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Unrealistic Expectations Impede Happiness and Empathy

The interconnection of expectations, gratitude, happiness and empathy.

In 2015, I read two articles about gratitude that were published in the New York Times and both were written by gentlemen with the surname “Brooks.”

The first was an article by David Brooks titled The Structure of Gratitude, which stated in part as follows:

“I’m sometimes grumpier when I stay at a nice hotel. I have certain expectations about the service that’s going to be provided. I get impatient if I have to crawl around looking for a power outlet, if the shower controls are unfathomable, if the place considers itself too fancy to put a coffee machine in each room. I’m sometimes happier at a budget motel, where my expectations are lower, and where a functioning iron is a bonus and the waffle maker in the breakfast area is a treat.

This little phenomenon shows how powerfully expectations structure our moods and emotions, none more so than the beautiful emotion of gratitude….

People with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves. Life doesn’t surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.”

Later that year, I read a Thanksgiving related article by Arthur C. Brooks titled Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier., which stated in part as follows:

“Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness….

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things….

In addition to building our own happiness, choosing gratitude can also bring out the best in those around us.”

Both Brooks’ are correct, in my opinion.

"According to a 3-year study at the University of California, people who practice gratitude consistently have:

* Stronger immune systems and healthier blood pressure.
* Better psychological health, with fewer toxic emotions.
* Better sleep.
* Increased mental strength.
* Greater happiness and optimism.
* More generosity and compassion [and empathy, a key component of compassion].
* Less loneliness and feelings of isolation.

In his article Gratitude and Health, psychotherapist Terry Levy explained the connection between gratitude, happiness, and well-being as follows:

“Gratitude enhances positive emotions by focusing on the enjoyment of benefits. It directs one’s focus to the good things one has and away from things lacking, thus preventing the negative emotions associated with social comparison and envy. Gratitude promotes prosocial behavior, positive social relationships, and trust. It leads to adaptive coping strategies by making sense of stressful events. Gratitude increases the accessibility to positive memories, which in turn, supports one’s well-being. Grateful people are more likely to seek less and appreciate and care for what they have. Count your blessings!”

While some disagree, I believe that David Brooks hit the nail on the head when he connected gratitude with expectations. He never said that he or anyone else should “abandon expectations and appreciate everything.”

In addition and although I don’t typically agree with Dennis Prager, the following quote of his is spot on, from my vantage point:

Because gratitude is the key to happiness, anything that undermines gratitude must undermine happiness. And nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude: The more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have.”

In fact, as Project Happiness™ says, “How to have a good day: keep your gratitude higher than your expectations.

Having unrealistic expectations is a major source of unhappiness and it's very challenging to be grateful for disappointments. However, when your expectations continue adjusting in the face of reality, you can be grateful many things in your life and for pleasant surprises.

For example, in early 2010, a former client of mine with whom I had become friends asked me to join her for dinner. When I saw her, she was visibly pregnant.

Early on in the conversation, she told me that she was thinking about separating from her husband. In addition to being pregnant, they already had one child together. She was telling me this because we had become friends when I represented her in her divorce from her first husband.

I asked her why she was thinking about separating from her husband and she told me that he wasn’t paying enough attention to her. I then asked whether he paid more attention to her before she had become pregnant and she told me he hadn’t. I then asked if he had paid more attention to her after they had married and before they had their first child and she told me he hadn’t. I then asked if he had paid more attention to her after they became engaged and before they married and she told me he hadn’t. I then asked whether he had ever paid more attention to her and she said he hadn’t.

At that point, I asked her why she married him if she felt that he didn’t pay enough attention to her and it made her unhappy. She responded that she hoped he would change in that regard.

I then told her that considering she had been a licensed mental health care professional in the country from which she had come, she should know that we can’t expect people to change and she agreed. I then commented that with regard to the attention she receives from her husband, he’s the exact same man with whom she fell in love, married, and created a family.

I remarked that she could certainly divorce her husband if she wanted, and that it would be more complicated this time around because there are minor children involved. I then said that she shouldn’t remain in an unhappy marriage even with minor children involved; however, she may want to adjust her expectations because if they’re too high, she’s bound to be unhappy.

A few weeks later, I received the following email from her:

“Hi Mark. I want to again let you know that I’m very lucky to have a friend like you – not only a great attorney, a great psychologist as well. You have no idea how my life’s changed since we talked a few weeks ago. THANK YOU!!! And hope to see you soon.”

A year and a half later, I received the following email from her:

“Hi my dear friend, couldn’t wait to share the news with you – last week we had our third baby, a boy and guess what is his name?... Mark.”

We exchanged emails a year later and I asked her about her marriage. She replied, “Things are fine, I would say partly thanks to you. Once you told me to lower my expectations and I did, it became much easier to live. Compared to how it was after our first child, things are much better now. Marriage is everyday work, I think we’re getting used to each other.”

As Edward Shepard said in his article titled Teaching Kids to Give Thanks Is One of the Best Things You Can Do for Them, "The opposite of gratitude is entitlement. Entitlement stunts resilience and self-sufficiency. Also, people who lack gratitude also tend to lack empathy. Like 'gratitude,' empathy isn’t just a feel-good word: it’s a critical skill for success for our interconnected world."

I read a very similar assessment of entitlement in relationship to gratitude in a quote from a former jail detainee who was interviewed for an article titled Jailhouse Warehouse: The nation’s jails are housing more mentally ill people than hospitals that was published in the ABA Journal on December 1, 2016. The former detainee, David, says "he now focuses on gratitude, that he already has all he needs to be happy. 'Entitlement does not make you happy. Asking for happiness, wanting more does not make you happy,' David says. 'Be grateful. We are released. Be grateful.'"

According to Shepard, "Gratitude is central to every world religion. Indeed, lack of lack of gratitude is frequently considered one of humanities greatest sins."

As such and considering that holding unreasonable expectations undermines gratitude, making a concerted effort to adjust expectations to more realistic levels is advisable.

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