How Our Expectations Affect Our Happiness
Happiness has been positively associated with realistic expectations. Conversely, American’s high expectations of success have been suggested as a major contributing factor to both unhappiness and a high rate of mental illness.
Mental health problems, like anxiety disorders and depression, are common and under-treated in both developed and developing countries, with the highest rates being found in the U.S.
In a 2004 study, authors conducted face-to-face diagnostic surveys in the homes of 60,463 adults in 14 countries, and discovered that mental ailments affect more than 10% of people queried in more than half the countries surveyed. Americans had the highest rate of mental illness at 26.4%, while Nigerians rated the lowest at 4.7%.
The most common ailments everywhere (except the Ukraine) were anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the Ukraine, mood disorders, such as depression, topped the list.
The researchers theorized that the U.S. had the highest rate of mental illness because American's high expectations of success can lead to frustration when people can’t live up to them.
Studies on prayer have shed light on the negative impact of expectations. A 2.4 million dollar study at Harvard examining the effect of prayer, found patients who knew they were being prayed for had a significantly higher rate of post-operative complications. This lead researchers to speculate that of the expectations created by the prayers caused performance anxiety in the patients.
In other research, Danes have been found to be markedly more happy based on their low level of expectations. Denmark is considered the happiest nation in the world. More than two-thirds of Danes report being "very satisfied with their lives," according to the Eurobarometer Survey, a figure that has held steady for more than 30 years. Danes tend to be healthy, married and active - all contributing factors to happiness. But Danes happier than Finns and Swedes who share many of these traits, including a similar culture and climate.
When researchers have looked into what makes Danes different, they have found that they have low expectations and so are pleasantly surprised by life. In fact, about once a year, a new study confirms Denmark's status as a happiness superpower. Danes, according to the research, harbor low expectations about everything, including their own happiness.
Danes appear to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, while the rest of us ratchet up our expectations, creating a sort of emotional inflation that devalues accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment.
A study at the University of Chicago found that we grow happier as we grow older. The researchers suggested that older people tend to have lower aspirations or, possibly, greater acceptance. Another study found that women are less happy today than they were in the 1970s, despite the great strides they've made in the workplace. Again, expectations were thought to be the likely culprit.
If the task at hand is to lower our expectations, exactly how do we do that? Maybe the key is not holding on too tightly to our expectations. If we know that disappointment is going to happen at least some of the time, we probably won't be too astonished when it happens.