Home Featured Post Q&A with researcher Robb Rutledge on mental health, expectations, decision-making and, yes, holiday planning!

Q&A with researcher Robb Rutledge on mental health, expectations, decision-making and, yes, holiday planning!

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Have you ever looked for­ward to a con­cert, beach vaca­tion, or par­ty only to find your­self not enjoy­ing it as much as you thought you would?

You may be suf­fer­ing from over­ly high expec­ta­tions, says psy­chol­o­gist Robb Rut­ledge of Yale Uni­ver­si­ty. Rut­ledge and his col­leagues have been using smart­phone-based data col­lec­tion (via a free app called Hap­pi­ness Quest, where any­one can play short games and con­tribute to research) to see how our expec­ta­tions affect our future hap­pi­ness. Some of their find­ings point to nov­el approach­es for increas­ing our enjoy­ment of every­day life.

We talked with Rut­ledge about his research results and what they mean for us for cul­ti­vat­ing happiness.

Jill Sut­tie: How do our expec­ta­tions affect our happiness?

Robb Rut­ledge: There are lots of small, risky deci­sions we make in our every­day lives that affect our hap­pi­ness. For exam­ple, when you decide to go to a restau­rant, and you order some­thing, you’ll have expec­ta­tions about how good it will be. But you’re tak­ing a risk there: Your meal could be bet­ter than you expect­ed, or it could be worse than you expected.

We’ve found in our research that expec­ta­tions are real­ly impor­tant for hap­pi­ness. If you expect the meal to be great, and it’s actu­al­ly good, that’s fine. But, if it’s not any bet­ter than you expect­ed, your hap­pi­ness won’t increase any more after hav­ing the meal. It’s only when the meal exceeds your expec­ta­tions that the expe­ri­ence will increase your happiness.

JS: Does that mean we shouldn’t antic­i­pate future events if we want to be happy?

RR: I don’t think so. If you make a plan to meet a friend at a new restau­rant, and you’re look­ing for­ward to it, your hap­pi­ness might be ele­vat­ed for the whole day (until you actu­al­ly go to the restau­rant). But, if the meal is exact­ly as expect­ed, you will be hap­py because you were hap­pi­er going into the restau­rant, not because of the meal. Your hap­pi­ness won’t increase any more if every­thing goes exact­ly like you thought it would go.

In gen­er­al, we want to have real­is­tic expec­ta­tions, because accu­rate expec­ta­tions are use­ful for mak­ing good choic­es. Plus, with­out them, it’s hard to learn from expe­ri­ence. Your brain is always on the look­out for surprises—you don’t change your beliefs when every­thing goes as expect­ed. If you go to a new restau­rant that you’ve nev­er been to before, and it’s actu­al­ly real­ly good, your brain needs to be updat­ing your beliefs and increas­ing how much you val­ue that restau­rant. You’ll be more like­ly to go to it in the future, because it was actu­al­ly bet­ter than you expected.

Espe­cial­ly for any­thing that you’re going to do many times—like choos­ing a place to go for lunch near your office or choos­ing which cof­fee shop to go to meet a friend—you want to have accu­rate expec­ta­tions or you won’t make good choices.

JS: What about some­thing like a vaca­tion, which you might only do once in a lifetime?

RR: That part­ly depends on whether we’re talk­ing about your hap­pi­ness or your family’s hap­pi­ness. If you are plan­ning a vaca­tion with fam­i­ly, you need to make good decisions—like how you’re going to plan out your sched­ule, how long the train ride is going to take, what activ­i­ty you’re going to do on a cer­tain day. You’re prob­a­bly going to have real­is­tic expec­ta­tions, because you’re mak­ing those deci­sions based on reviews or a guide­book or oth­er information.

For your fam­i­ly mem­bers, who are com­ing along but not involved in plan­ning, it’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. It’s prob­a­bly fine if you give them some of the high­lights and don’t talk to them about how long the train ride is going to be. Their expec­ta­tions might actu­al­ly be a lit­tle bit too high—they’ve seen some beau­ti­ful pic­tures and they’re look­ing for­ward to sit­ting on a beach. But, on the plus side, they get to be excit­ed and look for­ward to the hol­i­day over the next month. That’s most­ly harmless.

The dan­ger with that, though, is that you go on the vacation…and it rains. That wasn’t some­thing they were imag­in­ing; so, the beach is not as fun as they expect­ed it to be, and they could be dis­ap­point­ed. If you are almost about to leave on a trip and you can tell that someone’s expec­ta­tions are a lit­tle too high, because you know about the long train ride or you actu­al­ly looked at the weath­er fore­cast and saw rain in it, you might want to let them know about those things at the last minute and reduce their expec­ta­tions to some­thing that’s more real­is­tic. That will decrease the odds that they end up disappointed.

JS: Giv­en that many vaca­tions don’t live up to the hype (espe­cial­ly this year, with COVID-19 dis­rupt­ing trav­el), what do you rec­om­mend peo­ple do to increase their chances of being hap­pi­er afterward?

RR: Peo­ple often have the idea that they should squeeze things in, like tour­ing Europe in a week and going to a dif­fer­ent city every day. While it’s true that you can do that—you can cer­tain­ly see a lot of amaz­ing things in a short amount of time, hop­ping from city to city—you’re also less like­ly to be sur­prised in a pos­i­tive way. You may go to the same muse­um that every­one goes to, and it may be bet­ter than you expect­ed. But there’s also a good chance that it’s just exact­ly what you expect­ed, because you’ve seen a lot of pic­tures, and it’s not actu­al­ly going to increase your hap­pi­ness further.

Espe­cial­ly if a lit­tle uncer­tain­ty doesn’t both­er you, there are more chances for pos­i­tive sur­pris­es if you don’t plan every lit­tle thing. If you’re try­ing to come home from your hol­i­day hap­pi­er, it will be more like­ly to hap­pen if you expe­ri­ence some things that exceed your expec­ta­tions. And you’re just more like­ly to have a real­ly great, mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence that exceeds your expec­ta­tions if you have a lit­tle extra wig­gle room.

Recent events have a big­ger impact on hap­pi­ness than ear­li­er events, so it can be a good strat­e­gy to save a cou­ple things that have a chance of a big pos­i­tive sur­prise for the last few days of your trip. It could be a nov­el expe­ri­ence that a lot of peo­ple like but you’re not sure what to expect (like the kind of things on the Atlas Obscu­ra web­site). It prob­a­bly isn’t anoth­er muse­um. Just make sure it’s not some­thing that could get rained out.

JS: Do you think out­side influ­ences tend to push us toward hav­ing too high expec­ta­tions for future experiences?

RR: If you’re ask­ing about social media…well, most peo­ple care­ful­ly choose which vaca­tion pho­tos to put on Face­book or Insta­gram. If they went on a real­ly long train ride that was kind of unpleas­ant, they’re not going to put a pho­to of that on social media. So, I think that could lead to unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions about what a hol­i­day was like. When you go on that same trip, you’ll have to deal with the train ride or the rain or those sorts of things.

On the oth­er hand, you can still enjoy your­self. The great beach days are still going to be there—there’s just a lot of oth­er stuff that you will prob­a­bly also edit out (and most­ly for­get unless it was tru­ly ter­ri­ble) when you post your own trav­el photos.

JS: Can our expec­ta­tions be too low?

RR: Yes. If you have low expec­ta­tions all of the time, you may not be moti­vat­ed to try new things or take risks, because you don’t expect things to go well. That means you won’t actu­al­ly go to the new restau­rant or expe­ri­ence new sit­u­a­tions. That’s not ide­al. It’s hard to grow as a per­son if you avoid any uncer­tain situation.

Unless you have some­one in your life (like a friend or room­mate) that drags you along when they are going to a social event, you may be miss­ing out on a lot if you have low expec­ta­tions of every­thing. Your default deci­sion may be to not do any­thing, and that’s not a recipe for hap­pi­ness for most people.

JS: Obvi­ous­ly, dis­ap­point­ment does not lead to hap­pi­ness. Is there some­thing we should do to man­age dis­ap­point­ments bet­ter when they arise?

RR: That’s a tricky sit­u­a­tion. When you’re dis­ap­point­ed, it doesn’t feel great at the time. But it means some­thing. It helps tell you what you val­ue or care about, and that’s actu­al­ly use­ful infor­ma­tion for yourself.

In our research, we’ve found that how hap­pi­ness changes from minute to minute can be pre­dict­ed with our math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions. But those equa­tions aren’t the same for every­one. Two peo­ple could be in the same sit­u­a­tion and one of them is much more dis­ap­point­ed. If you’re dis­ap­point­ed because your expec­ta­tions were real­ly unre­al­is­tic, you can ask your­self in the moment, “What was I expect­ing to hap­pen?” Maybe, after think­ing about it a lit­tle, you real­ize you were expect­ing too much. Then, you can revise your expec­ta­tions a lit­tle bit.

It may be too late, in a sense, because you already feel bad. But I don’t think that’s the end of the world, as long as you don’t dwell on it and stay upset for days. You can lis­ten to your­self and use the infor­ma­tion to make bet­ter deci­sions in the future. That’s ulti­mate­ly bound to point you toward a hap­pi­er life.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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