Why is it so important to have realistic expectations?

As challenging as they can be, having realistic expectations makes you happier, the operative word being realistic expectations. All too often I hear people say, “It’s better not to have any expectations, that way I won’t be disappointed.” I believe that’s an unrealistic statement, it’s near impossible to not have expectations, I’d even venture to say that if you think you don’t have expectations you are probably fooling yourself. Why is it so hard to have realistic expectations?

First off, what is reality, well that’s probably a whole book in and of itself! According to the Cambridge Dictionary reality is defined as, “the state of things as they are, rather than as they are imagined to be.” I believe it’s really hard to see a situation for what it is for many reasons.

One reason being there is something called a confirmation bias. The term confirmation bias was first coined by English psychologist Peter Wason and is defined as the tendency to favor information that confirms a person’s beliefs or values. When making a decision, forming an opinion or deciding on an action we tend to hone in on the information that supports the beliefs we already have rather than seeing the whole picture and taking note of information that might challenge what we believe. If we don’t challenge what we already believe how do we get a realistic read on what we are facing. A very simple example of confirmation bias is ignoring news that contradicts your beliefs like watching or listening to one news source.

Another reason it’s so hard to have realistic expectations is because as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we aren’t very good at predicting how we will feel in the future. So if we don’t know what will make us happy or unhappy how can we have realistic expectations?

Starting today what can you do differently in order to have realistic expectations? Well first, learn to be in the present. I’m a big believer in learning to breath. I also think it is really important to question your beliefs – what can you control, how do things HAVE to be done, this SHOULD happen, are important beliefs to be aware of and question. Truth be told just by starting to question your expectations you probably are beginning to set realistic expectations.

We all experience hardship and difficulty in life, what keeps some people upbeat and optimistic while others get down and pessimistic, is their explanatory style.

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and leading authority on optimism/pessimism, a person’s explanatory style can lead to optimism or pessimism. A person’s explanatory style refers to how a person explains to themselves the causes of events. A person’s explanatory style lies along three dimensions – permanent/temporary, pervasiveness/localized and personal/external. Pessimists explain negative events as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists explain negative events as temporary, localized and external. Let’s break this down.

Permanent refers to how reversible a negative event will be. Will the negative event last forever and/or happen over and over. Or is the negative event time bound and/or be a one shot deal. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you don’t get a promotion. You say to yourself, “I’ll never get promoted” (permanent) vs “I didn’t get promoted this time, thank heavens there’s another review in a few months” (temporary). Whereas the second explanation was temporary, I will have another chance, the first explanation is permanent, I will never get promoted. You went from not getting this promotion to never getting another promotion.

Pervasiveness refers to how many areas of a person’s life the negative event will bleed into or permeate. An example of pervasiveness is when the cake you are baking doesn’t turn out you say to yourself, “I give up I just can’t cook, I’m done” vs “This was a hard recipe, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but dinner sure was good.” Do you let the failed caked take all the joy out of every part of your cooking or do you realize that the failed cake means that this one time this one cake didn’t turn out well and has nothing to do with anything else in regard to your cooking.

Personalization refers to how much blame (not responsibility, blame, there’s a difference) a person takes for the negative event. In the failed cake examples above do you say, “I can’t do anything right!” vs “That was a hard recipe, it was a very confusing recipe.” Do you blame yourself or do you realistically acknowledge how hard the recipe was.

Being aware of what you say to yourself, your explanatory style, in the face of adversity is the first step towards becoming a more optimistic person.