It seems that many of us spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid disappointment in life. We have recognized the apparent relationship between expectations and disappointment, and hope that by managing our expectations we can manage our disappointment as well, possibly avoiding it altogether. We are completely correct, for the most part. 18th century English poet and satirist, Alexander Pope said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” It’s true, that if we lower our expectations, our chances of being disappointed decrease also… but at what cost?
First of all, as much as we try to avoid and manage our disappointment, it is an inevitable part of the fullness of life, just like joy, pain, love and sadness. Some of these expressions are more comfortable than others, but none is more valuable than the next. Finding peace in the comfortable and uncomfortable alike, although easier said than done, is what allows us to really experience the beauty of life in it’s entirety.
Both the experience of disappointment and the hope of expectation have their benefits if we have the courage to explore them. Here are some of the benefits disappointment:
1. Disappointment can be an invaluable learning experience. Whether from personal failure or from forces beyond our control, understanding gained from a disappointing experience, is understanding that may not be gained in any other way, even if what you’ve learned is simply the value of hard work.
2. Disappointment is an opportunity to practice peace in the uncomfortable moments and shift our focus to the process rather than the results. In disappointment we can learn to be present in the moment, and savor all the different flavors and notes in life, not just the ones that taste or smell sweet.
3. Disappointment can lead to affirmation, that what is happening really matters to us and that we are invested. The sadness that accompanies disappointment indicates that we care about the situation, maybe more than we realized, and the anger that can come from disappointment indicates that we’re ready to take action and do something about it. Both of these feelings are very healthy when directed appropriately.
Without fear of disappointment, we are free to live life with and expectant, optimistic attitude, which just so happens to be our nature to begin with. Cognitive Neuroscientist Tali Sharot studies what’s called the Optimism Bias, which is the brains natural inclination to believe that things will turn out better for the owner of said brain, compared to everyone else. For example, although nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, the percentage of newlyweds that believe their marriage will defeat all odds and be successful is in the high 90’s. Dr. Sharot gives an inspired and uplifting Ted Talk on the Optimism Bias, of which she has also written a book called, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain
. ( http://www.ted.com/talks/tali_sharot_the_optimism_bias.html
) In this talk she supposes the questions, “Is the optimism bias good for us?” and like Alexander Pope has said, “Is the secret to happiness low expectations?” She offers 3 reasons why Mr. Pope is sorely mistaken and at that the optimism bias is in fact a healthy phenomenon:
1. Whatever happens, whether success or failure, people with high expectations always feel better (it’s science). Because how we feel depends on how we interpret the events that happen.
2. Anticipation makes us happy (science again). “Optimists are people who expect more kisses in their future, more strolls in the park, and that anticipation enhances our well being.” Optimism changes subjective reality; the way we anticipate the future affects the way we see it.
3. Optimism changes objective reality. It can act as a self fulfilling prophesy (science). Studies show that those with an optimistic attitude try harder and that their optimism leads to greater success in Academia, Sports, Politics and even Health.
In one of my all time favorite books, Mindset: The Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck gives examples of two outstanding teachers who use high expectations to do what most thought was impossible. Storied math teacher Jamie Escalante from Garfield High School in Los Angeles and the movie Stand and Deliver changed one of the inner-city’s worst schools by teaching the students college level Calculus. “Marva Collins took inner-city Chicago kids who had failed in the public schools and treated them like geniuses. Many of them had been labeled, ‘learning disabled,’ ‘retarded,’ or ‘emotionally disturbed.’” Using extremely high expectations and the works of Aristotle, Aesop, Tolstoy, Poe, Frost and Dickinson she took second-graders at the lowest reader levels and brought them to the middle of the fifth grade reader level by June.
Brining it back to the gym, I have a client named Kevin who loves to whip the medicine ball back at me whenever we do a medicine ball toss. As long as his movement is controlled, this is great for him in terms of exercise. The harder he throws that ball, the more muscle tissue is activated and the more beneficial the movement is for him. I know, because he’s confessed to me with a cheeky grin, that he would love nothing more than to see the medicine ball slip through my fingers, careen into my face and draw blood. So I expect the high speed of his pass and the intentional, random misdirection. If I didn’t, surely, sometimes he would have his way, and I would end up with a black eye, broken nose, fat lip or all of the above. Either that, or the ball would sail passed me altogether, into some unsuspecting mirror, window or gym goer. In this case, as in life, an expectant, ready attitude gives me the best chance to catch what’s coming, and ironically enough leads to some disappointment on Kevin’s part.
Having expectations prepares us to receive good fortune and may even change our destiny. If we don’t expect that what we hope for will be made manifest, the chances are that we won’t be ready or even notice when it is. Let us not abandon our expectations for fear of disappointment, but rather endure disappointment for the rewards of having high expectations.