Why ditching high expectations now could lead to more happiness later

Are you overwhelmed with relief when you see the toilet paper aisle is fully stocked? Do you feel like jumping for joy because you got a gig even though it’s paying you a fourth of what you used to charge? Are you smiling ear-to-ear because you walked past chalk art on the sidewalk?

You are not alone – we are in a world of lowered expectations. The small joys are giving us huge positive reactions. Scientists say this is a good thing and may be the key to a happier life. It may also be something good to come out of these challenging times.

So many of our little joys in life have been denied during COVID-19. It makes sense then, that when the littlest of things works out, our positive responses can feel over the top. This state of chronic anxiety and extreme stress is tiring, so a reprieve from that state can be exhilarating. 

Positive psychology researchers who study gratitude talk about the idea of hedonic adaptation, which means you get used to stuff going well, so you take it for granted. Well, there is nothing like a pandemic to make you realize how good things used to be. 

This stripping away of all of our “extras” has forced us to lower our expectations – something that could translate into increased well-being after this is all over. But that will require us to be cognizant of what this feels like right now – living without some of those things we used to take for granted.

Why less is more

Pre-pandemic, we may have attached more of our happiness to the stuff we consumed – to our status, our wealth or appearance. But now we aren’t consuming as much as we used to. That’s mostly because so many of us have been hit with financial uncertainty.

And when it comes to our status or appearance – it seems to have so much less meaning in a COVID-19 world. Suits have been replaced with sweatpants and uncut hair is the norm. 

Scientists also say lowered expectations may be the key to our happiness. A U.K. study investigated the relationship between happiness and reward, and the neural processes such as happiness that lead to feelings that are central to our conscious experience.

The researchers found that day-to-day well-being does not reflect how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected.

So, right now – after weeks of worrying that we may not have enough toilet paper and we find out that our local store is stocking up – we experience heightened levels of happiness. Our day is suddenly going better than expected. We aren’t taking that part of our lives for granted right now. 

This is a good thing. We may never look at some of these everyday items in the same way again.

High expectations still matter

It’s important to note that we shouldn’t lower our expectations in all areas of our life.

Setting personal expectations – having goals and achievements and setting expectations of others, setting boundaries and ensuring we’re treated well – is important to a healthy sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

However, during these unprecedented times it’s OK to pause any heightened expectations until the pandemic is over. Particularly so as we are forced to lower expectations of our parenting skills and cut our kids some slack when they are feeling moody and anxious as well.

We can release the pressure valve on our kids’ current education situation. So what if we stink at videoconferencing technology? Nothing is as it was, so we’ve had to reset the measurement bar on all of our expectations. 

Collective resilience post-pandemic

According to the article published in Psychology Today Canada, “Learning to be Resilient: Does Surviving Traumatic Situations Make People Stronger?,” Romeo Vitelli shares several examples of resiliency after trauma. One research study found that suicide rates declined in the years following the L’Aquila earthquake that struck central Italy in 2009. 

Vitelli also described how “trauma researchers looking at people raised in extremely negative environments, whether disaster victims or victims of childhood abuse, often expect trauma to have only a negative effect.  Their actual findings however, have often shown the opposite.”

Most definitions view resilience as a positive adaptation to adversity, whether it affects individuals, organizations, or entire communities. Groups like the American Psychological Association define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.

As much as resilience involves bouncing back from difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.

Not everyone will experience post-traumatic growth after the pandemic is over. There will be varying degrees of suffering and trauma. Those people who have lost loved ones or been sick themselves or worked the front lines day after day may take longer to recover, and require support. But many of them will come back even stronger. And the majority of us will have built up resilience skills that will take us into the future more successfully.  

Benefits of ‘helper’s high’

Helping others is one of the best ways we can develop our well-being.

The International Journal of Person-Centered Medicine published a metastudy that “presents an extensive set of scientific and medical studies regarding the benefits experienced by individuals who act sincerely for the benefit of others.”

Researchers share in their report that happiness, health and even longevity are benefits outlaid in more than fifty investigations. Lifelong benefits showed up in subjects’ neurology, endocrinology and immunology, and on self-reported happiness as well as the “helper’s high” that comes with volunteerism.

They conclude that, “when we help others, we help ourselves. In particular, the benefits of contributing to the lives of others are especially clear under conditions of stress or hardship, and constitute the essential component of post-traumatic growth.” 

Power of relationships

If anything, COVID-19 has taught us that our lives can be completely flipped upside down overnight. 

It’s a humbling reality and one that normally doesn’t get tested. Previously, we may have said, “I don’t know what I would do if I had to work from home with the kids!” Or, “I can’t go a month without…”

It doesn’t mean we should live without that stuff . But we know for sure that we can live without it and that it isn’t the basis for our happiness. What we can’t live without are the relationships – that is the one part that we shouldn’t get used to. 

Also, there’s no need to stop getting haircuts or eating dinner out. I will gladly bring all of that back into my life as soon as I can. But we can use this time to realize how much we’d previously taken for granted. We can also work hard in the future to reflect on how nice it is to shop in our grocery stores without fear, to see our children play on the monkey bars, to have a laugh with our coworker at the water cooler, and most of all, to hug our family and friends.

We need to hold on to how much we miss the stuff that costs us nothing. Because stuff won’t protect us from another pandemic. Rather, investing time in the people we love will inoculate us from regret should we face COVID-19 in the future.

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