As social media has become pervasive in every aspect of our lives, there’s not a day that goes by where you don’t see some sort of generic quote about today being the best day of your life. Undoubtedly it’s attributed to the wrong person and placed overtop a spectacular, albeit photoshopped beyond all recognition, landscape. But let’s bring things back to reality. The ‘today is going to be the best day of my life’ mentality is not only delusional, it’s harmful. An outlook based on unrealistic expectations and unchecked optimism only guarantees unhappiness.
The optimist vs. pessimist rhetoric that we’re battered with in daily life oversimplifies things tremendously. It’s never black and white, and it’s more than the glass being half-full or half-empty. Contrary to popular belief, pessimism is a much more intellectually sound approach as it relates to outcomes. It allows us to appreciate when things actually go right and prepares us to overcome adversity when things don’t go our way. It’s not the depressing, negative outlook that many make it out to be.
Happiness and gratitude are all about expectations. There are many who believe that the secret to happiness is low expectations. I think there is a great deal of truth to this. Unrealistic expectations are inherent to optimism, which considers only the best-case scenario in each situation.
A more pessimistic view (see Stoicism) considers worst-case scenarios. This is beneficial when it comes to handling adversity. It also allows us to appreciate the small things and to be far more grateful than we otherwise would have been. Expecting only the best possible outcome in every scenario more often than not leads to anger and disappointment.
Most importantly, it’s critical to establish an outlook based on objective reality. This means defining expectations for every aspect of our lives in a more realistic, what many would deem ‘pessimistic,’ frame of mind. Otherwise a massive struggle between reality and expectations ensues.
Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, suggested that we start each day by considering this exact idea: "Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men…I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him." Contemplating this advice every morning better equips us to remain positive regardless of the path our days take. It helps to eliminate virtually every common frustration and annoyance that might otherwise result in disappointment or anger.
The most common argument against viewing the world through this lens is that it’s not conducive to high levels of personal achievement. But ambition and realistic expectations are not mutually exclusive concepts. They coexist and often fuel one another. The more prepared you are for obstacles and every potential outcome, the shorter the falls and the higher the ceiling. Establishing realistic expectations doesn’t negate making the most of a situation.
If and when the worst-case scenario, tragedy, does strike, realistic expectations have prepared us to handle it and find a way forward. And make no mistake, no one escapes this life without experiencing tragedy in some way, shape, or form. The effect can be crippling if we’re unprepared and consider ourselves and our tribes to be invincible. Those who regard themselves as impervious to tragedy are the ones unable to recover and pick themselves back up when shattering events inevitably hit home.
Whether you call it pessimism or realism, establishing realistic expectations each day allow you to maintain a favorable outlook no matter the circumstance. This mindset allows you to push beyond nagging doubts and minor setbacks to accomplish great things, rather than becoming immediately disheartened.
Many people become unhappy because they’ve set unrealistic expectations; anything short of picture perfect becomes failure. As a result many also lack the perspective to appreciate things that are actually going right. Shit can and will go wrong. If you’re able to adapt and take it in stride, the rare day when things come together just right could certainly be the best of your life. But it will never happen if you demand that day to be today.
Reality vs. expectations: it is here where we negotiate the course of our lives.