Expectations: from Zero to Perfection

Let’s analyze the emotion of happiness logically, like a Vulcan might. I know, I know. Vulcans consider all emotions to be primitive and destructive. The Vulcans are mostly correct. All emotions are primitive, and they can be destructive. I regularly see patients in the ER who got angry, punched a wall in their house, hit a wood stud, and broke their hand. But happiness isn’t destructive. It is predictable. You are happy when the world exceeds your expectations, and you are satisfied when your expectations are simply met. Logically speaking, if you lower your expectations to zero, then you will either be happy (if you receive anything at all), or you will at least be satisfied (if you receive nothing). Therefore, the statistical possibility for disappointment or unhappiness is zero. Sounds logical to me, Spock. But is it advisable?

Imagine the consequences:

  1. You buy five raffle tickets from the local boy scout troop only because everybody else on your block is buying them . . . or at least that is what the two scouts at your front door said. You have no expectation (zero) of winning, and you even forgot to take the tickets out of your pocket before you washed your pants. When you read in the paper that a little old lady won, you think, So what. On the other hand, if you won, Oh wow! Now you are happy!
  2. You loan your hedge trimmer, then your lawn mower, followed by your motorcycle, and finally your car to your always-in-need brother-in-law. You have no expectation (zero) of ever seeing your property again. Two years later when you learn that the trimmer and mower were sold, the motorcycle was wrecked, and the car was stolen, you respond with, “Oh well, I never expected to get them back anyway.” If, however, your car is recovered by the police, you will feel as if you just won a used car! Now you are happy!
  3. You learn that the “perfect guy” you’ve been dating for the past three months is currently married to his fourth wife. Two days later you receive three angry phone calls. One from his wife and one phone call each from two other women he is also dating. All three threaten to pull out all your hair if you don’t stop trying to “steal my man.” Of course, you have no expectation (zero) that anyone you date will ever be faithful to you; therefore, lover boy is always welcome at your place. In fact, you are thrilled whenever Tom Cat boyfriend occasionally spends the night with you. Now you are happy!

The problem with zero expectations is obvious. You will tolerate anything and everything – which means you will quickly attract thieves, grifters, con men, cheaters, and abusers. Say goodbye to all your money, property, time, and self-respect. You will eventually lose everything. The only silver lining: none of it will upset you. You will get exactly what you expect – nothing – except for a rare scrap of happiness, maybe.

What about the other end of the spectrum? What if you expect perfection from the world? Let’s logically consider the facts. Since perfection is rare, you will rarely be satisfied. And, you will never be happy because happiness is only achieved when your expectations are exceeded.

Imagine the consequences:

  1. You will expect perfection from your employees or your co-workers, if you’re not the boss. They must always be early or right on time, give top-notch service, manufacture flawless products, and make no mistakes with no misunderstandings, no excuses, and no delays – ever. Of course, eventually several unpleasant events will occur. You will chew up and spit out employees/coworkers like cheap bubble gum. Then, you will be fired, or you’ll become disgusted and quit, or you’ll go bankrupt – if you’re the boss. In the meantime, everyone at work will hate you. Have you ever seen the movie, The Devil Wears Prada? You will be Meryl Streep in that movie – never happy.
  2. Your children will need psychiatric counselling at an early age. Your perfection pressure will make them act out against you in defiance and develop a host of psychosomatic complaints – typically headaches and abdominal pain. Also, they will resent you and count the days to their eighteenth birthday. Or worse, one of your kids will become a neurotic perfectionist like yourself. None of which lead to happiness.
  3. If you never marry, all the members of the opposite sex will thank you. However, if you do get tie the knot, be prepared to meet a lot of divorce attorneys. You will need them. No person will be able to stand or fulfill your demands to be a perfect mate. You will only stay married if you find a zero-expectation spouse on whom you can regularly wipe your feet without complaint.

And yet, the “perfection expectation” philosophy has its proponents. They argue that everyone should strive to be the best and expect/demand perfection. Why would you want anything less? Perfectionists know they are going to be disappointed and dissatisfied (unhappy) most of the time. But they don’t care about their unhappiness or worry about the collateral damage they cause others. It is all about getting to the top. Perfectionists convince themselves that once they reach the top and “win,” then they will be happy. But the top of the mountain is a very insecure place, and it is so hard to stay there with all the other perfectionists trying to knock them off. So no, they will never be happy.

What is the answer? What level of expectation is best? The happiest people set reasonable and attainable expectations for themselves and others. They start by deciding what behaviors, progress, or results are “good enough” (the level for satisfaction), and then they raise the bar a level or two (to enter the happiness zone). Reasonable people then work just as hard as the perfectionists to fulfill that slightly higher expectation. When they reach it, happiness is the result. Now it’s time to raise the bar a little higher and keep working. Perfection or near perfection can still be the ultimate goal. But it is more happily obtained in reasonable and attainable stages.

In the next segment of the Happiness Series, I will discuss the crucial element of gratitude.