Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations.

This is a myth put forth by cynical people, not by the happiness gurus. The reasoning behind the claim is that people who have high expectations end up disappointed, while those with low expectations are easily satisfied.

So, if your train is late, or your car isn’t fixed on time, then just shrug indifferently, because you didn’t expect much anyway. Expect mediocrity, says the theory, and you can be pleasantly surprised.

The thing is, there isn’t a ‘pleasant surprise’ when things go well, just a mild one. A mild jolt to one’s cynicism. Besides, pleasant surprises only provide temporary happiness, not the core kind.

Low expectations will affect your day-to-day life. By expecting mediocrity you will find it. Everywhere.

Don’t aim to be satisfied by having low expectations. That’s not satisfaction, that’s weary resignation. Sure, you might avoid being disappointed, but life itself would be a disappointment.

Having low expectations will not bring happiness; at best it will help you avoid some unhappiness. That’s not good enough.

How would you feel if no-one at expected much of you? A little hurt maybe? A little worthless? So, why view life that way?

‘Don’t lower your expectations to meet your performance. Raise your level of performance to meet your expectations. Expect the best of yourself, and then do what is necessary to make it a reality.’

Ralph Marston.

‘People don’t fail because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.’

Les Brown.

‘Are you suggesting that we have high expectations instead?’

No, although there are benefits to having high expectations. They allow us to have a rosy, positive view of the world, which prompts optimism and effort. With that optimism we are less likely to be daunted by the fear of failure, and be more motivated to work for what we want.
 And, if we expect to be married, that indicates a confidence in our desirability. If we expect to have perfect kids, we might be prompted to nurture them well. If we expect to have an attractive home, we have something to look forward to and it’s easier to work hard for it. 
 We only get one life, and it’s the journey which matters, so whether or not we actually meet our expectations doesn’t matter. We might as well make our expectations high. But consider:

 instead of expecting to succeed, we can aim to succeed. Instead of expecting to retain our youthful looks, we can aim to retain them. (Or aim to accept the looks we have?) Instead of expecting our kids to be perfect, we can aim to raise perfect kids. Instead of expecting our friends to be perfect, we can remind ourselves from past experience that no friend is perfect, and we can instead aim to deal with their shortcomings. Instead of expecting a well paid, stimulating career, we can remind ourselves that it’s a jungle out there and there are pitfalls with all careers. Instead of expecting that perfect job, we can instead aim for that perfect job. Instead of expecting to be in a committed relationship, we can aim to be in one.

By aiming for these things instead of expecting them, we don’t take life for granted and we make plans to get those things.

So, I’m suggesting that you avoid having low expectations AND high expectations. Instead, have no expectations. One good way to do that is to consciously aim to not have expectations. The chapter about the Tyranny of the Shoulds can help there too.

Q. ‘The happiness gurus warn us against having high expectations because we can feel gutted when those high expectations aren’t met. Even if we aim for those things, we can still feel gutted.’

When we aim for those things but fail to attain them, we are more likely to feel disappointed than gutted. 
 But just how disabling is that disappointment? Do we live our lives wringing our hands in anguish because our intentions are unfulfilled? 
 For most of us the answer is no. We shrug and get on with life.



11 Responses to Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations.

  1. Justin Penner says:

    I’m trying to figure out if this idea can transfer over to expectations on others. We place expectations on others all the time (ie kids should walk in single file at school, daughter should keep her room clean). We do this regardless of the predicted outcome. Ie, regardless of whether we predict the kids will walk in single file, the expectation is still there. I can’t see how we can’t have expectations in this sense. Maybe we place “expectations” on others and and “aims” on ourselves? Also, there seems to be two definitions for the word “expectation”: “demands/standards” and “predictions”. Thoughts?

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hi Justin,
      You make an important and helpful distinction. There are different definitions of the word ‘expectation’. We might expect our daughter to keep her room clean (expect that standard) yet not expect our daughter to keep her room clean (prediction). I’m suggesting that we try to not have expectations (predictions) of ourselves and of life, though we certainly can have standards that we can expect for ourselves and aim for.
      As for having expectations of others, I briefly refer to those in my reference to the ‘Tyranny of the Shoulds’ chapter.
      In short, I’m suggesting that we have expectations of others (and ourselves) when it comes to standards, but have no expectatons of how life pans out. Aim for what you want and work towards it, without low, medium or high expectations.
      Thank you for your perceptive comment, Justin.
      Warm regards,

  2. Edgar Rivera says:

    What about a basic question. Thinking of it for a while.

    What is happiness? What is to be happy? Is happiness a diverse perception among individuals?

    When I see multiple points of view on this topic makes me think his idea of happiness or her idea of happiness, or my idea of happiness… should not all be similar?

    Looking for a concept to fit all then seems paradoxical as the “all” are composed of individual perceptions, beliefs, cultural backgrounds…

    Aiming to be happy… What is that state?

    Aiming towards the ideals ways we think is “ideal”… then I guess we are looking to fulfill a sense of accomplishment then. Aiming towards accomplishments is in my view one of the components of happiness. What about the other components, if there are any other…

    Unhappiness either from personal experiences or learned from other people near or far from us… help to appreciate the current life status… with that phrase “it could be worst”…

    You can’t have happiness if don’t have a sense somehow of what is to be unhappy.

    As happiness is not a material thing, associating expectations or aims toward material things makes no sense.

    Happiness can be found in people regardless culture, social status, race, beliefs systems…

    Happiness for me is the absence of all emotions that moves you into an unhappy state, whatever that is. That abcense can even be collected in a memory created at some point in time which you can revisit when needed.

    Great topic and for me challenging to come up with a definitive answer…

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hi Edgar,
      When we speak of something so nebular as happiness we can’t all come to the same understanding of it. If you have read the first few chapters of my book you would have noticed that I give a definition of it (I say there are two kinds) and I give an evolutionary explanation of how we came to acquire it.
      I also suggest that we should not try to be happy, but we might as well aim to be happy. (Big difference.) The entire book (and my other book) is all about how we can acquire happiness (if we don’t already have it).
      Thank you for presenting your views about happiness, Edgar. Please keep up the good work.
      Mark (aka Mr Bashful)

  3. John Scott says:

    I have a different view on this subject. A person who has no expectations will never be able to answer the most commonly asked interview question “Where do you expect to be in 5 to 10 years?”. My view is that disappointment or unhappiness is not necessarily always a bad thing. They prepare us for the challenges and adversity that most of us will have to face in the future. If we always got what we want, we will develop a mindset of something can come from nothing and will be terribly disappointed when we are rejected something for the first time. However, if we were accustomed to never getting what we want, we would be more inclined to be grateful for the few times that good things did FINALLY come our way. What are your views on my theory? Maybe we should stop aiming to be happy every day and accept that maybe unhappiness isn’t always as bad as people make it out to be?

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hi John,
      (By the way, for your interest, both versions of your question came through.)
      A person asked that interview question could rephrase it: “Where do I aim to be in 5 to 10 years?”
      With regard to your view, your theory, it makes sense. Good stuff. The only point of disagreement is that I believe we can aim to be happy. I don’t mean try to be happy, I mean aim to be happy. We can do that by changing our awareness and our behaviours. But where you say, ‘maybe we should . . . accept that maybe unhappiness isn’t always as bad . . .’ I agree with that too. Yes, unhappiness is a part of life. We can still aim to be happy but accept our unhappiness. See the chapter on ‘The Hadza’ in my conclusion of the book, in which I talk about life including the snakes and the weeds.
      In short, I think we basically agree.
      Thank you for expressing to me your point of view. Much appreciated.
      Warm regards,

      • John Scott says:

        Yeah, you’re right! I think many employers would do better to reword that particular interview question. I understand that different people have different core happiness levels and external circumstances can have a pretty significant impact but I agree that it’s better to aim for something rather than expecting it

        • Mr Bashful says:

          Hi John,
          yes, people do seem to have different levels, for genetic reasons probably, and for other reasons. And yes, external circumstances are a significant factor. So again we agree!
          The aim of my book is to give the reader tools so that, over time, they can reach their particular optimum in their particular circumstances. To get the most juice out of the orange, so to speak.

  4. Davi Ayres says:


    My name is Davi Ayres and I was wondering about what you’ve said and I think you’re right, until a certain degree. When you say that we should aim to get something, we’re taking control of the situation, yes, but when we aim for something we’re having an expectation of our own outcome, so we cannot have the one or the other.

    When “gurus” says that we should have lower expectations, I interpret that in this way:

    We should lower our expectations to the things we do not have control over. At the same time having high expectations and taking actions to the things that we do.

    That means, having lower expectations to the people we live with, having lower expectations about the hotel room that I got offered to stay in for work, and not to how much money you want to have in one year, or how many books you want to have read and actually take something out of it.

    I hope I could show the difference and want to see your opinion on the subject.

    Best regards.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Thank you for responding, Davi. I can see what you mean, though I still go along with the suggestion which is at the end of the article: to have no expectations. (There’s a link taking the reader to a chapter that helps with that.) I like the idea of aiming high, and having no expectations – high or low – about succeeding. (Whether it’s in our control or not.) I can’t really see how expectations serve a purpose. However, if your approach works for you, go for it. Each person is different. What works for one person may not work for another.
      The very fact that you’re thinking about such matters is a good thing.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hi Davi,
      I’ve just discovered that the link I suggested doesn’t work. I’ll be checking my other links too!
      There isn’t a chapter on having no expectations (any more), but we can still aim to not have them. I know I don’t. If I am aiming for something I just go for it. Having an expectation that I will fail, or pass, is of no use to me.
      Thank you for your comment. It prompted me to think, and it helped me discover that my links are shonky.

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