I generally consider my self to be an optimist. In fact, one of my favourite books is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, I can regularly be found referring to myself as a half glass full kind of gal, and preach the importance of a can-do attitude to my kids.
I have long believed that the first step to success is the ability to see things through a positive and attainable light. After all – if you think you can’t, generally, you will prove yourself right.
And while optimism and ownership of action are undoubtedly key ingredients to success, I recently began to question how exactly they fit into the equation when it comes to the broader sense of happiness and freedom.
It’s rare for a week to go by where Mike and I don’t reference the standing happiness equation of Happiness = Reality – Expectations. Usually it’s in the context of us or someone else having been disappointed in an experience, or frustrated by someone else’s behaviour.
And I really do believe that this equation holds truth. Regularly walking through life with blazing expectations is a sure fire path to frequent disappointment. Both in ourselves, our environment, and people around us.
So how to be optimistic, while also maintaining a balanced happiness equation? The two schools of thought, on the surface, do seem to be in direct contradiction of each other.
If you’re being optimistic, won’t you most certainly be setting yourself up for disappointment? And if you’re keeping expectations low, aren’t you most certainly being a pessimist?
The psychology of optimism and happiness are amongst my favourite reading topics, but I recently realized that I often ponder how these traits are impacting my life in a singular fashion, rather than how they interact with each other to contribute to my overall sense of happiness and freedom.
So I decided it was time to really analyze my own habits, and the correlation of these traits, when it comes to instances when I’ve been most happy and conversely, those when I have been extremely disappointed. While I may represent a small subject pool, several trends undeniably emerged within my own experiences.
The Pitfalls of Exceedingly High Expectations
I’ll never forget the day that one of my most respected mentor’s and supervisors sat me down for a long chat. He was, by far, the smartest and most articulate person I ever worked for in my career. His feedback was always well thought out, and it was a rare occasion that I didn’t take it to heart.
In this particular instance, he was addressing my increasingly apparent frustration in a newly appointed supervisory role. I was younger, and more junior, than everyone I was supervising, and no one was getting the work done that I was doling out.
I was frustrated, annoyed, and more than a little pissed off. Largely at people who had only a short time ago had been my peers and, some of whom were good friends. It felt like they were rebelling against me, refusing to do the work I was asking of them, and regularly coming up with excuses as to why it wasn’t, or “couldn’t” be done in the time frame requested.
The problem was, I had just been in the trenches with them, AND I knew all too well how much time they wasted. But now, instead of being indifferent to it and just worrying about my own work, I taking what I perceived as time wasting and inefficiencies it as a direct and very personal insult.
In my newbie supervisor frustration, I ended up taking multiple projects back onto an already overloaded work plate, because it became easier to just do it myself. It was also a passive aggressive away to demonstrate that I could finish their projects, on top of my own, in the time requested.
The more I task mastered away, and got frustrated with the increasing lack of response from my team, the worse I made our little teams environment. Friendly joking that I once partook in, became a further annoyance while I glaringly wondered why they weren’t using that time to do their work.
My supervisor had noticed all of this. And he dove right to the root of the problem. Well, almost right to the root. Wisely, he prepped me by praising me for my level of dedication, work ethic, and the hours I was willing to commit. (Which at that point of my career was essentially my entire waking hours). His comments softened the blow that was about to come.
“You have incredibly high expectations of yourself.” I nodded along eagerly, I thought we were still in the praise part of the sandwich. I mean, of course I had high expectations, at that time I was still a full-blown perfectionist, in the midst of building a rock star career. In fact, I had ridiculously high expectations of myself and what I was capable of. I awaited the further accolades about how much work I was getting done that were sure to follow………..
“But, if you actually want to be a good supervisor, you cannot apply the expectations you have for yourself, to others.”
I wasn’t used to critical feedback. I had become accustomed to the pursuit and attainment of positive feedback and recognition. I was, in large part, fuelled by it.
But his words rang undeniably true. While I was so busy being a one woman show, I was failing to do my actual job. Supervising. Controlling our direction. Steering the ship. In fact, I was failing miserably at it. I was madly racing from one side of the boat to the other, paddling a few strokes on this side, a few on that, causing the stern to swing wildly from one direction to the other, making little, if any, headway at all. Meanwhile my rowers slowly stopped rowing, to watch the antics playing out in front of them.
In fact, once he drew my attention to my miserable performance in my actual job category, it seemed blatantly obvious, even as he went on to explain that I needed to learn to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each team member as an individual, and assign tasks, time frames and particularly my expectations according to their abilities.
I had not been doing that. Instead I was too busy applying my own (arguably unreasonable) expectations of what I would be willing to do in order to get the job done, to everyone around me.
Now I won’t say that this talk cured me of my perfectionist ways at that point of my life, or that it eliminated the instances in which my expectations and subsequent frustrations with co-workers, or supervisors, occurred.
But it did make me acutely aware of a major weakness I possessed as a manager, and more broadly, as a person. I was constantly putting my own internal expectations and standards on other people. It accrued in a lot of negativity and frustration.
Over the years that have passed since that little chat, it has become abundantly clear, that learning to manage my expectations, of myself, my environment, and others, is a crucial dictator in the outcome of my happiness equation.
But expectations are a funny thing to work on. They are rarely intentionally set, rather formed in our sub-conscious, and based largely on our individual life experiences. If they weren’t, it would take us forever each day to consciously formulate expectations of outcome for even the most basic things, generating the need for massive thought processes at every turn. This makes them a rather interesting habit to try and improve.
But even though we can’t necessarily control the threshold at which our sub-conscious produces our expectations, we can absolutely learn to assess them as the surface in our conscious brain, and intentionally tailor them to a more appropriate level.
And, like most habits, the more we intentionally set appropriate expectations that produce positive outcomes, the more we train our subconscious to produce reasonable expectations in the first place.
I certainly haven’t mastered this skill, I still project unfair expectations on to others – fortunately much less frequently than I once did, but occasionally I still find myself in full blown vent mode to Mike before I clearly see what I’m doing.
It’s a work in progress. But I can’t deny that being mindful of how my subconscious brain sets my expectations, and reigning them in to a realistic level as they surface, has had a substantial impact in tipping the scales of the disappointment/frustration to happiness ratio, in favour of the latter.
But if I’m suggesting that expectations be kept to a reasonable level – am I also suggesting that we should be less optimistic?
Sort of – but not entirely. Reasonable seems to be the key here.
Teaching ourselves to expect the worst case scenario in all instances, thereby operating regularly as a pessimist, is not likely to improve anyone’s overall sense of happiness or freedom. Conversely, always expecting the best possible outcome is equally as likely to leave us in a constant state of disappointment.
So instead of looking at ourselves as either trending towards an optimistic or pessimistic personality, maybe the optimal approach is for those perspectives to instead be broken down into two distinct processes. One applying directly to how we set our expectations, and the other applying to how we evaluate outcome.
When I think through this lens, I can begin to clearly see how some of the chronically unhappy or dissatisfied people in my life fall into a High Optimism of Expectations / High Pessimism of Outcome category.
People with this personality trait tend to walk into situations expecting the absolutely best that life has to offer, and walk away focussing on all the negative pieces that failed to meet their shangri-la type vision.
I can think of many instances in my own life where the application of this combination of optimism and pessimism has left me feeling extremely disappointed.
And here’s the thing – we all do it – it’s just a matter of how often we do it that can ultimately dictate our overall happiness.
But as we already discussed, walking around constantly expecting the worst, even if we then reflect on the outcome in a positive way, still isn’t likely to leave us feeling very happy or free in our day to day lives.
Instead, the ideal approach, like so much in life, seems to be centred on balancing our expectations. Being a realist, rather than a wild optimist or a sour pessimist. Setting reasonable expectations based not only on our past life experiences, but also the known variables of any given situation. Using our conscious brain to apply logic based reasoning to the expectations our sub-conscious spits out, while then allowing our true optimism to shine when we reflect on experiences. Searching for the positive aspects that we can take away.
While I’m still working on the expectations piece, I’m proud to say that optimism of outcome is generally one of my specialties. Mike’s too. In fact – we practice it so frequently, that it could be debated that we are bordering on delusional in terms of the manner in which we rationalize outcomes.
We literally share the ability to convince ourselves of the good from almost anything. Even the worst experiences and biggest mistakes of our life, we look back on as necessary forks in the road that undeniably led us to where we are today.
Whether it’s delusion, the ability to rationalize the negative, a high degree of optimism of outcome, or a combination thereof, I can definitely say that, in general, reflecting on the things you can no longer change, and identifying the positive in the experience, or the lessons learned, undoubtedly leads to life where freedom can be experienced at a much more fulfilling level.
The Bottom Line
So perhaps the happiness equation of Happiness = Reality – Expectations, isn’t quite so simple.
Maybe there’s a few additional variables that are needed to help define the type of expectations needed, and the reflective outlook required, in order to lead a fulfilled and free life.
So maybe, at least for me, it looks a little bit more like this.
Happiness = Reality – (Expectations / Reasonableness) x Optimism of Outcome.
Have you figured out your happiness equation? Leave us a comment with your formula, or drop us an e-mail. Next week we’re going to delve into the Self Authoring program by Jordan Peterson, and how it can help you develop a rock solid plan for both Financial Freedom, and Freedom as a whole.
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