I took my Playbill. I found my seat. For nine months, I’d waited for it—the day printed on my ticket to see the hit Broadway show “Hamilton!"Just one thing slightly nagged at me: The pressure to love it as much as the massive fan base already did.
The show—a musical about the life of U.S. treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton as just about everyone knows—was, and is, sold out indefinitely, amid rave reviews and celebrity tweets from backstage. By the time I saw it in May, I had listened to the soundtrack often enough to quote it in conversations and have multiple dreams about the show. A friend who had seen “Hamilton” before me teased that I had built up this one performance so much in my mind, there was no way it could meet my expectations.
So, I wondered: When we expect greatness or perfection, are we likely to be disappointed? Or would we be better off lowering our expectations, with the aim of being pleasantly surprised? As is often the case, science says: That depends.
High expectations for entertainment, food, consumer products, vacations and more are everywhere—in five-star reviews on sites like Yelp, excited recommendations we get from friends and family, glowing endorsements on social media (not to mention actual paid advertising). But depending on your personal experiences and interests, that guidance may overhype or flop altogether. One-star Yelp reviews of national parks are an example of how people can still be miserable in places widely regarded as idyllic. Any particular decision may not impact your long-term happiness much, either—psychologists use the phrase “hedonic treadmill” to mean that happiness ultimately bounces back to some constant level, no matter what you do.
There’s scientific backing to the idea that lower, rather than higher, expectations lead to greater happiness in a given situation. The logic is that people are usually delighted to receive a greater reward than they anticipated, and disappointed about getting less than they expected.
A 2014 study led by Robb Rutledge, a researcher at University College London, sought to look at how expectations play into happiness with a simple game. The 26 participants made choices about whether or not to take various gambles, which carried positive expectations (winning some money or receiving none) or negative expectations (losing some money or receiving none). About once per minute, participants were prompted to rate their happiness. A surprising pattern emerged in the data: Expectations mattered a lot.
“The basic finding was that happiness depends not on how well you’re doing in the task, but instead on whether you’re doing better than expected,” he told me recently. Expectations, he said, “are just as important for happiness as rewards are.”
The researchers then used these data to develop a computational model linking expectations, rewards and how happy people say they are. They also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at what was happening in participants’ brains during the experiment. They were able to predict, on average, how much happiness changed from moment to moment based on brain activity.
Since a sample of 26 people isn’t enough to make a good scientific case for anything, the researchers developed a smartphone app called “The Great Brain Experiment” that set up similar choices about whether to take gambles, albeit with a points system instead of real money. More than 18,000 people participated anonymously. Using the computational model, researchers were able to accurately predict, on average, how happy these thousands of users said they were from moment to moment during the game.
Thanks to this research, Rutledge and colleagues have developed something that sounds almost magical: An equation for happiness. This equation predicts how happy people are likely to say they are at a particular time during a series of controlled events like those in the experiment. Researchers are continuing to explore how these variables work together to contribute to our mercurial states of mind.
Scientists are also looking at the role of neurotransmitters. The current thinking is that the dopamine system is heavily involved in predicting rewards and responding to expectations. Theoretically, you get a boost of dopamine when you form a positive expectation, Rutledge said. For instance, your friend tells you about a new restaurant with “the best Italian food in town.” When you make a reservation for Friday, you get another dopamine release—enough to elevate your mood.
But then, let’s say you show up, order the chicken parm and find that the meat is slightly tough and the noise in the restaurant is maddening. Disappointment from unmet expectations seems to be related to a dip in dopamine levels—that is, the neurotransmitter doesn’t release as much—so your mood may take a dive.
Practicing good expectations
Does all this mean the key to daily happiness is having low expectations? Some say that’s why Denmark has been at the top of country rankings for well-being or life satisfaction (albeit that’s different from moment-to-moment happiness per se). Many factors contribute, but a humorous 2006 paper in the British Medical Journal noted, “while Danes are very satisfied, their expectations for the coming year are rather low.”
But Rutledge, whose equation might suggest a low-expectation outlook, doesn’t recommend living by it. Instead, he said, it’s important to realize that your brain gets “error signals” when something is better or worse than expected in order to learn from experience, and to make good decisions in the future.
“Your brain evolved to help you figure out what the valuable things in the world are,” Rutledge said. “Where do I find the food, who are the people I want to hang out with, who do I want to date, who do I want to be my ally.” Thousands of years ago as well as today, we make these important decisions by setting expectations and then updating those expectations based on what actually happens.
So if you want to improve a friend’s enjoyment of a movie you already saw and loved, try tempering your hype, says Rutledge. Don’t reveal that the film was your favorite of the year—just say it was good. Your friend may then like the film a lot more than he or she expected, and join you as a fan.
Finding ways to deal with disappointment about unmet expectations is something Mary Lamia, a psychologist practicing near San Francisco, often talks about with clients. She views disappointment as part of the same emotional response as shame. You might not normally think of shame this way, but anything that interrupts our interest or enjoyment can trigger feelings of inadequacy.
“We get caught up in wanting to fit in and defining ourselves in relation to others,” Lamia said. “If everyone around you seems to be enjoying a particular event, but you feel let down and disconnected, you can bet you are experiencing shame.”
In response to such disappointment, you may withdraw from others, avoid your feelings (perhaps through drinking), or blame yourself. But Lamia often sees people directing aggression at others—a phenomenon that can easily be seen in nasty reviews on sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor. Attacking is also a common response to larger disappointments—such as lashing out at your company in your head because you didn’t get the promotion you thought you deserved.
Instead, Lamia encourages people to use disappointments as a way to learn about themselves, and to do a reality-check on high expectations that consistently let us down. For those of us distraught that online dating platforms aren’t delivering the perfect mate (see my February post), approach each date as an opportunity to hear someone’s life story, make a friend, and discover your own priorities and interests (I also learn about Los Angeles activities and events this way!). If you’re not expecting to meet your life partner on the first date, you might be intrigued enough for a second meeting.
Reaching for the top
On the other hand, we need high expectations in order to perform at our best and strive for what we want and believe in. That hedonic treadmill isn’t so bad if you let it motivate you to work toward your goals.
Competitors at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro wouldn’t have gotten there at all if they hadn’t set high expectations for themselves, but even those at the top get disappointed. American volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings, who had previously won three Olympic gold medals and boasted a 26-match winning streak, said she and teammate April Ross were “devastated” about being defeated by a Brazilian team in the 2016 semi-finals, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Walsh Jennings and Ross had to then compete for bronze—an honor for most mortals, but humiliating for a star expected to earn a fourth gold. Yet, despite the reportedly hostile crowd, the duo found the strength to turn around their bronze match, springing back to win the second set and bringing it home 15-9 in the third. Walsh Jennings said, according to USA Today, that this bronze medal means more to her than her golds.
The experts I talked to for this piece agreed that it’s best to have a healthy balance of high goals and realistic expectations: Follow your drive and passions, but be willing to put disappointments in perspective, and learn from them.
“It’s striving for excellence rather than perfection, and it’s about being compassionate toward yourself and others,” said Nadine Kaslow, professor in the department of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine.
“Past patiently waiting”
As for me and “Hamilton,” I did what every audience member lucky enough to be there should do: I relaxed and enjoyed the show. At the risk of over-hyping, I would say I entered an enchanted state of being called “nirvanilton” as soon as Lin-Manuel Miranda walked on stage (he’s since left the show). But really, I loved the surprises —the way dancing made the whole stage come to life, the way the characters interacted with each other, the way genuine humor emerged despite misfortunes. Experiencing the unexpected is part of the pleasure of live theater.
And don’t forget: Hamilton himself had enormous expectations for himself and his country, leading to his heroic fighting in the Revolutionary War, championing the constitution, designing the U.S. financial system, etc. etc. In the show we hear his wife Eliza sing a refrain of realistic expectations: “That would be enough.” But through Alexander we know: Great things have come from people who could never be satisfied.