For years, as Denmark has consistently ranked among the happiest countries in the world, people have been speculating on the reasons behind this relatively high level of self-reported happiness. After all, this Scandinavian country doesn't fit the image most people would form when asked to dream of the place where they might be happiest. Explanations are wide-ranging, including a new suggestion that happiness is hard-wired in the genetic makeup of Scandinavian people. But for years, the most popular explanation was in Danish pessimism. This rationale claims that people who have low expectations for life will find their expectations fulfilled more often than those who expect more and find themselves disappointed. This fulfillment of expectations produces happiness.
Low expectations and happiness
At least one scientific study has determined that low expectations really are the key to happiness in life. Researchers at University College London found that when people made a series of decisions resulting in small wins and losses, their happiness with the experience was dependent not on their circumstances, but on how their circumstances compared with their expectations. The researchers even created a mathematical equation to reflect their findings, illustrating how strongly happiness is dependent on what we expect. It makes common sense: if your expectations are low, you have a greater chance of being surprised by something better than you expect, instead of the other way around.
On the other hand, consistently low expectations can keep our lives small and make us miss opportunities. Low expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. And if we don't have space in our lives for risking disappointment, we won’t have space for anticipation either.
Realistic expectations and disappointment
There is much to be said for realistic expectations, based in what is true about the world and about us. Realistic expectations keep us from minimizing our lives in a bid for emotional safety; they also help us anticipate and hope for what is good. Sometimes they result in disappointment, and sometimes they lead us to delight.
Chronic disappointment isn’t good for us. It hurts our physical bodies and discourages our minds. It can make us into persistently negative people and inhibit motivation and engagement in life. It can create levels of stress and dissonance that contribute to depression and anxiety-based disorders.
One reason disappointment hurts us is because it produces a sense of conflict between our internal expectations and external reality. When we hold on to unrealistic expectations, or persist in demanding that our experience of life be something it’s not, we position ourselves for an ongoing sense of conflict with our own lives as they unfold. Obviously, disappointment is part of life for absolutely everyone. We all have this experience. However, it does not have to be a long-term or frequent state of mind.
Expectations and our mental health
Our expectations also have the power to help or hurt our mental health. Like all of our thoughts, they have powerful influence on the way our brains function. In some cases—especially with the most common forms of mental illness, like depression and anxiety disorders—our thoughts and our beliefs can literally make us sick. And when we are living with thought patterns that hurt our emotional or mental well-being, those thoughts can keep us from getting better.
Healthy, well-balanced, truth-based thoughts, on the other hand, can be very good for us. As Proverbs 17:22 declares, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” A genuinely cheerful heart is mostly likely to emerge not from the disappointment the follows unrealistically high expectations, nor from the gloom of falsely low expectations, but from expectations that align with reality as it unfolds.
Realistic expectations can produce a healthy environment for both receiving and pursuing fulfillment of those expectations. They can produce a sense of harmony between the lives we're pursuing and the lives we're living. They make room in our lives for appreciation of what we have and anticipation of what will come. They allow us to remember the truth Jesus told his followers: “In this world you will have trouble.” Yet they allow us to also find joy in the next sentence: “Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Managing our expectations
How do we manage our expectations? We start by facing the truth about ourselves and our world. We are both magnificent and marred. We are capable of greatness and of garbage. Our world is beautiful and broken. Sublime and scary. Consistently realistic expectations emerge from our ability to live with both sides of the coin of reality itself—and with the emotions they produce.
It’s also important to listen to the stories and advice of other wise people—particularly those who have been around longer than we have. Their guidance and the lessons they have learned can help us sort reality from both fantasy and self-protective suppression.
The most important expectations
The most important expectations in our lives are the expectations we have of God. Many of us expect God to heal us, fix our circumstances, make us comfortable, change the people we love, and give us complete emotional and spiritual fulfillment here and now. And we wonder why he doesn’t. Is that too much to expect of our all-powerful, always good God?
When we expect such things of God and he doesn't deliver, we may find ourselves disappointed and disillusioned. We may believe God has let us down. We may determine we have expected too much of him. We might decide we need to lower our expectations of God, to make them more realistic.
But ironically, when it comes to God, such expectations are not too high. They are way too low. He has far more in mind for us, for now and someday. Our expectations of God can never be too high. But they must be combined with a realistic view of our own compromised capacity for experiencing God, plus the humble recognition that God does not exist to follow our plans or conform to our hopes and dreams. He is writing his own autobiography, and he turns the pages at his own pace. Remember the truth God proclaimed through his prophet Isaiah: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9).
Why settle for making us comfortable when he intends to transform us? Why make us happy in our corrupt world when he wants us to join him in anticipation of the restoration of all creation? Why manipulate the world to be what we want it to be, when he is making all things new (Rev. 21:5), to be what he intends it to be?
So how do we manage our expectations of God? We know him and abide in him. We read and meditate on his Word, his revelation of what is and what is to come. We ask him to teach us and to help us wrap our lives around him. The more we know God and see his ways at work, the more we will raise our expectations of him, higher than the fulfillment of all desires here and now.
For our own good, let’s shift our expectations of God. Let's learn to expect far more than for him to bow to our whims. He will not disappoint us.