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.

I’ve never met a person who doesn’t want to be happy. So what is keeping us from being happy?

Actually the Declaration of Independence tells us what is keeping people from being happy. Most people focus on the happiness part of the pursuit of happiness. They seem to over look the pursuit part, as I see it this is a big problem. As I’ve said many times, contrary to what most people think, we aren’t entitled to be happy just because we think we are, or because we wake up in the morning or because … you name it. Happiness is really hard work.

Why don’t people work as hard to become happy as they do to become physically fit, learn something new or make more money? I think it is because many people have the misconception that happiness is a destination. The belief is, if I (fill this in with anything – marry, make more money, have fun) then I will be happy. Happiness is not a destination, it’s not Miami Beach. Happiness is more like Disneyland. You can visit it, and you can visit more and more often the harder you work at it. The irony here is that, in theory, working hard and achieving something tends to make us happy, except most people don’t know that, so they just feel sorry for themselves for having to work so hard (at something that should just happen). No one leaves this earth having lived happily ever after without having worked hard at it.

Starting today what can you do differently to work hard to make yourself happy. You can set goals, achievable, relevant ones. Ones you can break down into small steps, so that you can actively pursue them. You can join a group, a charity, a religious group or a political group. Being part of something bigger than yourself gives life meaning and it also makes you feel good. You can learn something new, preferably something that will challenge you. According to Michael Csikszentmihalyi the most productive state a person can enter is a state of flow, when the task at hand is challenging but not overly challenging. The bonus here is that learning something new also gives us a sense of achievement and according to Martin Seligman achievement is a pillar of happiness. You can learn some form of mindfulness meditation. Again learning something new tends to make people happy. And needless to say learning to be mindful, being in the present also tends to make us happy.

Starting today what will you choose to do differently?

Question – What does your mind do when you practice gratitude?

Answer – It scans your day.

Why is this important?

First, let me explain a little about questions. When you ask yourself a question the question sends your mind in search of an answer. When you ask yourself, “What am I grateful for today?” That question sends your mind scanning through your day looking for those things for which you are grateful. The question has the benefit of focusing your mind on something specific – for what you are grateful – the good parts of your day, your brain tends to only look at those aspects of your day.

Due to a variety of reasons, we tend to focus more on the negative than we do on the positive. Our brains naturally scan for all the bad things in our lives, we don’t even have to ask ourselves a question for this to happen. The act of scanning your day looking for what you are grateful allows you to reacquaint yourself with all of the good things that have happened during the day/week/month. Scanning helps you look through your day, the question that sets your mind scanning allows you to focus your mind on the good parts of your day/life/relationships/past. Habitual scanning for the good has the benefit of rewiring your brain to offset the natural tendency to focus on the negative. What you do with the results of the scan is your choice.

Starting today what can you do differently? In order to get the biggest bang for your buck when practicing gratitude scan your day for the smallest, most obscure and specific events for which to be grateful. Those events for which you find yourself saying, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” Those are the events you want to make a habit of scanning for. Make a habit of priming your children for the good by asking them about the good things of their day. This way you will teach them how to scan their days, during the day they will be more attuned to the good that happened.

Focusing on the good doesn’t come easy, we are a deficit oriented society. We are interested in bad news, we love to solve problems, we readily empathize with life’s difficulties. Anything negative calls our attention. The bad is like velcro – it just sticks to us, the good like teflon – it just rolls right off of us. There are many reasons for this phenomenon.

First there is something called the negativity bias. According to Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman we give greater weight to the negative than we do to the positive. We have better recall for the negative and the negative impacts us more than does the positive. Your boss tells you how well you did on the report you just presented, he was impressed with the content and found it very helpful. He asks, however, for the next time, that you summarize the findings better. What stays with you? The two compliments or the correction about the findings? For most people it is the correction. We give greater weight to the negative or what we perceive as negative than we do to the positive, the negative just calls to us and sticks.

Why is this the case? According to Evolutionary Psychology this is the case because focusing on the negative served a purpose. Primitive man would have not survived if he didn’t focus on the negative. The positive offers no survival information, the negative does. You ignore the positive, nothing happens. You ignore the negative, potentially you don’t live another day. Hence our focus on the negative.

Having said all of the above, we know that our attention is like a spotlight, we can choose to place it anywhere we want. It’s not easy, but it can be done. We can actively drag our attention to wherever we want to put it. We can do this in many ways. We can practice mindfulness. We can practice gratitude. We can change our questions. Or we can simply make a conscious effort to hunt the good stuff. Whichever method you choose attending to the good in our lives offers a slew of benefits.

If we assume most parents want their children to succeed in school and a growth mindset fosters academic success then I guess the question becomes how do we foster a growth mindset? According to Carol Dweck there are several ways to foster a growth mindset. You can teach your children how the brain works. You can praise your children for effort rather than intelligence. You can incorporate the word yet into your vocabulary. You can teach your children how to set goals. You can teach your children how to have self-control. 

Today I would like to talk about effective praise. There are two kinds of praise, effective praise and ineffective praise. What makes one effective and the other ineffective? If the point of praise is to promote self-esteem, reinforce good behavior and encourage children to succeed, then I would venture to say that the way most parents praise their children is ineffective – it doesn’t achieve the intended goal. Telling a child, “Good job, Champ,” doesn’t achieve any of the afore mentioned goals – it’s ineffective.

What is effective praise? Effective praise also known as process praise, as its name suggests, highlights what the child did in order to succeed. Effective praise doesn’t label, it doesn’t judge, it simply tells a child what you saw happened and how you feel about what happened. Let’s say your child does well on his/her math test. Instead of saying, “Wow, you’re amazing!” you can simply say, “Wow I bet you really studied hard, I’m so proud of you.” And you can add, “Tell me about what you did to make this grade?”

For many parents, this type of praise is not very satisfying, it doesn’t convey the joy and enthusiasm they feel in the face of a child’s success. However, if we are honest, praise is not for the parent to feel good, it’s for the child to feel good and to continue to succeed and what the research shows is that effective praise accomplishes this goal. Children, when praised effectively, feel a sense of pride and self-efficacy – they feel good about themselves. And at the end of the day when a child feels good about themselves they will most likely be academically successful.

The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right, the Declaration of Independence says so. The operative word here being pursuit. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t say you are guaranteed to be happy just because…, it says you are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.


So what is happiness anyway? Before I tell you how happiness is defined, let me first tell you what it isn’t. It’s not marrying prince or princess charming, it isn’t having all the money in the world. Happiness isn’t a destination. You don’t achieve happiness as a permanent state. Happiness isn’t being in a good mood all the time and smiling all the time. It isn’t avoiding upsetting or negative feelings (actually it’s quite the opposite).

 
So how is happiness defined? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky happiness is defined as a combination of feeling positive emotions and experiencing a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. I’d say the positive emotions part is pretty self explanatory. So what gives our lives meaning, makes them good and worthwhile? Well, many things give our life meaning and value – organized religion, social support is a big one, service – as in doing for others, goal achieving, among other things. Let me give you an example. For the most part parents believe that children give their lives meaning and value. Children aren’t always a source of positive emotions (to put it mildly) but most parents unequivocally claim that, in the big picture, their children give their lives meaning and value and thus are a great source of happiness. 


The last part of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s definition is important because we all engage in activities that, at the moment might not bring us positive emotions, they might not make us happy or bring us joy, however when all is said and done, these activities bring us immense satisfaction and happiness. It is kind of counter intuitive to the idea of happiness and the whole notion of positive emotions as a source of happiness. However, if we are talking about real, lasting happiness this idea is very important. Think about it, when you work really hard on a project that turns out well, you might not feel happy while you are working hard, but when it’s over you feel immense happiness and that happiness lasts for awhile. Same goes for when you exercise, try something new or do anything that challenges you. If being happy is so important, then I believe it is just as important to be aware that the activities that give our lives meaning and value and happiness might not be the same (by a long shot) as the ones that give us immediate positive emotions.


Awareness of our self-talk is a key resilience skill. Being aware of what we are telling ourselves when we experience difficulty offers us the opportunity to take the unproductive, unrealistic, inaccurate thoughts that are causing us to feel and behave in self-defeating ways and challenge them. Like someone standing up to a bully, when we challenge our thoughts that are destructive, we can stop the damage they inflict on our well-being and happiness.

Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves. If we aren’t aware of what we are saying to ourselves, it’s hard to change our thoughts. When this happens, when we can’t hear our self-talk, we can at least try to be aware of the cognitive distortions we are using. While cognitive distortions can be automatic, we can usually listen for certain words we are using – shoulds, terrible, always, never, etc, which signal a cognitive distortion. Once we notice these words we can begin to challenge the thoughts which encase these distortions. 

There are many ways to challenge cognitive distortions, the goal of challenging our cognitive distortions is to find a more realistic, balanced way to explain to ourselves why something happened. It’s like being the judge of your own thoughts – are these thoughts facts or opinions. If our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real then they are opinions not facts, therefore we can replace one belief for another one. We can look for a more accurate, balanced belief to replace it with. When we challenge our cognitive distortions we are making our thinking more accurate. When we think more accurately we tend to feel less bad. Please note – we are not going for thinking positively, we are going for thinking more accurately and feeling less bad. This is a very important distinction, the objective is a more balanced and helpful way of thinking. It’s important to emphasize that we will not eliminate all difficult emotions when we challenge our cognitive distortions, that’s not what well-being is about.

Again, what we are going for when we challenge our thoughts is accurate, realistic thinking, the kind of thinking that is in your own best interest. We are NOT looking to eliminate negative feelings. Knowing how to cope with the whole spectrum of feelings is part of being resilient. We are looking to eliminate inaccurate, unrealistic negative feelings. 

I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember, in order to function in this world we need to make sense of it (and right now that’s no easy task). We make sense of it by explaining to ourselves why things happen. The more mentally flexible we are, the more accurate we can be in our explanations as to why a given situation took place. The more accurate we are in our explanations the more resilient we will be.  Most of us have consistent ways of explaining why something happened, we have patterns of explanations. Within those patterns of explanations we all use what we call Cognitive Distortions or Irrational Beliefs. 

Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause people to see reality inaccurately. They are beliefs that are irrational and inaccurate and are usually associated with negative feelings. We all have cognitive distortions and we tend to use the same distortions repeatedly. The thing about these errors in thinking is they happen automatically, we don’t intentionally think inaccurately, but we do. And the thing about cognitive distortions is that we feel bad when we think distortedly. When we perceive an event distortedly or irrationally we are negatively impacting our well-being. Remember our thoughts drive our feelings and behavior. By thinking distortedly we are making ourselves feel worse than need be.

So for example, in the face of an upset, I can say to myself “Why am I always (over generalization) reacting this way?! I shouldn’t (should statements) feel this way, this is just terrible (catastrophizing.)” or I can say to myself, “Why am I reacting this way! I really wish I didn’t feel this way, but I do. I know it will pass soon.” The content of what I am saying to myself is very different in each case and will have a different effect on my subsequent feelings and behavior. Always, shouldn’t and terrible are cognitive distortions. If we can hear what we say to ourselves in our efforts to make sense of the world, especially the cognitive distortions we use, we can harness that ability in order to be more accurate and flexible in service of reframing our thoughts or challenging our beliefs

Remember, resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and make the best happen. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it. 

During difficult times I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, when social support is most elusive, it can be what we most crave. Social support comes in many forms. Remember social support is not defined by the quantity of people in our lives nor the physical presence of the person. Social support is defined by the quality of our relationships. You don’t have to be face to face with a person to have a quality relationship. And research is really clear, social support is correlated to well-being. In case you doubt the importance of social support this is a video on a very well known longitudinal study called the Harvard Study, it explains the importance of social support.

In case you still continue to doubt the importance of social support, this is a wonderful podcast (done at the beginning of the pandemic) on the research on social support and how to beat the sense of loneliness during these times. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Yale professor. In 2018 she offered Yale’s most popular class entitled Psychology and the Good Life.

So, in an effort to make the best happen, to help yourself be more resilient, difficult times can be an opportunity to build community, reach out to people. Call people, skype, zoom, facetime, conference call whatever you choose but reach out. Keep in contact. Be creative about reaching out and being in contact. And be flexible about your expectations.

I have spent countless hours teaching about the importance of a growth mindset  and how to foster it. At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about the importance of self-compassion.  I just love the idea of self-compassion. As Kristin Neff says we are harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. I believe we all could use a little more self-compassion nowadays. So how does a growth mindset and self-compassion relate? Well, I just read this article on how to silence your inner critic and learned how they relate.

The voice of our inner critic can be so loud that it makes it hard to hear our voice of self-compassion. Besides we really aren’t as well versed in self-compassion as we are in self criticizing and now is NOT the time to be criticizing ourselves (much less anyone else). One of the motivators for self criticism is when we feel we aren’t or haven’t been good enough – we fell short of a standard we held for ourselves. We yelled at the kids, didn’t help with schoolwork, had to cancel something, the list can be endless. During this difficult time, it’s very easy to not feel good enough.


I find the idea of holding ourselves and our loved ones to the standard of goodish as opposed to good a wonderful idea! Goodish gives us the room to grow, to learn, to improve, it rolls a growth mindset and self-compassion into one idea and makes us more resilient. Goodish implies we are on a learning curve, kind of like when we use yet in a growth mindset conversation. To me goodish means we have the desire to be good and the self-acceptance to acknowledge and allow that stuff can happen along the way. Goodish implies tolerance for being human, plus the hope that we will improve and become a better person. When we expect ourselves to be goodish we hold ourselves to a high standard knowing that there is always room to grow.


So…what does the world of goodish look like? Well, let’s say you’re on a business call (zoom, skype, facetime, you pick it) and despite the fact that you threatened your kids with their lives, your son comes running in yelling mommy, mommy. And of course you get very upset. Well that reaction would be from your old world of good. In your new world of goodish your reaction is different. Here are a few options:


If you are using self-compassion you could say to yourself, “Well that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go! I wish it had gone as I had expected it to go. The times are difficult, I did the best I could, I bet most parents have a story to tell about their kids disturbing their calls.” You might take a few breaths, treat yourself to something special (self-compassion) and share the story with a friend (social support).

You could take a moment to access your thoughts. Are you saying to yourself, “Well, that was awful, I’m so embarrassed. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for the kids to ever listen.” You could then challenge your thoughts. You could ask yourself, “Am I thinking in all or nothing terms (awful). Am I using “exaggerating” words, such as never, always, forever, need should, or must (ever listen).” You could try replacing “awful” with something like “not how I wanted it” and you could replace “hard for the kids to ever listen” with “they didn’t listen this time.” 


Please note that in the examples you are using your ability to be flexible. Also please note we are looking for goodish, nothing more. We are looking to use the resilience skills that best work for you to go from miserable to less miserable. We aren’t looking to go from miserable to elation. Going from miserable to less miserable allows you to feel good enough to continue going, which is what will allow you to make sustainable change.

Welcome to the new world of goodish!