The happiness of low expectations
It was a comedian, I forget which one, who said that the secret to happiness was to have low expectations.
I laughed so hard when I first heard it, as people normally do when a joke rings painfully true. And nowhere is this more so than in the realm of mommying. (Romantic love is a close second, but I’m too busy at the moment to tackle that one.)
I started motherhood nearly 11 years ago with all the right intentions. I wasn’t going to be a slob mom. I was going to be organized, tidy, clean, organized, mellow, charming, loving, attentive, and non-shouty. Also, my hair would look great.
You too? That’s amazing. Did you fail as spectacularly as I did, too?
The decay was gradual. I remember one thing I did with all three of my daughters. Before they were born, about 7 months into the pregnancy, I would go out and buy some Gerber white onesies. White because I didn’t know whether I’d have a boy or a girl. Size newborn because obviously. I’d get three packs of three from Walmart. And they’d have to be brand-new. Nothing against hand-me-downs (with three girls, we have a lot of those around), but for some reason these white Gerber onesies had to be new each time.
I washed them with baby detergent (gentle cycle, hang to dry), and eventually put them in the hospital bag along with diapers (Pampers newborn; later on I’d switch to cheaper brands but the first batch had to be Pampers from a brand-new pack) and other goodies. It was a soothing ritual for me. I’m pretty sure the babies didn’t care one way or the other, but to me, it made a big difference to wash and prepare these clothes and supplies.
I have also never re-used birthday candles, because who knows, it might bring bad luck. A quirk I credit for keeping my daughters alive, which explains why I uphold the rule to this day.
The rest of my standards eventually flew out the window. They get so many bags of hand-me-downs from so many friends that I often look at something from the laundry basket and have no clue which girl it belongs to. But that’s not the worst. What I really don’t like is that my girls routinely pick clothes whose style I don’t like. Yes, they’ve inherited their fashion sense from the Anglo-Scot side of the family and my French genes can’t stand it. I want to burn the clothes that delight them, and I couldn’t get them to like stuff I pick with all the ice cream in the world.
I have fought this. A lot. But eventually I had to learn to just let that one go. They’ve learned now to feel hurt when I spit my morning tea out my nose at the sight of their outfits, and I’ve learned to mop up the tea and move along.
I’m also learning to let go of my fondness for tidiness, as they are children and all children and messy and chaotic (how could I not see this coming? I’d rather not think about that…) but I really thoroughly don’t like it. I can’t operate in this much chaos. I can’t breathe. This has led to epic tantrums (by me, I mean) and a lot of resentment on both sides. We’re still working on that one and so far I’m not winning. Except for the part where I manage to breathe, more or less, even when there are socks on the dining room table.
And you know what? I’m on the right track. For it turns out that while I was battling chaos and messy hair a few years back, science was busy trying to tell us the comedian had it right.
In a new study, researchers found that it didn't matter so much whether things were going well. It mattered whether they were going better than expected.
"It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower,” Dr. Robb Rutledge, the senior research associate at University College London (UCL) who led the study, said in a statement. “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.”
Not that you should walk around gloomy all of the time. Having expectations at all — say, for a lunch date with a friend — can lift your spirits “as soon as you make the plan,” Rutledge said.
But anticipating the greatest meal of your life could result in feeling pretty disappointed. No, this study was not meant to ruin your lunch plans. Instead, researchers wanted to figure out a way to give doctors a subjective, quantitative way to measure mood disorders.
Yes, there’s actually an equation.
I can’t understand it any more than my daughters’ fashion sense, but it looks scientific enough.
I’ll take another deep breath.