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Is Happiness = Reality/Expectations a Good Formula?

The pitfalls of maintaining low expectations to boost happiness levels

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Many people believe in the Happiness = Reality/Expectations Formula I was a little kid, my grandma used to constantly warn me of the dangers of having inflated expectations. As I was heading off to my hometown for summer vacation — giddy with thoughts of all the fun I would have with my cousins, for example — my grandma would remind me that I didn’t get along well with all of my cousins. As I was preparing to burst crackers for Diwali, she would remind me of the possibility that the damp weather may prevent the crackers from bursting.

My grandma was a big fan of the Happiness = Reality/Expectations formula.

According to this formula, a failsafe way of sustaining high happiness levels is to maintain low expectations. This formula is based on the idea that one’s happiness levels are inversely proportional to one’s expectations.

How good is this formula?

Guaranteeing High Customer Satisfaction is (Almost) Guaranteed to Lower Customer Satisfaction!

On the one hand, it would seem that this formula is a good one. Findings in marketing, for example, show that customer satisfaction is inversely proportional to customer-expectations. Generally speaking, the more a customer expects from a brand or firm, the less satisfied he is with that brand or firm. Extrapolating these findings to the context of happiness, it would seem that a good way to boost happiness levels is by lowering expectations.

On the other hand, however, there are at least two reasons why the Happiness = Reality/Expectations formula may fail. First, although setting low expectations may seem easy in concept, it is nearly impossible in practice. This is because our expectations are formed, in large part, by subconscious processes. This is why, after having lived in the U.S. (particularly Texas) for several years, I find the portion-sizes in other countries to be underwhelming. (And the reverse is true as well — everything, from people and portion-sizes of food to automobiles and homes — appear particularly large in Texas after a visit to another country.)

There is an important adaptive reason why our expectations are formed subconsciously. Our subconsciously formed expectations offer a quick and yet remarkably accurate, estimate of what we are likely to encounter in the world around us. These expectations, in turn, allow us to make decisions in a relatively effortless fashion. Thus, for example, without thinking about it, we expect food to arrive faster at a fast food restaurant than at a dine-in restaurant. Likewise, we expect, without thinking about it, that car drivers will stop at a red light, students won't smoke in classrooms, etc.

If we did not have subconsciously generated expectations, we would take far longer to make decisions — even simple ones. This is because we would have to form expectations “from scratch,” and, as such, even rudimentary expectations (such as, that our car will start when we turn on the ignition), would take forever to form. Thus, but for our ability to subconsciously generate expectations, we’d be paralyzed.

In other words, our subconsciously generated expectations perform a very critical role: they help us navigate a complex world in an efficient and effective manner. Of course, an important downside to generating expectations subconsciously is that we find it difficult to consciously alter our expectations. This, in turn, means that we can’t easily manage our happiness levels through managing our expectations.

The second reason why managing expectations isn’t a reliable way to boost happiness levels is that, even if we somehow learned to control our expectations, it is not obvious that having consistently low expectations will enhance happiness.

Consider the following thought experiment as an illustration. Imagine two people, Person A and Person B. Person A always thinks of all the ways in which something can go wrong. Before stepping on to a plane, he immediately entertains the possibility that the plane might be hijacked. Or, when on vacation on the beach on a beautiful sunny day, he immediately entertains the possibility that weather will turn rainy any moment. Person B, in contrast, always thinks of all the ways in which everything will go well. Before stepping on to a plane, she thinks of the interesting conversation that she is going to have with her neighbor; when the weather is sunny, she thinks of other positive things — such as getting a nice tan or playig volleyball on the beach.

Who do you think would be happier — Person A or Person B?

The answer, of course, is Person B. And yet, it is Person A who has the low expectations.

This example illustrates an important pitfall in the Happiness = Reality/Expectations formula. It illustrates that consistently entertaining “worst case scenarios” (that is, having low expectations) makes you constantly think negative thoughts. And delving in negative thoughts, as those with depression can attest, makes you feel negative.

Thus, far from enhancing happiness levels, the strategy of managing expectations may actually lower happiness levels!

Constantly Entertaining Low Expectations makes You a Party Pooper

There is yet another negative side effect of consistently entertaining low expectations: you come to be known as the “party pooper.” And everyone — particularly the happy people — will learn to avoid you like the plague and that's not good for being happy.

Where does this leave us? Does the fact that managing expectations is difficult combined with the fact that the strategy of lowering expectations may have a boomerang effect mean that it is never a good idea to keep expectations low?

Not necessarily. There are times when it is prudent to entertain low expectations. When traveling in an unsafe country, it’s better to proactively think of ways in which one may put oneself in harm’s way. When consuming food in a dingy restaurant, it’s better to have low expectations of hygiene and take precautionary steps. The strategy of maintaining low expectations is useful when the risk of a negative outcome occurring is high. In such circumstances, entertaining low expectations (worst case scenarios) can help avoid a negative outcome and hence, prevent unhappiness.

In other words, the strategy of maintaining low expectations is useful for mitigating unhappiness. But it is not useful for enhancing happiness.

To me, the strategy with the best promise for enhancing happiness is one that has little to do with managing expectations. Rather, it has everything to do with how one responds after a “below expectations” event has occurred. This strategy involves spending as little time as possible ruminating about the negative consequences triggered by the “below expectations” event, and focusing, instead, on the opportunities that the event has generated. That is, the strategy involves getting into the habit of viewing every negative (below expectations) event as an opportunity rather than as a threat.

Thus, for example, if an interaction with a cell phone provider goes badly, the happiness enhancing strategy would involve diverting attention away from thoughts such as “customer service is going down the drain these days” or “I always get the worst service providers” to ones such as "what can I do to elicit better customer service?" or “what new ideas or opportunities for growth am I getting from this interaction?” Thinking along these positive lines may lead you to think of a new product or service idea. Even if you didn’t actually introduce this new product or service, you are more likely to feel happy. Likewise, if you are on vacation and it starts raining, happiness levels would be enhanced if you focused less on thoughts such as “the rain is ruining my vacation” and more on thoughts such as “what are some fun ways of enjoying a beach vacation when it is raining?”

There is Something Positive in Every Negative Outcome

In other words, rather than actively trying to manage expectations before an event occurs, I propose that managing the direction in which our mind wanders after the “below expectations” event occurs is a better way to enhance happiness levels. Specifically, I propose that, rather than ruminate on the ways in which the event is causing discomfort or problems, I propose that entertaining the possibility that every “bad” outcome hides within it the potential for an enriching, informative, and transformational experience is a better formula for enhancing happiness levels.

In mathematical terms, the formula may be stated as follows:

Happiness = f (Focusing on opportunities for growth and learning versus on threats and disappointments | Below-expectations event).

This formula suggests that, conditional upon a negative (below expectations) event occurring, the way to boost happiness levels is to actively look for the opportunities that the event generates, rather than wallow in its negativity. The formula may be more complex and unwieldy than the Happiness = Reality/Expectations formula, but it is a far more effective one.

If you do decide to use this formula, however, it would be useful to keep a caveat in mind: make sure that — to the extent you can control it — your expectations about the effectiveness of the formula are not very high!