Affective Design Theory Opinions

Expectations Determine Happiness

The New York Times has an article about how our expectations determine how happy we are…In the past three decades, citizens of Denmark have scored higher on surveys of overall life satisfaction than other Western countries. Scientists believe that the secret is a culture of lower expectations. From the article:

“If you’re a big guy, you expect to be on the top all the time and you’re disappointed when things don’t go well. But when you’re down at the bottom like us, you hang on, you don’t expect much, and once in a while you win, and it’s that much better.”

While it’s debatable that Denmark is “at the bottom”, expectations are also mentioned as a determining factor of happiness levels by Barry Schwartz in the Paradox of Choice, which I’ve referred to in a previous post. Schwartz talks about how too much choice creates the expectation that our decisions should produce near-perfect results. When results are then “less than perfect”, and fail to meet our lofty expectations, we tend to feel let down.

At this point my question would be: Is short-term happiness as important as long-term happiness? Uncomfortable, painful emotions coupled with higher expectations can produce the motivation that’s necessary to weather short-term discomforts and thereby achieve happiness in the long-term. An excellent example of this is higher education. Although expensive, uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful, an education is often an excellent investment in long-term happiness, expanding one’s view of the world and improving future job opportunities. To use Don Norman’s system for describing emotions, you are trading immediate, visceral discomfort for the perceived promise of reflective, long-term happiness.

For more on expectations and happiness, see:

“Affluenza” and Consumerism and
Emotional Burnout and the New Ergonomics

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One reply on “Expectations Determine Happiness”

Hey. This stuff is so interesting – I’m amazed that psychology has been integrated into design… I really like The Paradox of Choice – it really challenges a lot of our assumptions about what makes us happy and makes it so obvious why perfectionisitic expectations have a serious downside.

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