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Happiness = Low Expectations?

A few months ago, my husband Peter and I went to beautiful coastal Montauk, NY for the weekend. On our flight back to Chicago, only 1/2 hour from landing, the captain got on to alert us that we would likely need to be rerouted to Milwaukee due to weather issues at O’Hare airport. My heart sank. What a pain!

I ran through the consequences. We’d need to rent a car or hire a cab to drive us from Milwaukee to O’Hare, where our own car was parked. This would add many hours to our return trip. I’d need to alert our dog sitter of the delay. Could she hold onto Marley until we made it back?

Minutes later, the captain returned with the good news that we’d been given clearance and we would after all be able to land in Chicago. Yay! We were relieved and thrilled.

In a moment, we’d gone from disappointment to joy. Joy beyond what we had actually been feeling on this trip home.

Some neuroscientists have calculated a complex mathematical equation for happiness that says happiness depends on expectations. It’s not about how well things go but about how things go compared to what we expected. Within reason: “While reducing your expectations in the moment increases the likelihood of a positive surprise, chronically belittling your expectations is counterproductive.”

This makes me think about the Danes. For years Denmark has ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. A lot of that is due to the benefits they enjoy, such as free education and healthcare, low crime rates and a generous social security net, relative prosperity and a strong sense of community. But there’s another element too: They consistently report low expectations for the future.

I was born in Copenhagen of a Danish mother and I recently asked her about this. She heartily agreed, saying, “I never expected the life I have.” And at 87, she has a very nice life indeed, enjoying the spoils of Santa Barbara, California. (Mind you, she lived through the German occupation of Copenhagen and has vivid memories of many fears and deprivations, especially since her father worked for the Danish Resistance.)

For years, I myself have thought expecting the worst was the way to go. Then you can only be happily surprised, right? To be honest, I indulged in a bit of magical thinking too. If I anticipate it, it won’t happen. Problem is, it’s delusional. And it’s a crappy way to live. Already an anxious person, the last thing I need to do is think of all the ways things could go wrong.

So I choose a middle ground. I lean on being realistic but staying hopeful too. And I do believe that as women 40+, we can create a life that is joyful and fulfilled, while honoring our past struggles and plowing through our current challenged. That’s why I love supporting women in midlife and beyond through their journeys, in community, with my membership.

YOUR TURN: What role do expectations play in your life and your happiness? Share in the comments!

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  1. Sally Waddell

    I agree with expectations having inverse relationship to happiness. I can list dozens of examples in my own life. But one area I wanted to share is in my relationship with my husband. He became very good at managing expectations with me. For the 12 years we lived in Chicago, he worked in consulting. Traveling Mon-Fri most of the time, working late when he was in town. We discovered that if he told me he’d be home by 7 pm but the work took longer and he missed the 6:30 train I would be upset and disappointed when he got home at 7:30-7:45. If he told me he’d be late, not to expect him until 8:30 but he managed to make it home by 7:30-7:45, I would be soo happy. In truth he was coming home at the same time in both cases, but the expectations made all the difference!!!
    My best friend from our Warsaw days is a Danish woman named Bodil. She found the low expectations and “egalitarian” systems of Denmark grating. She felt she was special and deserved special things. The first thing she did when she moved to Warsaw was buy herself a fur coat and a Jaguar car, both things that are taxed at 150% of the actual price of the item (luxury tax) in Denmark. But I think that difference in expectations vs. what ends up happening is why she is such a sad, unsatisfied person. She had very high expectations of everything and everyone. As much as I do love her, I dreaded having her for dinner because if I didn’t make a sauce for the meat or whip fresh cream for the dessert, then it was because I didn’t cherish and honor her as my friend and she would later tell me how sad it made her feel. Such an interesting idea to think about and observe in our own interactions….thanks!

    • Hélène

      Wow, so interesting Sally! And such great examples that seem to validate my own experience. Thanks for sharing!


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