‘P Principle'. Simply put, the closer you get to the rest room, the more desperate you get to pee. It seems too miraculous that you always ‘just make it'. What perhaps happens is that expecting something to end makes you need it to end ASAP. So, if you're going a little nuts this time of year too, a month or so away from a holiday, don't worry, it's not you, it's probably just your brain.
Want to read more? Check out my new book 'Your Brain at Work' - recently listed as one of the top 10 best-selling business books in the US. Or stay in touch via Twitter.