“You are your own worst enemy. If you can learn to stop expecting impossible perfection, in yourself and others, you may find the happiness that has always eluded you.”
― Lisa Kleypas, Love in the Afternoon
Whilst walking my dog today I met a family walking their puppy. As her Mum and Dad were talking to me, their daughter who was about 7 or 8 wrapped her arms around my dog and hugged him. Her expectation was that my dog would be happy to accept the hug. Fortunately, apart from my dog looking a little surprised her expectation was met. Will this meeting affect her behaviour in the future? Probably.
Expectations and Dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that is responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain. It is part of the brain’s complicated system that is related to motivation and reward. Dopamine neurons become activated when a cue from the environment indicates you are going to get a reward with unexpected rewards releasing more dopamine. So when the little girl hugged my dog her expectation of a happy, furry cuddle was met and she got a dopamine hit.
However what happens when our expectations are not met? We can feel disappointed, frustrated, angry, guilty or a whole host of other unhelpful emotions. Our dopamine levels fall which isn’t a pleasant feeling. We experience low levels of unmet expectations regularly. Expecting a journey on a busy motorway (like the M25 around London), to be traffic free and then finding yourself in a monster traffic jam will decrease your dopamine levels for example.
A good starting point to work out if your expectations are beneficial for you is to ask yourself if your current expectations are helping you move forward in life or if they are making you unhappy?
Paying attention to your expectations and identifying those that are likely to be met is a good way to start to manage them and regulate your emotions. Consciously changing your expectations can have a huge impact on your happiness. Expecting a monster traffic jam on your journey and then finding it traffic free will definitely increase your dopamine.
We often discriminate in our expectations, setting ourselves a much higher standard than we do for other people. So next time you expect something of yourself ask if you would expect the same from a friend. Adjusting your expectation so that your chance of getting a reward will be more likely will increase your overall happiness. So next time you go to hug a dog make sure you’ve asked the owner if it’s friendly first.
Here are a few quotes that made me think about managing our emotions, and happiness in particular. How about you? Do you have a favorite quote, one that has shaped your thinking?
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha
“The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” – Benjamin Franklin