Almost a year after graduating from college, stuck in an entry level job with no future opportunity in sight, the young man was feeling anxious, disappointed, and angry.
"I spent all this time, energy, and money to get through college to get a good start in life, and where do I end up? In counseling! I don't have much of a job. I don't have much of a direction. And for sure, I'm not making much money."
"What did you expect?" I asked.
"To be doing better than this!" he exclaimed. "Isn't that the point of going to college? To better yourself? Better than what?"
"What did you expect?" I asked again.
"What does it matter what I expected?" he asked, irritated by my repeating the question.
"It matters because your emotional state, the unhappiness that brought you in here, partly depends on what you have chosen to expect in life."
And we spent the rest of the hour talking about the psychology of expectations, particularly about the outcomes he expected a college education to bring. Here is some of what I explained and what we discussed.
First off, I talked about what expectations are - mental constructs we create to anticipate our way through life, through change (from old to new) and through time (from present to future.)
To the degree we can anticipate the reality we encounter,I explained, our adjustment to that reality becomes easier. If we have some sense what alterations a significant life change is going to bring (a move, an illness, an impending loss, for example) the transition becomes easier to make.
When we have absolutely no idea what to expect next in life ("I can't imagine what it's going to be like") that ignorance may exciting, but more often it can be scary.
The main thing to remember about expectations, I told him, is that they are not genetically ordained, they are chosen. We are responsible for the expectations we choose to hold. In general, we want to choose our expectations wisely, which means that as much as possible the reality we anticipate fits the reality we encounter. When this occurs, even though the expectation is not to our liking, we felt prepared for the reality it anticipated so we were not caught completely off guard. "Well, at least I figured college would be harder and a lot more work than high school."
When the reality we expect fits the reality we encounter, our emotional response is usually less upsetting than when the reality we expect does not fit the reality we encounter. In either case, these mental sets have emotional consequences.
So let's return to the downcast young college graduate in counseling.
Consider three kinds of positive expectations he has created about the reality to be encountered after college graduation. He has PREDICTIONS about what WILL happen after graduating. For example, he will be better able to find a job. He has AMBITIONS about what he WANTS to have happen after graduating. For example, he wants an interesting job that will advance him into a satisfying career. He has CONDITIONS about what SHOULD happen after graduating. For example, he should be able to be paid a comfortable income at whatever job he finds.
Now, if this reality he expected fit the reality he encountered he would feel satisfied. For example, because he quickly found a job as he predicted, he would feel confident. Because the job fits his ambition, he would feel fulfilled. Because his income condition is met, he would feel content. However, look what happens, as it did with this young man in counseling (and many like him) when none of the three kinds of expectations he attached to college graduation came to pass.
Because the prediction of easy employment is violated by reality, and after seven months of looking and he has yet to land a job, he feels surprised and anxious. Because the ambition for finding work he really wanted to do is violated by at last taking a routine assembly line job, he feels disappointed and let down. Because the condition of making a comfortable living right away is violated by making entry level wages, he feels betrayed and angry.
Now this young man has two sets of problems, not one. He has the problem of choosing how to proceed with his life, and he has the emotional burden of bearing unrealistic expectations. It's the second set of problems that I suggested we address first. For the sake of his emotional wellbeing, he needed to give up his unrealistic expectations and create a realistic set instead. This is what he came up with.
"Just out of college I need to expect it will be hard to find a job, any job, right away. So I really need to look hard. Right away, I probably won't get a job like the one I really want. So I need to take what I can get and go from there. And financially, whatever job I get, I should have to struggle to get by on however little I am able to make."
"Yes," I agreed. "Those expectations sound more realistic to me. Accept what you have and you free up some energy that was spent protesting against it. And just so you know that this reality is okay, ask your parents for stories about what it was like when they first started out. After all, where they are occupationally and financally now is not where they began.
"As for the 'promise' of a college education to better your life that got your expectations off on the wrong footing, it hasn't been broken. It just needs some years of hard work, determination, and happenstance to come true. Just remember, if you have managed to graduate from college congratulate yourself because another reality is that you have beaten some long odds. On average, only about 50% of entering freshmen manage to graduate from the college in which they first enroll."
For everyone, choice of expectations in life psychologically matters because these mental sets can have such powerful emotional consequences. Thus recent college graduates who choose to hold unrealistic positive expectations about their immediate prospects in life usually do so to their unhappy cost.