Finland was recently voted the happiest country in the world for the sixth consecutive year. A range of theories have been put forward to explain why the Nordic nation continues to top the charts for happiness, from greater income equality to time spent in nature.
But a Finnish sociology professor attributed the country’s position to “a cultural orientation that sets realistic limits on its expectations for a good life”. In other words, he seems to believe that Finns are happy because they don’t set their expectations too high.
Should we all lower our expectations to be happier? I would say that psychological research suggests otherwise.
High expectations are important because they allow us to dream and create goals to achieve. Through a process called mental contrasting, we create judgments about our expectations of the future and decide which dreams are realistic to pursue and which we should give up.
For example, you can imagine yourself living a life with many friends around you. If you are sitting at home alone dreaming about this and feeling sad about the reality of being alone, mental contrast helps you identify your dream, anticipate potential obstacles, plan actions to overcome them, and pursue a goal that will help you make friends. , like joining a club.
Thus, high expectations, when realistic, can serve as a driving force to bring about change.
High expectations also keep us optimistic, so we carry on in the face of adversity. When a bad thing happens to someone and they expect everything to go well – despite adversity and even if it seems unrealistic at the time – it can lead them to take steps forward positive.
For example, your expectation of finding a life partner may diminish when your relationship breaks down. However, if you continue to hope to meet the right person, you are more likely to join a dating site and look for opportunities to meet new people.
On the other hand…
Low expectations limit our ability to develop and grow. Having little hope of accomplishing what we hope for is not a good way to adapt to life’s changes and can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
When we have low expectations of success from adversity, we are more likely to give up, such as not trying a dating app.
Even when our chances of success are objectively high, we will forego opportunities – perhaps to meet new people – because of our low expectations that things will turn out well for us.
So having high expectations can help us adapt to changing circumstances and keep going. It is a sign of resilience, adaptability and well-being.
The expectations of others
While it helps to set high expectations for ourselves, we also tend to perform better when others have high expectations of us. This is called the Pygmalion effect.
Our belief that others see us as capable and believe we can accomplish more than we think drives us to perform better. Likewise, when others have low expectations of us, our performance is usually worse.
The Pygmalion effect has been tested extensively in the workplace and in education, showing similar results.
When can high expectations be bad?
Setting expectations too high can have negative effects. Imagine overestimating your skills and challenging yourself too much. Maybe you started playing Candy Crush on your partner’s phone and their level is much higher than yours. The mismatch in your skills and this challenge can lead to frustration and even anxiety.
To neutralize this, all you have to do is go back to a level better suited to your skill level – which you find difficult but are capable of getting high scores to progress through the game. We tend to do the same thing in real life to keep balance.
For example, let’s say you are hosting a dinner party for your friends. If you commit to cooking a fancy meal that is too difficult, your anxiety can reach such high levels that you won’t be able to enjoy your own dinner.
Instead, you could lower your expectations and cook a meal that doesn’t require as much skill, but still challenges you (and your friends will no doubt enjoy).
We all have desires, a desire for an ideal version of our lives. Some of our desires become goals (for example, to become a parent), and others become lifelong desires that will probably never come true (for example, to earn X factor).
One of the reasons people may not want to have high expectations is that they want to protect themselves from disappointment when their hopes don’t come true, which is a valid concern.
However, learning to manage our emotions when sadness and frustration arise helps us deal with adversity more effectively.
The benefits of high expectations in motivating us to set and achieve goals outweigh the disadvantages, and any “protection” we might get from low expectations.
Considering all of this, I think it’s too simplistic to believe that Finns are happier for this reason.
Jolanta Burke, Senior Lecturer, Center for Positive Health Sciences, University of Medicine and Health Sciences RCSI
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.