Are Low Expectations the Key to Happiness?

Let’s hear it from Pope Alexander:

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

or from Stephen Hawking:

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

The link between happiness and having low expectations is an age-old piece of insight, dear to the hearts of many philosophers, theorists, and psychologists. They have a point: you can score a huge bonus at work or own mountains of valuable possessions but if they all fall short of what you had wished for, your high expectations would extinguish your joy.

The Hedonic Treadmill - Safal Niveshak

Naturally, our expectations change as we learn from new environments. Humans have the tendency to return to a stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes, a concept popularly known as the “hedonic treadmill” (Kahneman 1999, Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). When rewards are suddenly aplenty, you’re ecstatic for a while; over time, your expectations will rise up to this new normal and allow your happiness levels to settle back down to baseline. This learning tendency has both hopeful and depressing consequences. Just as we can bounce ourselves back from even the most despairing setbacks in life, we also have to face the reality that no pleasure we strive for, once attained, will make us permanently happy.

Suppose you were to tamper with your learning mechanism a little. What if you were to acclimate more slowly to positive events, and speed up your adjustments to negative events? That way, if you do win the lottery, the events that follow can continue to feel like happy surprises for a little longer than usual. On the flip side, if a negative event occurs, you swiftly downgrade your expectations to a lower floor so future events don’t add as much insult to injury. In theory, wouldn’t that make us happier?

In a new study this year, a group of neuroscientists has proposed that this is what antidepressants called SSRIs might be doing in the brain (Michely et al., 2020). SSRIs, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (commercial examples: Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac), are a class of serotonin-boosting drugs that helps people with depression lift their moods over time. One of the qualities of SSRIs is their slow-acting nature, improving mood gradually over the course of weeks instead of hours after consuming the drug.

The researchers determined that serotonin doesn’t operate by changing people’s expectations or mood directly, which would take immediate effect, but rather by adjusting the learning rates for reward and punishment in different ways. In the longer term, this would tilt the balance of experience in favor of more positive surprises and fewer negative surprises, a recipe for better mood.

The learning asymmetry from the Michely et al. paper (2020):
In session II (right graph), the participants who have been taking the SSRI drug (pink bars) displayed a significantly lower learning rate for positive surprises (n+) and a significantly higher learning rate for negative surprises (n-)

Findings like this drive home the point that discrepancies between outcome and expectation ultimately guide our emotional responses to success and failure. It has been compellingly demonstrated in another influential study, “A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being” (Rutledge 2015), which found that having low expectations in a simple gambling task is the biggest factor driving happiness during the game. It’s barely a surprise then that the “lower your expectations” case for happiness feels like an obvious truism. 

As I was pondering this topic, I discovered an older psychology paper from Marshall and Brown (2006) with a conclusion that made me do a double-take (Marshall & Brown, 2006). Students were asked to guess the grade they were going to get on a challenging exam. Those who expected an A but got a C were surprised, but they didn’t actually feel worse about themselves, more anxious, or sadder than those who expected a C all along.

The authors proposed that expectations are really a manifestation of self-worth, which guides a person’s thought patterns and reflects their general tendencies to experience positive or negative emotions.

So, this paper points out that higher (not lower) expectations predict happier people. Doesn’t this just blatantly subvert the “lower your expectations to be happier” narrative? 

Reconciling the Narratives: 

As I wrangled with this apparent paradox, I thought about how these two approaches might not actually clash as much as they appear to at first glance. In fact, they both get at very valid truths about human welfare.

Two different contributors to happiness, different weights:

On one level, objectively good outcomes contribute to better mental well-being, and objectively bad outcomes lead to poorer mental well-being. Makes sense.

But on another level, how a person feels about the said outcome isn’t simply a function of the outcome itself: it depends on the standards the person uses to evaluate it as a success or failure.

The authors on both sides acknowledge these two facts and recognize that both are consequential for achieving happiness. It’s which factor contributes more to happiness where they seem to disagree.

We can certainly think of times where simply expecting less will pay more dividends for happiness than earning those feelings through real improvements in outcome. This is probably the truest for situations where such objective improvements are either impossible to achieve or not actually critical to well-being. Imagine a person miserably struggling to outrun her hedonic treadmill, jumping through professional hoops, and upgrading her lifestyle but always frustrated by a want for more. Learning to reel in high expectations will probably do more for this person than taking home an even fatter paycheck. 

We can also identify a case for the opposite argument, where happiness is fueled less by expectation management and more by one’s absolute level of well-being. A person marred by external hardships or unmet basic needs who, by consequence, sets chronically low expectations for himself would probably be a lot happier if he addressed the material causes of his low self-worth than if he tried to press his expectations down even lower!   

Appraisal tactics: Rewards & Punishments, versus Successes & Failures

The Michely et al. and Marshall & Brown papers formalized positive and negative events in their experiments slightly differently. The authors in the former paper referred to them as rewards and punishments, while the Marshall & Brown paper used the language of successes and failures.

As the word choice subtly suggests, Michely and colleagues were likely studying the emotional impacts of choice feedback that was externally imposed. Conversely, Marshall & Brown’s usage of the terms “success” and “failure” paint more of a picture of self-relevant events that are consequences of personally determined action.

This distinction makes more sense when you inspect how the researchers designed their experiments.

A lot of experiments in affective neuroscience involve getting people to play in computerized game environments while allowing their mood to be monitored as they play. A classic game example is the two-armed bandit task, where the participant is incentivized to learn the payout odds of two slot machines through trial and error. Scoring high points on some lever pulls and losing points in others, participants rely on their expectations as benchmarks for learning, gradually adjusting their beliefs and actions. Wins and losses in these gamble contexts are useful to inform accurate behavior, but they don’t really affect how people feel about themselves, especially since they’re based on luck (Sharot, 2020).

A multi-armed bandit task

Scoring big on a coin flip triggers joyful surprise and losing points triggers surprise in the opposite direction, no more and no less. Outside the lab, however, positive or negative surprises don’t always come so neatly wrapped.

When one flunks on a test (even one that doesn’t hold much real consequence), it inevitably affects a person’s beliefs about their intelligence and ability. A dismal score, by itself, is obviously a bad surprise outcome. However, this doesn’t always mean that the person will ultimately feel it as such. Depending on the person’s level of self-worth or motivation to feel good, the event’s actual emotional impact can be wide-ranging, sometimes far removed from the valence of the outcome itself.

In the case of poor marks on an exam, someone with high self-esteem and high expectations might think: “Whoa, that was really bad, but I know I can do better next time by studying smarter!” Someone with low self-esteem who set strategically low expectations may nevertheless walk away feeling demoralized by the bad grade anyway: “I knew it. I’m such a failure.” Marshall & Brown took notice of this: people who have high self-worth and generally expect success might be seeing everything through rose-colored glasses: even when they fall short of their goals, they do not feel like they have failed.

Even though it’s true that setting low expectations can shield someone from negative surprises — which, all things equal, probably does make people feel happy more often — surprise doesn’t solely determine the emotions people feel after an event that’s self-relevant and ego-impacting like an academic exam.

An imaginary slot machine game probably doesn’t prompt ego-protecting rationalizations for every win or loss the same way a math exam might, where factors such as the person’s self-esteem could overshadow everything else. As Michely and colleagues had it, in their experiment, all the score counts, rewards, and punishments were clear, impersonal, and externally defined.

Michely et al. and Marshall & Brown chose two fundamentally different tasks to operationalize positive and negative events. Maybe it’s for this reason that they arrived at different conclusions about what drives happiness the most.

Selection effects in Marshall & Brown Study

An important limitation of the Marshall & Brown study is that participants were not randomly assigned to hold positive or negative expectations. As a result, those who naturally held high expectations of success very possibly selected themselves into the group of naturally happier people. This prohibits the study from making a strong causal conclusion, that anybody can make themself happier if they raise instead of lower their expectations.

This selection-bias concern doesn’t arise for the Michely and Rutledge papers, which see robust negative relationships between expectations and happiness across the whole study population.

Happy people! How do we be like them?

The Bigger Picture:

Despite their limitations, the Marshall & Brown findings convey important insights that can help us in our own lives. We’re shown the thought processes behind people who, in spite of surprises and disappointments, are still able to maintain an enduring positive state of mind. We see that important ingredients for this positivity come from how we interpret and evaluate our experiences. This is the core insight underlying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and, luckily, we don’t even need to leave our own homes to start applying its useful strategies for ourselves.

The most exciting aspect of the Michely et al. paper, with related findings in the new and growing field of computational psychiatry, is that this mechanism of expectations and mood can be statistically modeled in the first place. Expectations aren’t just a fuzzy construct that you haphazardly raise and lower at will. Really, they do a ton of work behind our conscious curtains in helping our brains process information about the world.

By having you tap away at a fun computer game, scientists can observe what your brain is doing with expectations and learning. Antidepressant drugs can alter such mechanisms from the bottom up, helping patients to slowly recover (Rosier, Elliott, & Sahakian 2012).

Suppose you’ve just started a new antidepressant regimen a few days ago. You don’t feel any mood improvements yet, and you’re unsure whether it had any effect on your brain at all, so far. But play a couple of rounds of the computer game, and you would find your answer in the data.

When I first embarked on this rabbit-hole exploration of whether high or low expectations lead to happiness, I was mostly curious about which side was going to win out. Turns out, of course, the big happiness question is way less straightforward than I had expected, and the simple answer I was hoping for eluded me.

See, that’s a negative prediction error, right there. It’s a negative surprise, but a happy surprise.   

Sources Cited:

Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927.

Bromberg-Martin, E. S., & Sharot, T. (2020). The Value of Beliefs. Neuron, 106(4), 561–565.

Cognitive Mechanisms of Treatment in Depression. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2020, from

Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective happiness. In Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 3–25). Russell Sage Foundation.

Marshall, M., & Brown, J. (2010). Emotional reactions to achievement outcomes: Is it really best to expect the worst? Cognition & Emotion.

Michely, J., Eldar, E., Erdman, A., Martin, I. M., & Dolan, R. J. (2020). SSRIs modulate asymmetric learning from reward and punishment. BioRxiv, 2020.05.21.108266.

Rutledge, R. B., Skandali, N., Dayan, P., & Dolan, R. J. (2014). A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(33), 12252–12257.

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