You may be familiar with the old Yiddish expression, “Man plans, and God laughs” (Der mensch tracht, un Gott lacht). If you’ve ever had your expectations dashed you can probably relate to these words. Sometimes, things just don’t go your way—that’s life.
However, knowing reality won’t always match up with your desires doesn’t prevent expectations from arising. Given your relationship with time, along with its attendant capacity to consider the future, it’s tricky to circumvent this core aspect of human psychology.
The problem is when expectations are unmet it can be seriously stultifying. Without proper management, they can throw you off course and negatively impact your motivation, well-being, and interpersonal relationships.
What are expectations?
Simply put, expectations refer to beliefs you have about future events. Unless you’re an old Buddhist monk, it’s near impossible to have zero expectations. What’s more, expectations shouldn’t be seen in a completely negative light: they can play a key role in goal-oriented behavior and help you adapt to desired outcomes. However, when reality doesn’t align with your hopes, disappointment, frustration, and even anger can result.
Here are some common examples of expectations:
- Anticipating a particular outcome
- Envisioning how things will transpire
- Holding fixed ideas about your wants or needs from a situation
Surprisingly, it turns out people are fairly bad at predicting their feelings in prospective situations. This 2013 study discovered that newlywed couples tended to assume their happiness would increase in the four years after marriage. However, most reported their levels of happiness diminishing over that period.
So, you know what expectations are and how they feel, but what’s happening in your brain?
The relationship between expectations and dopamine
Dopamine is a “seeking” neurotransmitter, and plays a central role in how motivated, curious, open, and interested you feel. When you want something (even when it’s as straightforward as crossing the road) your dopamine levels rise.
Professor Wolfram Schultz studies the links between dopamine and your reward circuitry. His research gives an insight into what is occurring within your brain when you have expectations. Essentially, dopamine cells begin firing when you anticipate a reward.
All it takes is a cue from the environment indicating a boon and dopamine releases a response. Interestingly, unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones, meaning a surprise bonus has a more positive impact on your neurochemistry than an expected pay rise.
However, (and here’s the rub) when you expect a reward and don’t receive one, dopamine falls off steeply. What’s more, you don’t have to harbor particularly “Great” expectations.
Being unable to untangle a power cord, a typically punctual colleague who’s late, or a surprisingly long queue at the post office—all will cause your dopamine levels to drop. To add to this, you also get a mild threat response that decreases your ability to perform deliberate tasks.
How to manage expectations
Given expectations often emerge unbidden, how do you regulate them? Well, it takes a degree of commitment and discipline. By becoming more aware of your expectations, and probing deeply into how they measure up to reality, you can gain an insight into whether they are unrealistic, or potentially detrimental to your mental health.
When faced with a looming event or situation, rather than letting your mind run riot, you could ask yourself some key questions:
“What do I expect to happen?”
“What is the root of these expectations?”
(And if you feel disappointed when something doesn’t go your way) “Were my expectations unrealistic?”
Be grateful for what you have
There have been innumerable studies on the myriad benefits of gratitude, and how a regular practice can dramatically improve mental health. The issue is that when your expectations outrun reality, you can fail to appreciate what you have.
The result is getting caught in the trap of constantly expecting more than what you receive and experiencing your reality as perpetually inadequate.
Case in point, this fascinating study found that those exposed to a subliminal reminder of wealth savored a chocolate bar less than those who weren’t.
Practicing gratitude can be an effective way to curb your expectations, By appreciating what you have in the present moment, you can take the sting out of unexpected negative outcomes, and bask in the dopamine release of surprising positive ones.
Avoid making comparisons
In a world defined in part by social media, your view of reality can become warped. It’s important to remind yourself that the filtered, aspirational images you see are from accurate depictions. Perhaps more than all other aspects of modern life, social media foments unrealistic expectations. Thus, dissatisfaction results when your life doesn’t match up to these artificial narratives.
Remember, comparing yourself to others is a roadblock to effectively managing expectations.
As Ernest Hemingway said:
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Use mindful attention
Rather than letting yourself be pulled to and fro by wayward thought patterns, try and cultivate non-judgmental awareness. When you notice yourself making projections, gently redirect your attention back to the present moment.
It can take practice to rewire your brain and weaken the old neural pathways, but the more you do, the less likely you’ll experience those dopamine slumps, and the happier and more motivated you’ll be.
Try and keep those expectations low, no matter how likely that reward seems. This doesn’t mean you should adopt a “glass half-empty” attitude, but rather try to ignore the glass altogether.
Whatever happens, practice loving acceptance
Managing your expectations takes time and practice. In the event what you envisioned doesn’t transpire, and you find yourself experiencing unpleasant feelings, don’t beat yourself up. Rather than suppressing emotions like resentment or disappointment, try and learn to accept them.
Merely attempting to become more aware of your expectations is a step in the right direction. The more you practice gratitude and mindful attention, the fewer expectations will hold sway in your life, and the better you will ultimately feel.