Saturday, November 17, 2012

Happiness is...Lowering Your Expectations?

“The amount of pleasure and satisfaction we derive from experience has as much to do with how the experience relates to expectations as it does with the qualities of the experience itself.”   The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, 

Are many people unhappy these days due to the surfeit of choices? Developed nations are richer and offer their citizens more choices than at any other time in human history.  The internet offers us access to unlimited information, entertainment and things to spend our money on. Arranged marriages are becoming increasingly rare. Some grocery stores offer as many as 30 different types of jams and jellies.  Yet, despite so many choices, depression is on the rise in developed nations and people seem to be remarkably disappointed by many (or most) of their daily experiences and the choices they make.

As Barry Schwartz puts it in his book “The Paradox of Choice”

“If I’m right about the expectations of modern Americans about the quality of their experiences, almost every experience people have nowadays will be perceived as a disappointment, and thus regarded as a failure—a failure that could have been prevented with the right choice.”

Choices for education, careers, kitchen appliances and partners abound. Having many choices increases a person’s expectations of what is possible for them. This may set the individual up with such high expectations that almost any choice they do make, ends up being a disappointment in comparison to that amalgamated mental expectation that they had derived from all those choices they were exposed to.

I see it like this: When you have a lot of choices it results in you inadvertently summing up all the good qualities from the gamut of those choices.  At this point, you have the expectation that someone or something (job, career, education, mate, sex, kiss, hobby, dinner, fluffy cat, etc) will amount to your new, heightened expectation of it. If the person/thing/event is even just slightly less than your expectations, you experience emotionally negative feelings of disappointment and sometimes, bouts of depression.

If you live throughout every day with such high expectations, don’t plan on ever being extremely happy; plan on being regularly disappointed. The key to happiness is lowering your expectations and relating your experience to a situation that could be worse (not better). This action creates gratitude because then you are happy about your situation, realizing it could be much worse.

Happiness doesn't necessarily require fewer choices, but it does require the ability to modulate our expectations of those choices.  If you are one of those people who frequently says, “I’ve heard/seen/had better” you probably have high expectations and frequently experience disappointment/boredom/and/or lack of contentment in your life.

The more choices you have the more opportunity costs come at you, assault you, and niggle at your mind.  You may have been okay or happy with the one choice presented to you—but, when you have a bunch of choices presented to you and you make a choice, the choice that you do end up making becomes difficult (and less wonderful) because you are evaluating this choice in light of the other choices that were also available. You begin to reflect upon what you lost from not choosing any of those other choices. Disappointment ensues. 

According to the Barry Schwartz, high expectations (due to choices) and disappointment is very common--most people think in this way. The good news is that we can change this kind of thinking by resorting to downward couterfactuals. Downward counterfactual thinking is conjuring up states of existence that are worse than reality. So...basically...lower your expectations?


  1. Hey Renee, glad to see a new post; you obviously spend a lot of time on these, so thanks for sharing your thoughts. Given the choice of blogs, I'll keep reading yours - until a better one comes along, of course! :D

    I think I see your line of argument; we're presented with a universe of choices where there are little advantages/disadvantages to each one, but we actually pursue an idealised choice that has all the advantages, even though such a choice does not exist.

    And it's even worse, as we're often given so many choices, that it's not possible to even make that kind of analysis, so we're left with this strange ennui about having to decide something, but feeling that we haven't been given enough time to consider all choices, and knowing the decision we're making is imperfect.

    Perhaps just accept that you are fallible, make the most of what you have, and don't worry about the 'what might have been's?

  2. Perhaps an alternate perspective on what we can change might be the importance placed on such a decision. If we alter the value placed on a decision we can still have high expectations as to the results of the choice, but the impact of a 'bad' decision is less. Take, for example, the purchase of jelly at the market: there are many jellies and jams to choose from at the market, and I have a high probability of not choosing the 'best' one. I can maintain my expectation of what a good jelly tastes like, while simultaneously realizing that choosing the wrong jelly was not that big of a deal; that is I can make the same choice next shopping trip.

    Of course this is not the best of examples since jelly is not an important part of most people's lives. However we can do the same with other decisions: where to eat, where to live, what car to buy, and so on.

    Another way around this problem (without lowering expectations) is to accept that wrong decisions will be made, and information can still be garnered from a 'bad' decision. returning to jelly we would have learned that a certain brand or flavor was not to our liking, or maybe that it is good for baking instead of toast.

    As should be obvious by my response: I don't think lowering one's expectations is the right way to go about solving the paradox of choice, though it is a valid enough solution.

    p.s. I may be a robot, can't seem to pass the captcha

    1. I really like your points here and thank you for posting. I think I remember in the book...he discusses the idea about being able to improve oneself or "strive for better" by being affected by disappointment.Sometimes we need to experience these feelings to improve our situation....possibly

  3. Three words.....
    Star Wars fans. For years I have been hearing how the fans saying that their chilhood has been destroyed becuase of the prequels. These are people who invested some much time and love on something they have enjoyed since childhood. While I see their point on how bad the prequels are I still enjoy them. However they did bring so much anticipation on the prequel being so good. I often wonder on an scenario that if the original trilogy was brought out today for the first time, would they be as excited about then when they were kids. I often tell people that kids can watch and enjoy both good and bad cartoons because of two reason....
    1. They are below the age of ten.
    2. They have absoulutly no standards.

    I know the whole point of this blog is about dissapointments in life due through to many choices avialible but I think that choices made at an earlier age can also brought in. If you invested in something at a young age and you like it, It would be a mistake to belive that it will always be good when more is added to it. This happens in pop culture all the time. They have not been taught that even things you like at first can bring dissapointment in the future. this could help as a life lesson on life in general. If people could lower their expectaions,take thing for what they are, and reflect on both merits and flaws on what they experianced, they would come out enjoying life a little better with less dissapointments....statistacally anyway.

  4. Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.

    Expectations can only be placed on ones self, only you have the power to fulfill them.

    Placing expectations outside of yourself, beyond your control, will only lead to disappointment. It is trying to control the possibilities that exist at each moment to arrive at one point in time.

    1. I personally thought Barry Schwartz suggests a very interesting idea here that has explanatory power. He discusses it in greater detail in his Ted Talks video.

      Expectations are things that I think naturally and automatically come to a person’s brain during the choice-making process. I do agree, however, that it is then up to the person to be mindful of this and to change this thinking pattern…to preclude or reduce feelings of disappointment that might arise.

  5. Wow,"assault you, and niggle at your mind" awesome line Renee! Disappointment always does seem to be a constant. It has become more and more apparent to me that the more I strive for a serene state of mind the less disappointment I experience in making choices, as I've endeavored to see the bigger picture and thereby don't place too much importance on individual choices.There are many clichés that could describe this philosophy my favorite being "Grin & Bear It". Nice to see you posting again.Could you please get back to your atheist dialog on the other channel. I could use some advice on how to deal with my devoutly religious redheaded girl friend.

  6. Renee my dear, Glad to see you've progressed from being an atheist without a brain to being a philosopher with a brain. You're heading in the right direction - it now only takes a little push and a shove to get to where you need to be to become a religious wacko like me. Keep it up!! AGP, 19th Nov 2012.

    1. Thank you! Glad to know that I'm progressing and thanks for reading.

  7. I've heard a rant like this before...

    (See what I did there? Quoted Loki from "Dogma," but it's Loki from "Avengers," yeah, two different Lokis...)

    Coming from one of those "brainless atheists"...

    The fact is that we all need to strive for truth and perfection, even if we don't achieve it. I'm thankful for having all these choices to make, even if the grass sometimes seems greener on the other side. I'd rather be free to be a miserable curmudgeon than have all my choices made for me. Even if I do mess up, I'm going to learn something from it. So an abundance of choices means an abundance of opportunities to learn.