Why we should expect the best

These approaches to ridding ourselves of any kind of optimistic outlook would be excellent ideas if they worked. They don't. Without expectations, we wouldn't perform any future-oriented activity, such as setting an alarm clock (planning to live until morning), having children (counting on the planet to last another generation), or paying taxes (believing that if we do, the IRS won't send people to audit us with dental instruments). My dog has the intellectual capacity of a lime wedge, yet even he possesses an elaborate set of assumptions, based on his ability to control my behavior through a combination of slavish devotion and incessant howling. Expectation loiters in the DNA of every sentient being; when you tell yourself or a loved one, "Don't get your hopes up," you're fighting ancient genetic programming. It may work once in a while, but as a successful life strategy? Don't get your hopes up.

If we're stuck with having expectations, there's a very good reason to embrace positive ones: It's that we often create what we anticipate. Sociologist Robert K. Merton, who coined the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy," pointed out many ways in which our beliefs create predicted consequences (as when your mind goes blank in a situation where you fear looking stupid or when you never even try to develop a skill you don't expect to master). Have you seen the MADtv parody that features a dating service called Lowered Expectations? This bleak humor reflects the fact that going through life wanting very little is a pathetic way to ensure disappointment rather than avoid it.

Our expectations influence not only our behavior but that of people around us. One illustration is the famous Oak School experiment, in which social scientists went into an elementary school, randomly chose 20 percent of the students, and told the teachers that these students were gifted. After eight months, the researchers found that the supposedly gifted students were held upside down over lavatory toilets nearly five times as frequently as their classmates. (No, not really. Well, maybe.) Kidding aside, the IQ test scores of the students designated gifted had increased significantly in comparison with those of other students. In other words, the fact that the teachers counted on certain students to be smart had somehow led to those students performing dramatically better.

Even more compelling is the logic of loss. Suppose you expect someone you love to love you back. He doesn't, and you're disappointed. "The pangs of despised love" are one of the experiences Hamlet thought merited suicide—why love at all, at the risk of such terrible anguish? Because doing so maintains your capacity and willingness to love. Eliminate those expectations to spare yourself pain, and you will have a permanently loveless existence. The heart is a tender but hardy organ. Daring to have a wonderful experience, even though you may get hurt, is the only way you'll realize its deepest desires.


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