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Study Finds that Happiness is Tied to Meeting (or Exceeding) Expectations

There was an interesting study out of University College London that found a mathematical equation for predicting moment-to-moment happiness. Basically, we really ARE Douglas Adam’s human lab mice.  By being dropped what we perceive to be tiny rewards for our choices, we feel happiness.  We want to feel as if our work has a purpose and is being done well.  We want to meet our goals.  We want accolades.  We want little treats, to get something for nothing, to get as much as we perceive we deserve, and then to go a little beyond that.

In other words, we want to win at mindless games with low consequences.  We want a free reward at the end of a ten-punch card.

We also want our IVF cycle to be successful once we’ve built expectations by doing injections.  And our happiness is tied to that happening.

The study utilized data being collected from an app.  Unfortunately, I played the game that they used to find the equation for happiness after I read this study, so while I did feel slightly proud of myself for getting the coconut off the monkey’s head, it didn’t have the same effect on my overall happiness.

Still, as someone who has a lot of wants as well as a lot of expectations, I was drawn to the idea that just feeling as if things were going my way impacted happiness, even if the life rewards weren’t anything spectacular.  It brought back my thoughts on the librarian who wouldn’t give me an extra day with the book. My expectation was that she would give me the extra day with the book because (1) I know she does this regularly, (2) I was playing by the rules and bringing back the book on-time rather than being rude and keeping out the book beyond the expiration date, (3) it cost the library nothing to shift my due date back a day.

And then the expectation wasn’t met.

If you asked me whether I deserved the extra days, I would have laughed and said, “of course not.”  No one deserves extra time with a library book.  But clearly, my behaviour and reaction show that I did feel as if I deserved it.  And it made me sad when I walked out with my expectations thwarted.

[A side note: the book came back in the library this week, and I checked it out again.  But my heart totally isn’t into this book anymore.  I can’t tell if it’s the writing of the author or if the situation soured the book for me, but I’m not enjoying it anymore.  Would I have loved the ending if I had been given the extra day to read it without the three week gap?]

Or, again, an example with a book.  I went to the bookstore this week to buy the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.  It didn’t even occur to me that they wouldn’t have it in stock because the third book is so hot right now.  But I drove all the way to the bookstore and didn’t have my expectations met.  Josh called ahead to check availability at another store, and I drove an additional half hour to the Devil’s Armpit to pick up the books.  But when I got there — ooops! — they only had the first one despite saying they had both.  Expectations definitely not met or exceeded; mood definitely not happy.

Fast forward a few days to yet a third bookstore.  We walked to browse while on a date night, and I found the book and decided to buy it for $16.  Before I could pay, Josh walked past the hardcover version being sold for $6 in the bargain section.  And even though I prefer paperbacks to hardback books, I swapped out the $16 copy for the $6 copy, and not only got the book I wanted but saved $10 to boot.  You better believe I felt good going over expectations and getting a better deal than I thought possible when I set out to buy the books in the first place.

Anyway, being infertile and part of a niche in the blogosphere that has our overall happiness tied to an expectation (family building), I thought the study was interesting.  Especially this quote from the article:

Life is full of expectations — it would be difficult to make good decisions without knowing, for example, which restaurant you like better. It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. We find that there is some truth to this: lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness. However, expectations also affect happiness even before we learn the outcome of a decision. If you have plans to meet a friend at your favourite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan. The new equation captures these different effects of expectations and allows happiness to be predicted based on the combined effects of many past events.

That warm glow of happiness at the start of a cycle thinking, this could be it.  The expectations that sparkle in the form of hope.

I’m not sure how you can effectively lower your expectations, but someone could make a mint if they could retrain brains to want less and be equally happy with the status quo, or to be able to keep the happiness you feel before you learn the outcome and have it temper the crushing disappointment when the expected ending doesn’t come.


1 a { 08.31.14 at 9:38 am }

I don’t know if you have to have low expectations as much as realistic ones. And I don’t know if happiness is the goal as much as avoiding disappointment. My sisters were always getting mad at my mom because they always expected her to act differently than she did. I was better at understanding how she was likely to react, and thus would not be upset by something she said.

Like your book – if you had expected that the book might be sold out, you would have been resigned rather than disappointed. And you would have been happier if it had been in when you suspected it might not be than if you had expected it to be in.

2 Northern Star { 08.31.14 at 10:48 am }

Interesting article and post Mel! This is something that’s been on my mind lately, so the timing is bang on for me.

I have really high expectations of myself, whereas my husband has lower expectations of himself. After our professional exam, he expected to fail whereas I expected to pass. When TTC, he never expected any particular month to be “the one” whereas I expected every month over 10 years to be it. He seems to be more accepting and have fewer expectations of people in our lives than I do. All of this seems to contribute to his more relaxed attitude about life.

I expect myself to make very few mistakes, so when I do, I place more weight than I need to on them.

I think it would be useful to work on setting more realistic expectations and observe how this impacts my own behaviour.

Anyway, I’m super glad I read this this morning! Cheers to setting the bar lower and expecting the librarian to be an unfeeling control freak!

3 Brid { 08.31.14 at 12:15 pm }

Funny, I was going to send this link after the ‘wants’ post, but didn’t get around to it. Same sort of deal…


4 Mali { 09.01.14 at 2:51 am }

Managing expectations, or meeting or exceeding them, is one of the fundamentals of marketing. Satisfaction = actual experience – expected experience. And yes, this concept is entirely applicable to infertility. I think we adjust our expectations as we go through the process. By the time I had my second ectopic pregnancy, I was satisfied that I didn’t lose my uterus (a possibility given the site of my ectopic, and their suspicion that it was cancer), and that I could move to IVF. Yet six months earlier I was horrified at the thought of IVF.

I think too that we can manage our own expectations. That said, I am a great believer in the benefits of hope too. It just matters where we put our hope and expectations, and if they are realistic, or if we live in denial. (Now, I’m off to buy a lottery ticket, and yes, I am completely in denial, and bound to be disappointed.)

5 Liz { 09.01.14 at 9:45 am }

We are renovating a house right now, and people keep asking how long it will take. My answer is “the contractor says x,” “I think it will be y,” but “I’ll be okay if we’re back in by Z.” I am DEFINITELY someone who is affected by expectation. Unfortunately, that sometimes means I drop my expectations really low in hopes of not having them dashed.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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