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Expectations and Finding Happiness in the Holidays

Fay Johnson

By Fay Johnson | Editor-in-Chief

For the majority of my life, Ive struggled with realistic expectations. On more than one occasion, I’ve been called a hopeless romantic and a dreamer. While these can be beneficial traits, they also have serious down-sides. My struggle to set and manage expectations usually comes to a head around the holidays.

When I was a child, I would pour over Victoria Magazine (what a gem that thing was!) looking at all the vintage dresses – dreaming of walking down the street in full length velvet, with a fur muff to keep my hands warm, as I went caroling in the snow. Mind you, I was born in South Africa where we celebrate Christmas in 85 degree weather, usually poolside. My second home, California, didn't offer anything closer to a white Christmas. But it didn't matter – I was an optimistic old-soul of a child, nostalgic for a world that didn't exist. I wanted to climb into the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving Painting and be the family seen through the window in the closing scene of It's a Wonderful Life.

The holidays were a time when I wanted the world to be picture perfect – warm, cozy and safe.

If youre like me, and happen to live in the real world, its easy to see how having these types of expectations can lead to disappointment. I was often in tears by the end of Christmas day, because no matter how lovely the day had been, it lacked the magic of an old-world movie. Oh, how this broke my mother's heart. (It was a bit much to expect her to produce snow-clad roofs, prince charming, and a horse-drawn sleigh). Years of wonderful holidays remained in the shadow of what could have been, instead of appreciated for what they were.

As science continues to make advances (and I continue to mature), a lot has been learned about what affects happiness. A study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigated the relationship between happiness and reward, and the neural processes that lead to feelings that are central to our conscious experience, such as happiness.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Robb Rutledge (UCL Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and the new Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing), said: “We expected to see that recent rewards would affect moment-to-moment happiness but were surprised to find just how important expectations are in determining happiness. In real-world situations, the rewards associated with life decisions such as starting a new job or getting married are often not realized for a long time, and our results suggest expectations related to these decisions, good and bad, have a big effect on happiness."

“Life is full of expectations - it would be difficult to make good decisions without knowing, for example, which restaurant you like better. It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. 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. However, expectations also affect happiness even before we learn the outcome of a decision. If you have plans to meet a friend at your favorite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan."

The neuroscience of decision making would not have likely changed the dreamy idealism of my youth, but as I consider it now, it reminds me that we have a fair amount of power over how we feel. I can choose to take a realistic view of the holidays, make peace with the fact that there won't be snow or a picture-perfect family, and then set my expectations based on all the good things in my life. I am allowing myself the happiness that comes with being expectant about seeing family and friends. My expectation is that we will share a meal, be present with one another, and enjoy the beauty that is human interaction. Regardless of how Non-Rockwell it ends up being.

Scribbled on my kitchen chalkboard wall is the saying: Gratitude Makes What You Have Enough. This year, I’m taking my own advice, setting my expectations and choosing gratitude amidst the holiday hubbub.