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Lower Your Expectations

Why expecting less makes us happier.

Key points

  • Lowering expectations can reduce disappointment and increase happiness.
  • In one study, participants' expectations were a larger factor for happiness than the amount of money won.
  • To lower expectations, you can try shifting your focus to the present moment.
Source: Nsey Benajah / Unsplash
Source: Nsey Benajah / Unsplash

My first year as a teacher was rough. It sometimes felt like I was thrown out of a plane without a parachute. I would walk into class thinking my high school students would love the lesson plan I spent all night designing, rethinking, and then anxiously redesigning. Then I would leave class devastated when it fell flat.

I learned a lot during this trial-by-fire time, but then one day I stumbled upon a mantra that helped me be more in the moment and responsive at work. I walked into the teachers’ lounge and slumped down with a singsongy “Lower your expectations!” My coworkers found it hilarious, and it became a unifying motto for me and my colleagues.

Someone’s getting worked up about an upcoming meeting? Lower your expectations.

Planning an in-class essay assignment? Lower your expectations.

Walking into the office to see if the copying machine is working? Lower your expectations!

The Science of Low Expectations

It turns out, there’s research that backs up the usefulness of lowering our expectations. Participants in one study had to make decisions that either led to financial gains or losses, all while inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. Researchers then duplicated this experiment as an app to crowdsource more data.

The takeaway was that it didn’t matter how much participants won; what mattered were their expectations. As the lead researcher of the study Dr. Rutledge explains, “Lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness.”

And doesn’t that just say it all? We often expect too much. Of ourselves. Of other people. Of all of it.

Expectations are like pre-scripting an interaction or experience. In improv terms, it’s playing the end of the scene.

If I’m expecting my lesson to go well or my husband to laugh uproariously at my joke or my kids to react this way or that, I’m focused on what could be. That means I’m not focused on what is.

The antidote to expectations?


Be curious about how the other person is actually reacting. But also, be curious about yourself when your expectations creep back up.

If you’re experiencing high expectations and the corresponding high disappointment, try this:

Clear Your Mind

During one improv workshop, Keith Johnstone told me to clear my mind and start again. Somehow he knew I was pre-scripting my scene. Before I even said a word.

Try this in your own life. If you find yourself expecting the moon, clear your mind and start again.

Shift Your Focus

Another strategy for managing bloated expectations is to stop thinking about your expectations and start focusing on what’s really going on.

If I’m expecting my class to go swimmingly, I can catch myself and then put all my energy into circulating the room to see how everything is actually going for each of my students. I can ask questions and listen intently. This consumes all my available brain space (it feels like there’s less and less of that the older I get), leaving no room to ruminate on what could be.

If you expect miracles and magic, try shifting your attention to the here and now. Ask questions. Get curious. Stay open.

I often find that when I shift away from pre-scripting and toward being in the moment, everyone has a much better experience.

Sing It Away

And if all this fails, just sing a little sing-songy tune: “Lower your expectations.”

We’re here. We’re alive. We’re all doing our best. Now that’s something to be happy about, isn’t it?


Kaufman, I. (2021.). How to lower your expectations. Psychology Today.

Rutledge, R. B., Skandali, N., Dayan, P., & Dolan, R. J. (2014). A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(33), 12252–12257.

The Great Brain Experiment: Crowdsourcing data on how we think and act. UCL News. (2022, May 6).

Wagstaff, K. (2014, August 4). Happiness equation solved: Lower your expectations.

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