Happiness Tip: Lower Your Expectations

Because expectations can sometimes make us unhappy.

My father — the most disciplined person I’ve ever known — always quips that his “only goal is to climb a low mountain.” As an over-achieving kid, I never understood this assertion. Why would you only want to climb a low mountain?!

Turns out, low expectations can be a key to happiness. Sometimes we expect too much from our spouses, our children, our jobs, and ourselves. When our expectations are unrealistic, instead of inspiring greatness with the high bar we’ve set, we’re more likely to foster disappointment, or resentment, or even hatred in ourselves.

It’s not that we shouldn’t ever have high expectations; it’s just that we need to be aware of how our expectations can sometimes make us unhappy.

Take Action: This week, reset an expectation: what is a more realistic and joyful goal? Then, refocus on the journey rather than the destination. What mountain can you climb that you will truly enjoy climbing, whether or not you ever make it to the top? How can you focus on the present moment — whatever you are doing right now — rather setting big goals and high expectations for the future?

Join the Discussion: Which of your high expectations are making you miserable? Are you afraid to lower your expectations? Have you ever felt happier — or been more successful — after lowering your expectations? Inspire others by leaving a comment below.

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  • Nicole

    Although I totally agree with this post I also wonder in schools sometimes we don’t set it high enough for some kids. How do we find the right balance?

    • Yes, it is always a balance. Perfectionistic kids need to be shown that good enough is good enough. Under-achievers — kids who aren’t engaged, curious, or fulfilling their potential — need to be shown better strategies for engagement usually. Rarely is the answer only in setting high expectations…

  • Colleen

    It’s a relief to let something go!! Thank you for the reminder.

  • Brad Engwall

    Thanks for the reminder Christine. This topic reminds me of the “paradoxical effect of praise” Po Bronson describes so well in “Nurture Shock”; that is that when we praise kids for achievement and achievements become the focus of efforts then kids paradoxically achieve less and are more likely to take on projects they think they can easily achieve. This is in contrast to children praised for their efforts who tended to take more risks and, though they may not have excellent results with each project, their overall achievement levels were far greater than the former group. So maybe setting achievable goals and measuring our success in meeting those goals differently: focussing on if we gave a good effort, learned a lesson or made a useful contribution, etc?

    • This is an interesting observation. I’ve written a lot about Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets, which is what you are referring to, in Raising Happiness and on my GGSC blog. I think fostering a growth mindset (which is focusing on effort, or strategies) is, in fact, a very crucial happiness habit, in part because it does focus us on the journey, or the process, rather than the end result. I don’t think it is necessary to lower your expectations, however, in order to foster a growth mindset; this is a common misconception.

  • asman

    Hi , That was a great post.

    But what about people how can you lower your expectations for them, I love my girlfriend a lot and expect her to love me back the same way in return, but unfortunately she is very reserved and iam sure does not feels the same way. How can I lower my expectations about her.

  • ts

    Work colleagues, who I expect more from, make me unhappy. I worry that lowering expectations is not a good outcome for the company, but if this improves my happiness and if senior management are tolerant of lower performance then perhaps I should also be tolerant. my next dilemma is how to lower expectations. do I close my eyes to inefficiencies and mistakes?

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  • My Coaching Corner

    Thank you for sharing this post with us. I have quoted a passage in one of my posts: http://my-coaching-corner.com/2013/08/26/dream-big-or-lower-your-expectations-which-is-it/

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  • Anne

    I’ve recently realized that I have extremely high expectations of others, and it is really effecting my life. I was speaking with a coworker and he said, “you need to lower your expectations- then you won’t be disappointed in people!” I thought- wow, maybe he’s got something there! My question is, how do I do this? How can I work on lowering my expectations of myself and others?

    • Imran

      I’m in the same boat. I know I need to lower my expectations of everything in my life but just don’t know how :S

      • Christine Carter

        This is opening up a whole other can of worms, but often we can use our disappointments in others as tools to see ourselves more clearly. If you haven’t seen Byron Katie’s work, that is the place to start. I will blog more about this, because I think it’s a huge thing for a lot of people…

  • Thanks for the great tip, Christine. I think one way to lower our expectations is to realize we are all fallible human beings and to remind ourselves, “I’m not the King of the Universe so things don’t have to go my way.” The reality is that things often don’t.

    • Christine Carter

      Agreed!