In some Buddhist tradition being busy is like a form of laziness. This concept was life changing for me.

Are your expectations killing gratitude?

by | Oct 18, 2019 | Uncategorized

In western culture, fall is a time of thanksgiving. Regardless of when you celebrate or how, there is a point in the fall where most stop to appreciate the bounty in their lives. While it is important to a set time of year to devote to gratitude, what keeps us from being grateful all year round?

There are certainly many things that come between us and the experience of gratitude. One that we may not think about often though are expectations. It turns out that expectations can be very powerful. Have you ever gone to a much anticipated movie where you’ve seen all the trailers, and the when you get into the movie it turns out all the good parts were in the trailer and the movie didn’t live up to it’s expectations at all? How bummed out and cheated did you feel? Then have you gone to a movie where you didn’t know that much about it and had no expectations, and it was amazing?

Research into the science of happiness finds that expectations have considerable sway over how we perceive our experiences of life. .

Research into the science of happiness finds that expectations have considerable sway over how we perceive our experiences of life. It changes how we perceive what is happening to us and this in turn greatly influences our behavior. We make many subtle changes in how we interact with the world based on our perception of it, and this can have a large impact on our life.

Ever heard of the placebo effect? This is used frequently in drug and treatment trials to see how truly effective that drug/treatment really is. People are given a fake drug/treatment yet experience positive outcomes because they believed, or expected, it would happen. Through the power of expectation hundreds of people every year in drug and new treatment trials cure themselves.

You’re happier when you have realistically high expectations before an outcome, and low expectations about the outcome. In meditation circles this is referred to as non-attachment. 

The role expectations play in our life and how that influences our happiness and sense of serenity should not be underestimated. Neuroscientist Robb Rutledge** has conducted several studies with literally hundreds of thousands of people (in case you’re curious he used an online app to reach this many people) to see how expectations impact mood, and he did this by having people play games where they could win small sums of money.

Turns out, Rutledge found the amount of money was not really that significant a factor in how people reacted to their wins and losses. What mattered most in the short term was whether the reward exceeded their expectations. However, in the long term Rutledge explains you’re happier when you have realistically high expectations before an outcome, and low expectations about the outcome.

In other words, to feel good every day might be more about expecting the best and acting accordingly, but then being ok with whatever greets you in the moment. This sounds a lot like what Eastern philosophers have been saying for centuries. This is what is known in meditation circles as ‘non-attachment’.

In the West, this term has been very misconstrued. Essentially, it is to go about your life completing all tasks and responsibilities, big or small, with all your effort and no concern to what the outcome of that will be. The focus is on being in the moment and just doing the best you can in that moment without worrying about how it’s going to turn out.

It’s a difficult concept for us because the ‘American Dream’ is that you work hard and are rewarded with riches. However, what if you work hard and there are no riches? Is it all a loss? Also, what happens if you get the riches and it turns out that they aren’t what you expected? What if the outcome isn’t really satisfying in the long run?

 

Focus on doing the best with what you have right now and living consciously, and let the rest take care of itself. Being grateful for what is in front of us is perhaps the true recipe for happiness.

Science seems to support a ‘non-attachment’ approach. Focus on doing the best with what you have right now and living consciously, and let the rest take care of itself. When we aren’t riding the up’s and down’s from met and unmet expectations, we can be more attuned to what we need to do here and now, and be grateful for what’s going well now regardless of whether the outcome is what we hoped it would be or not.

Being grateful for what is in front of us is perhaps the true recipe for happiness. As much as I hate to admit it, the Rolling Stones might have said it best, “You can’t always get what you want, but you just might find sometimes you get what you need.”

Meditating on Expectations

Over the course of the week, spend some time each day reflecting on where your expectations were met and unmet. How did you feel in those moments? Were your expectations realistic? Are there places where your expectations could be higher or lower? What happens if you trying letting go of your expectations for a certain outcome? How does that change your relationship to the tasks you do? How does it change your relationship to people in your life?