Does your job make you miserable? Are you dreading Mondays and living for the weekend? Maybe it’s time to lower your expectations – they may be the source behind why you really hate your job, less so than the actual work itself.
That’s the message from a growing body of research that finds our happiness is less related to our circumstances than our expectations. And while that may seem like a depressing find, the reality should be encouraging for all of us out there working a 9-to-5 or currently trying to land one. Because we have the power to manage our expectations, we have the power to choose our own happiness. It also increases our level of personal responsibility at the workplace. Yes, your boss may be a jerk and you may be underappreciated, but those reasons alone don’t (always) have to lead to hating your job – if you manage your expectations appropriately.
The concept was playfully played out in a viral blog post entitled, “Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy.” Avoiding generalizations about the work ethic of the baby boomers vs. today’s millennials, the basic equation is the same one espoused by science:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
A study published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 found circumstances were a lesser predictor of happiness than receiving an outcome more positive than you anticipated.
“It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower,” said Dr. Robb Rutledge, the senior research associate at University College London (UCL) who led the study. “We find that there is some truth to this: Lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness.”
Cal Newport writes in Harvard Business Review about the problem with career passion – a term that has only recently come into vogue, and one that characterizes the job search for many individuals (of any age). While it may be great advice to ‘follow your passion’ – it might not actually lead you to a fulfilling job. Why? Because passion is a pretty loaded term. As much as I love my work as an editor, I’m hard-pressed to say it’s my passion. I enjoy my job, but I don’t pretend I’m saving the planet. And I’m pretty darn happy (how’s that for a scientific qualification?)
Productivity vs. Perfection
The other problem with high expectations is that they can be stunting in regular day-to-day tasks. Only open your mouth in a meeting when you have a perfectly polished idea? You’re not likely to chime in much. All professionals need to understand there will be a certain degree of failure in life, and in work.
“The world rewards productivity, not perfection,” says Peter Bregman, author of the book Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want. “Slightly lower expectations allow us to put stuff out there in the world that we can learn from.”
In this sense, that passion you have for your work may be a good thing – it encourages you to be innovative and put those ideas out there – even if some of them are bad ones. You also need the perspective to accept criticism. And you’ll be more likely to accept criticism well if you have the appropriate level of expectations.
Mindfulness vs. Mediocrity
There is an important caveat in the ‘lower expectations = more happiness’ camp. Embracing lower expectations does not mean embracing mediocrity. It’s more related to accepting the world as it is – a principle of mindfulness contributor David Brown recently discussed on our site. The beginner’s mind involves an openness at the workplace – an acceptance of other’s ideas and embracing the fact that you might not be doing it best. It also means living in the moment – a mind shift that directly relates to improving your expectations. It’s great to have a goal to move into management or attain a 20% pay raise in the next few years, but you’ll be happier when you achieve those goals if you’ve trained your mind to strive for them, rather than expecting them. Expectations set up the idea that you’ve already earned the right to that next achievement, and you’re just waiting for it to be handed to you.
The reality is that all careers ebb and flow – including, for some, periods of unemployment or serious career disappointment. It’s best to expect that reality. With that mindset, you’ll be much happier on those days when you’re grinding away at a project you resent or sending off your 12th resume application of the day. And you’ll better appreciate that moment when you finally get the job, and when you land the promotion you’ve worked hard to earn.