Nephew: I keep reading that happiness comes from having low expectations. Is that true?
Uncle: No. It’s a myth put forth by cynics. 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.
Nephew: That’s wrong?
Uncle: There isn’t a ‘pleasant surprise’ when things go well, just a mild jolt to one’s cynicism. Besides, pleasant surprises provide temporary happiness, not the core kind.
Nephew: I keep forgetting there’s a difference.
Uncle: Low expectations won’t help you. By expecting mediocrity you will find it. Everywhere.
Uncle: Don’t aim to have a satisfactory life 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.
Nephew. Righto, you’ve made your point.
Uncle: 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?
Nephew: Should we have high expectations instead?
Uncle: No, though I admit: there are benefits to having high expectations. High expectations prompt optimism and effort. With that optimism we are less likely to be daunted by the fear of failure, and more motivated to work for what we want.
Nephew: Sounds good.
Uncle: 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 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.
Nephew: But the gurus warn us against having high expectations because we might feel disappointed when those high expectations aren’t met.
Uncle: Just how disabling is that disappointment? Do we live our lives in anguish because our intentions are unfulfilled? Hardly. For most of us the answer is ‘no, we’re not dramatically affected’. We shrug and get on with life.
Nephew: When I asked you if we should have high expectations you said no. Yet you’re giving good arguments for why we should have them!
Uncle: 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 that no friend is perfect, and aim to deal with their shortcomings. Instead of expecting a well paid, stimulating career, we can aim for that perfect career. Instead of expecting to be in a committed relationship, we can aim to be in one.
Nephew: So, no low expectations, no high expectations?
Uncle: Correct. Have no expectations. But aim as high as you like.
Nephew: How do we have no expectations?
Uncle: Aim to not have any. One day I’ll tell you about the Tyranny of the Should.
Nephew: I can hardly wait. (Yawn)
Uncle: Cheeky blight.
‘People don’t fail because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.’