The Expectations vs. Reality Trap

Are you being robbed of your happiness?

Despite what your common sense may tell you, research shows that people are surprisingly inept at predicting how we will feel in various situations. For example, one study found that newlywed couples tended to estimate that their happiness levels would rise (or at least stay the same) over the four-year-period after marriage. In reality, their levels of happiness tended to diminish over that time period.

Other studies have found that lottery winners' happiness levels tend to reduce to pre-winning days (or sometimes even below). In fact, while we believe that the ideal job, perfect relationship, or stellar bank account will change our happiness levels permanently, they may only give us a temporary boost of joy—it is surprisingly short-lived. It seems that our expectations can confuse us into thinking that our goals will bring us much more than they actually do, so we often pursue the wrong goals.​

How to manage your expectations
Verywell / Kelly Miller 

Expectations vs. Reality

A problem with expectations was made famous by the Charles Dickens novel, "Great Expectations." The main character, Pip, inherits money from a secret benefactor. He views this fortune as a stepping stone to marrying the girl of his dreams.

When he ultimately learned that the money was not necessarily part of that larger plan, he realized that he had taken for granted so many important relationships and gifts in his life. His expectations had robbed him of fully appreciating his reality.


Research backs up this idea that we may not fully appreciate what we have when we are expecting more or comparing what we have to what we could have. One study found that participants who were exposed to a subliminal reminder of wealth spent less time savoring a chocolate bar and exhibited less enjoyment of the experience that other subjects who weren't reminded of wealth. 

This is an interesting study that can remind us all to try to savor our chocolate (and lives) more, and perhaps to try not to remind ourselves of what we don't have. This study can also remind us, however, of how easy it is to let our thoughts color our enjoyment of what we actually have.

How many times have we focused so much on something we wanted that we didn't truly savor what we had? How often might our expectations for great things make us feel like what we have isn't really that great (when there are many people who have less)?

Expectations vs. Reality

Finally, our expectations can get the better of us when we expect more than what is realistic in a given situation. We might expect our partners to live up to what we see in romance films, our jobs to be idealized versions we had as children, or even our lives to match up to what we see on Instagram.

Our expectations can create significant stress when they don't match up to reality. Also consider how social media can greatly contribute to this: we compare our own worst moments (those not deemed to be shareable online) to others' best moments, which very often are filtered to seem perfect. We may not even realize this mismatched comparison.

Our expectations for our lives may be unrealistic and skewed based on what we think others have. Our perspective of what others have is limited; they do not have the lives we perceive.

This may be part of why those who spend more time on social media tend to be less happy.

Building Awareness

It's important to take a deeper look into how your expectations stack up to reality (and how your mood is affected because of this). Here are some healthy ways to start.

  • When you go into a new situation, ask yourself what you expect to happen. 
  • Ask yourself if your expectations should be this way. Where did these expectations come from and are they realistic?
  • When you feel disappointed, try to think about whether it was realistic to expect what you were hoping for. (If so, make a plan for getting what you want next time. If not, think about managing your expectations and how to do this.)

Managing Expectations

If you'd like to get out of the expectations vs. reality trap, it all comes down to awareness. Becoming aware of what you are expecting is a great start. Becoming aware of what you "should" be expecting is also a wise idea.

When you find that what is happening is not what you expected, actively look for the positives in what you have. You may find that once you get over the disappointment, you have something you didn't initially realize you wanted. This helps you to be more appreciative of what you have.

When you see others' posts on social media and decide that you want what you see, remind yourself that this may not be reality. It's great to know what direction you want things to go in, but don't forget that what you see isn't necessarily what others are actually living.

You may be overestimating how happy you would be once you have what you think you want. For instance, if you work a job you hate to save enough to buy an expensive car or nice clothes, you may find that your happiness is not very long-lasting.

Truly savor what you have. It's okay to want more, but you can enjoy life so much more if you appreciate what you already have. Savoring what you have is a great way to expand the joy you experience in life.

Don't beat yourself up for feeling disappointment; however, try comparing yourself to others who have less, not more. Or better yet, try not to compare yourself to others in general. The only person you should be competing with is you.

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, striving for more can lead you to work your hardest and do your best. At the same time, it can also rob you of joy, especially when you expect things to come more easily than they do or in a different way. Becoming more aware of your expectations and how they change your feelings toward your own reality can free you from disappointment and stress that comes from unrealistic expectations.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lavner JA, Karney BR, Bradbury TN. Newlyweds' optimistic forecasts of their marriage: for better or for worse?. J Fam Psychol. 2013;27(4):531-40. doi:10.1037/a0033423

  2. Brickman P, Coates D, Janoff-bulman R. Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1978;36(8):917-27. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.36.8.917

  3. Quoidbach J, Dunn EW, Petrides KV, Mikolajczak M. Money giveth, money taketh away: the dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychol Sci. 2010;21(6):759-63. doi:10.1177/0956797610371963

  4. Twenge JM. More Time on Technology, Less Happiness? Associations Between Digital-Media Use and Psychological Well-BeingCurr. Dir. Psych. Sci. 2019;28(4), 372–379. doi: 10.1177/0963721419838244

Additional Reading
  • Lavner JA, Karney BR, Bradbury TN. Newlyweds’ optimistic forecasts of their marriage: For better or for worse? Journal of Family Psychology. 2013;27(4):531-540. DOI:10.1037/a0033423

  • Lutter, M. (2007). Book review: Winning a lottery brings no happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 155-160. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-006-9033-2

  • Quoidbach, Dunn, Petrides, and Mikolajczak. (2010). Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychological Science, 21, 759-763. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610371963