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Can expectations make us happy?

Lina Löfstrand -

My Andersson -

How do you set your expectations to make sure not to be disappointed later? Which decision-making strategy really is the best? Is it beneficial to make an effort to maximize everything we do, or would it be better to simply choose something that gets the job done?

I was recently invited to a birthday party for two ten year olds that I don’t actually know very well. Birthdays are always fun, and of course I said yes. But along with the excitement of the invitation also came a lot of questions that needed answering. What birthday present does a ten year old want? What do kids like, and how do I make sure not to get them anything “lame” so that they keep thinking I’m cool, and preferably are a bit impressed with my gift-giving ability? How much effort do I put into my appearance, and what time do I show up? Many enjoyable situations can easily turn into stressful ones if you fixate too much on doing everything right, but how do you go about it when you really want to make sure that the outcome is perfect? And how much do you actually gain from getting worked up over every possible scenario?

Us humans are currently more successful than ever. We’ve got better technology, more services available whenever we need them, and on average, we have more money than before. We’ve also never before been as unhappy and dissatisfied as we are today. Some of it comes from better reporting of mental illness, and some can be connected to the stress of having so many options for everything we do, but a significant factor for this unhappiness is the expectations we set. When several alternatives are presented to us, we usually make an effort to choose the option we think will benefit ourselves the most. We often try to visualize the situation, imagining how great everything will be once we make that perfect choice. Since reality rarely is perfect, there is a real risk of disappointment when everything then doesn’t go according to plan. We become dissatisfied, and – when this continues to happen time and time again – unhappy.

Would my birthday gift-dilemma have you spending hours on google in pursuit of answers to what a ten year old really wants, only for you to not actually purchase anything until you’ve explored every single corner of every single store? Then you likely are a maximizer – somebody striving to get the most out of every decision you make. To achieve the best possible outcome, maximizers are ready to invest a lot of time and energy hunting down the very best alternative, and they’re often perfectionists. When the choice has finally been made, they have a tendency to keep questioning it, and to spend a long time wondering whether there might have been an even better option out there. The opposite of maximizers is “satisficers” – individuals looking for an option that is simply good enough. When looking for that birthday gift, they would likely visit one or a couple of stores, and settle as soon as they find something appropriate. These people ask themselves whether the option meets their needs, and once it’s decided, they spend no time with regret. Even if a better option presents itself later, satisficers continue to be satisfied. According to research, maximizers experience less happiness, lower confidence and more regret, while at the same time accepting starting salaries about 20 percent higher than satisficers. One could therefore suggest that maximizers often succeed more than satisficers, but are they really content?

A bronze medalist is usually more satisfied than a silver medalist, since the silver medalist was aiming for gold while the bronze medalist is relieved to be in third place instead of fourth. A person who has looked online and in travel magazines might be let down when they finally reach their destination and realize that it’s actually crowded and loud, and not as majestic with the same pretty filter it had in the pictures. A child who grows up being told that they’re special and will eventually be a superstar has a great risk of disappointment later in life when this doesn’t happen. If the ten year olds don’t absolutely love my birthday gifts the way I pictured in my mind, I could easily start thinking that I’ve let them down. When we continue to always expect the very best, we will be disappointed when reality doesn’t deliver on that, regardless of how well everything might turn out.

Achieving the best possible outcome in every part of life is basically impossible, which means that the result of maximizing in many cases will be regret, overthinking and disappointment. In addition, maximizers tend to blame themselves to a higher degree, attributing failures to personal weaknesses without accounting for external factors and limitations outside of their control. Despite seemingly better results, maximizers have lower confidence than satisficers, and many suffer from ‘FOBO’ – fear or better options. What if I decide on this right now, and a better option appears later? This kind of thinking can be almost paralyzing, and it can turn even the smallest decisions into difficult, time-consuming ones. At a dinner restaurant, a maximizer might enjoy studying the menu ahead of time, thoroughly considering the options and visualizing the looks and flavors of the dishes, only to end up insecure if somebody else orders something that looks more appetizing. A satisficer however, will take one look at the menu, maybe have a quick look around at what others are eating, and decide in a couple of minutes. And they usually end up having a nice dinner.

So, how do we set our expectations in order not to be let down? The best thing would be to avoid impulsive decisions without any afterthought, while also keeping in mind that we don’t have to examine every detail in every situation. Perhaps it’s enough to be a satisficer when it comes to most everyday decisions, but to maximize big decisions, when there is an actual impact on the future. In these situations, it’s important to return to satisficing as soon as the decision is made, to avoid questioning it too much afterwards. Maximizers and satisficers have a lot to learn from each other – if one has a tendency to overthink, one can often start by eliminating some of the options, and if you usually take most decisions lightly, there might be some value in thinking an extra time, and maybe weighing potential pros and cons. In my case, once the gift has been purchased and the outfit chosen, I can finally transform into a satisficer. Wrapping paper and greeting cards are also important, but I’m sure I’ll find some that do the job just fine.

Publicerad: 2022-12-19

Ansvarig utgivare: Benjamin Javitz
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