It happened again. After loading the car with blankets and a cooler of sandwiches and treats, we drove thirty-six minutes to the lavish yet subtly sweet botanical garden of Central Minnesota. And just five minutes in, we found an unpredicted thunderstorm swoop in to dance giant rain drops upon our pathetic little picnic plans. It had happened again. And our exciting getaway afternoon of bird songs and romance transformed into muted tempers and potato salad in the car.
I was only seventeen years old, as was my soft-petaled girlfriend. But we were learning very quickly how little it took to set our dates and reveries off in the wrong direction. This had only been our first rain-out picnic, but by no means was it the only detoured rendezvous. There was the time right before that when we missed our dinner reservation and had to come up with something much less exciting on they fly. Then there was the time I was pulled over and ticketed for barely passing through a red light. And the time we got into a fight about something stupid and petty. And the string of late arrivals to the movies, completely missing those damned trailers…
Anyway, my young girlfriend and I were beginning to notice how easily we allowed failed expectations—even those most minor disturbances—to ruin our moments together. We’d get frustrated or stressed out. I’d go silent. She’d get pissy. And it was all caused by stupid stuff. We could have easily moved forward with our lives and evenings if only we had taken a deep breath and moved on.
So she and I decided one afternoon to quit letting High Expectations get in the way. It sounds funny (or just plain pathetic) to put it like this. But we decided we needed to lower our expectations. Not for each other of course. We simply realized that what we most looked forward to was being with one another and spending time together. But we had such a raised demand for organized details that as soon as one element slipped out of place, the whole night fell sabotaged.
So as odd as it may seem, “Low Expectations” became our new mantra. I would pick her up four our next date, we would look at each other, breath deep, and say in unison, “Low Expectations.” We would smile playfully at one another and then drive off to enjoy the evening together. And this became our new routine. If our river walk rained out… it was okay. We browsed the mall instead. If bad traffic kept us from making our dinner reservation… it was okay. We just grabbed something easy at some other place. If we missed the trailers… no worries. It wasn’t actually the movie that the night was all about anyway—it was each other.
“Life is messy. So we should only expect our plans to get a little messed up as well. That’s life. Roll it off the back.” This became our philosophy. Kind of Buddhist, I think. And our dating life was better because of it.
After all, what we really looked forward to was spending time with one anther, in each other’s company. Holding hands. Sharing smiles. That’s what made us happy. And that’s what we needed to focus on. And so “Low expectations” became a mantra of ours throughout the rest of our relationship. But what it really did was shift our focus. Shifted it to what was the more important. And in so doing, we found less frustration. We learned to be more care-free. We grew more happy.
I was reminded of this teenage commitment of mine while reading a Huffington Post article from earlier this month. “The key to happiness can be summed up in a single formula,” says Anna Almendrala. “Happiness depends on your expectations.” She’s referring to an equation developed by Dr. Robb Rutledge of the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing. The formula calculates moment-to-moment happiness and is a product of lab testing which measures activity in the human striatum, the part of the brain related to reward and expectations. Rutledge’s work has shown that happiness ultimately stems from our expectations in two ways: (1) our level of anticipation for the future and (2) the degree to which the present surpasses our expectations. The more excited you are for next week’s beach vacation, the happier you will feel. And the degree to which you were pleased by an unexpected phone call from a close friend, the happier that phone call will make you. One kind of happiness comes from looking toward a rosy future. The other finds bliss in a present that outmatched yesterday’s forecast. Both hinge on the nature of your expectations.
But the problem is when expectations run so high for your vacation around the corner that reality cannot possibly match up. The best part of my childhood trip to Orlando was looking forward to it. For weeks I spent every waking moment envisioning how amazing the trip was going to be. And then I got crazy sick a few days before we left. While my family was eating funnel cakes and climbing Space Mountain, I was on the sidelines holding my fever in check. Seriously, the best part of that vacation was done before we even left home.
And who hasn’t looked forward to seeing a show that was receiving rave reviews only to arrive and discover it wasn’t quite as great as you had expected? You looked forward to seeing the show for days, even weeks. And that day you were so excited, you kept thinking about it all afternoon and picturing yourself sitting there laughing at the best show of the year. You were looking forward. And while you sat in your office chair anticipating the show, you were happy. But then you got there and watched it and it was… okay. Maybe it was good—genuinely good. Just not quite as great as you thought it would be. Not quite the amazing story everyone had made it out to be. It had been talked up a bit too much, blown out of proportion. And you were let down by reality.
But then we think of all those times we were pleasantly surprised. The dreaded wedding that actually turned out to beat the odds and be a lot of fun. The show someone else dragged you to that was wildly hilarious. The date your friends set you up with that was so good you’re actually looking forward to a follow-up.
So we begin to wonder: Is the key to happiness found in just assuming everything is going to be awful all the time? Setting low expectations just so that we can discover the thrill of having them surpassed? And if you set them low on purpose, aren’t you just telling yourself they’re lower than they actually are—does that even work???
Rutledge cautions us: “You shouldn’t have low expectations for your vacation, because you won’t be able to enjoy the pleasant anticipation that comes from knowing something good is about to happen.” But at the same time, you don’t want your expectations to be so high that they are bound for failure. Rutledge advises that we simply strive for accurate expectations.
But maybe, truth be told, some of us are a little more prone to having ridiculously high expectations than others. Maybe some of us are prone to demanding everything fall into place. Not so good at keeping care-free and going with the flow. Call us perfectionists, if you wish. Label us OCD. Whatever you call it, let me be honest: That’s kind of me. And the real key in my life has been to find a place of balance. Maybe we could all use a little more balance in the kind of expectations we place upon our days.
But I think what it really comes down to is Simple Expectations. To look forward to the simple somethings of life, easy things to enjoy each and every day. Things that you genuinely look forward to, anticipations that make us happy. But pleasures low-key and common enough that they aren’t highly prone to disruption. And pleasures that can more easily become daily occurrences than once-in-a-lifetime dreams. The more often these delights occur, the less fatal life feels when they falter. But the bigger our plans become, the more pressure we tend to place on them for success. It’s when we place the emphasis on life’s simple delicacies that life itself becomes more delectable. And when those simple delicacies suddenly turn extra sweet on occasion, well, I guess those become the extra special days that keep smiles on our faces as we head to bed a night. I guess it’s those moments that slather some of that confectionary icing across the proverbial cake of a life well lived.
Call it Low Expectations. Call it No Expectations. Call it Realistic Expectations. Call it whatever you want. Happiness increases the more we are able to simplify what we want out of life. Try to find simple things to look forward to, little things, common and easy things. But enjoyable ones. And then fill your days with them. Walks through the park (or on the beach, or around the block), coffee with a friend, some alone time with your Netflix and a glass of wine, a board game with your significant one. Simple things. Spread them around and look forward to them. Anticipate their upcoming. Breath deep and enjoy their presence. Be happy.
Go ahead and make big plans too. But keep in mind what the real point of those big plans is: spending time with the ones you love; finding moments away from the rat race; slowing down for a moment to experience life from another perspective. And if the big plans still fail to meet expectations, just try and be thankful that there’s another day to be lived tomorrow.
So go see your movie. And miss the previews because they’re not what matters anyway. And just expect the film to blow! Few movies can live up to the hype anyway. Realize that what you really want out of those moments is the opportunity to chill out, check out, and maybe get in a laugh or two with the sweet person beside you. Put their hand in yours and enjoy the fact that there’s a warm seat next to you. Keep it simple and look forward to it. Spend the whole day enveloped in anticipation of that simple and easy yet oh-so-delectable evening. Be happy in those expectations. And if the movie blows, great! Your night’s not ruined because the movie quality didn’t matter that much anyway. And if it really is as great as everyone said it is, then that’s great too. You ended up pleasantly surprised. Pleasantly surprised that you and the Significant One beside you laughed even deeper and leaned in even closer than you thought you would. The night’s started so well that even dinner afterward tastes better. You’re happy because you set yourself up to enjoy the easy simplicities of life. And your day-by-day existence is all the happier because of it.
Don’t expect every night to be like that. Just be thankful that once in awhile the soft petals of life bloom full in the morning.