Managing expectations in life

During my second year of business school, the thoughts on my mind have become much more philosophical. And the horizon over which I ponder has become much longer. In many ways I think that this is one of the main benefits of going to school, namely that it creates the right intellectual and spiritual environment to think about these things in a more serious way.

One of the main thoughts on my mind lately has been about our expectations to events in the future — the good and the bad — and how there is a gap between how we think we will feel about something versus how we will actually feel.

Maybe you have noticed that too: sometimes we expect something really good to happen and once it happens, the joy is not as high and long-lasting as we expected it to be. Think of promotions, a job change, getting into a dream school, finally getting something we’ve been wanting for a long time, etc.

And the same is the case on the negative side of things — the sorrow is not as deep and long-lasting as we expected it to be. Think of an expected “loss” that we expect to hit us like a really good friend who is moving away, missing out on something that we desired, a financial hit, etc. Not saying we are not going to be happy or sad, but more often than not we end up not as happy or not as sad as we expected to be.

But why is that? And more importantly, does it matter? Discussions in class and with friends have led me to think of three reasons which I found very plausible.

1) You brace for impact: one theory I have is that when you expect something to happen, when you already dedicate mental resources to think of a certain situation in life, you are basically bracing for that impact and the hit (either positive or negative) won’t come in as high/low as you expected it to. Your anticipation of it reduces the strength of the emotions that come with it.

2) We mis-project: we are just not good at predicting our future emotions, because far too often the predictions are based on how we feel today. If you are unhappy now, you will think a promotion is what you need that will make you really happy, but once it comes, it barely moves the needle.

3) You forget about other feelings: another theory I have come across is that when we think of a future event, we tend to only consider the feelings that are related to that event, and not all the other feelings that will continue to be part of our lives. Example: when I think of something bad to happen in future, like a friend moving away, I am certainly thinking of all the negative emotions that come with it. But once that event hits, all the other positive things in my life (family, friends, my job, an upcoming trip, etc.) continue to exist. We just forgot to include those in our “calculation” about how we’re going to feel about that event.

All these theories aside, why does this matter? It matters because too often we live our lives in the future and not in the now. And understanding that the good will not be as good and the bad will not be as bad as we expect them to be, really raises the question why we are not more focused on the here and now.

If the good is not going to be as good as I expect to be, we probably shouldn’t be so hopeful about how future events are suddenly going to fix our lives today. And if the bad is not going to be as bad as we expect it to be, we shouldn’t be walking around and let those expectations ruin our today.

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