Why your expectations can hurt or heal you

June 22, 2018

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.

Amy Simpson

Amy Simpson is the award-winning author of Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry and Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (both InterVarsity Press). She’s also an editor for Moody Publishing, a leadership coach, and a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24