The Expectations vs. Reality Trap

Are you being robbed of your happiness?

Expectations are what we think will happen, while reality is what actually transpires. While we hope these two will match up, they often don't. This disparity of expectations vs. reality can often lead to feelings of discontentment and unhappiness.

This article explores how expectations can lead to feelings of disappointment when reality does not measure up. It also covers some of the strategies you can use to manage your expectations.

How to manage your expectations
Verywell / Kelly Miller 

What Are Expectations?

Expectations refer to the beliefs that you hold about the outcomes of events. While these expectations can play an important role in determining what happens and can contribute to goal-directed behavior, they can also lead to disappointment when reality does not match up to what you had hoped would happen.

Some of the common signs that you might hold expectations include:

  • Anticipating a certain outcome
  • Holding a vision in your mind of how things will play out
  • Having a set idea of what you want or need from a situation

When expectations are not met, it can lead to feelings of disappointment, frustration, and even anger.

In some cases, people might become so attached to their expectations that they are unable to see the reality of a situation. This can prevent them from taking action or making decisions that would be in their best interest.

Research shows that people are surprisingly inept at predicting how they 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.


People are surprisingly bad at predicting what will make them happy. This means that your expectations might cause you to think that achieving certain goals will bring joy and contentment, but because these predictions are often wrong, you might pursue the wrong goals.

The Expectations vs. Reality Trap

The Charles Dickens novel "Great Expectations" lays out the problem with 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 learns that the money was not necessarily part of that larger plan, he realizes 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.

Expectations Can Reduce Gratitude

When your expectations outpace reality, it often means you don't appreciate what you do have. Instead, you may find yourself expecting more or comparing what you do have to what you could have.

For example, 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 than other subjects who weren't reminded of wealth.

Gratitude is all about appreciating what you have instead of lamenting what you don't. Research has found that practicing gratitude and working actively to savor the moment can have a positive effect on subjective well-being and happiness.

Expectations May Not Be Realistic

Finally, your expectations can get the better of you when you expect more than what is realistic in a given situation. You might expect your partner to live up to what you see in romance films, your job to be an idealized version you dreamed about as a child, or even your life to match what you see on Instagram.

Expectations can create significant stress when they don't match up with reality. Also, consider how social media can greatly contribute to this. You compare our own worst moments (those not deemed to be shareable online) to others' best moments, which very often are filtered to seem perfect.

You may not even realize this mismatched comparison. This may be part of why those who spend more time on social media tend to be less happy.


Your expectations for your life may be unrealistic and skewed based on what you think others have. Remember that your perspective of others is limited and biased.

How to Manage Expectations

Learning how to manage your expectation can be helpful when you are trying to avoid the expectations vs. reality trap. 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).

Become Aware of Your Expectations

Start by assessing your expectations in a situation. 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 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 how you could manage your expectations.)

Practice Gratitude

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.

Spend a few moments each day thinking about something you are grateful for. Or consider writing in a gratitude journal.

Don't Make Comparisons

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.

Consider What Really Makes You Happy

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.

Practice Emotional Acceptance

Don't beat yourself up for feeling disappointed. Instead of trying to deny or suppress negative emotions like disappointment or jealousy, work on accepting these emotions as they are.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I manage my expectations in my relationship?

    It is important to be aware of your expectations in order to manage them. Start by being honest with yourself about what you expect from the relationship. Then communicate your expectations to your partner.

    Discussing what you both want is important and gives you a place to start negotiating and compromising on expectations. Finally, remember to be flexible and willing to adapt as your relationship (and your expectations) evolve.

  • How can I manage my expectations at work?

    You can manage your expectations in the workplace by regularly checking in with yourself and setting realistic and achievable goals. Remind yourself that no situation is perfect and other people are also flawed and prone to making mistakes. 

    If you find that your expectations are not being met, it is important to take a step back and assess the situation. Try to understand why it happened and what you can do differently in the future. Remember that expectations are just beliefs—they are not always reality.

5 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.
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  4. Salces-Cubero IM, Ramírez-Fernández E, Ortega-Martínez AR. Strengths in older adults: differential effect of savoring, gratitude and optimism on well-beingAging Mental Health. 2019;23(8):1017-1024. doi:10.1080/13607863.2018.1471585

  5. 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

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.