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We'd just finished decorating the Christmas tree. Covered with pine sap and puncture wounds, I was snarfing down a soothing pound of chocolate when my 6-year-old daughter Katie asked, "Mommy, what's that?" She pointed to a single pine needle that, curiously, appeared to be levitating in midair about four feet away from our new tree. Squinting, I saw a tiny string of spider silk connecting the needle to the ceiling. I thought of brushing it away but decided I was way too tired to walk across the living room.

"Oh," I said, "why, that's the...the Magic Pine Needle! Don't touch it! The reindeer need it for...uh...morale."

Fast-forward a year.

Now Katie was 7, and along with her younger brother and sister, she'd just helped me put the finishing touches on a blue spruce.

"Okay!" she crowed when the last bauble was hung. "Now all we need is the Magic Pine Needle!"

"The what? Oh, right! The Magic Pine Needle!" I rubbed my eye, which felt like it had been stabbed by a stray branch. "Um, well, see, that was a one-time deal. Every family gets the Magic Pine Needle only once in a lifetime."

All three of my children stared at me as though I'd just stuffed Santa into the trash compactor, along with the miraculous Hanukkah lamp, the Kwanzaa candles, and the baby Jesus. "You didn't tell us that!" gasped Katie as her siblings set up a dirgelike wail. "What good is Christmas without the Magic Pine Needle?"

That was the only time in my life I have actually gone looking for a spider. I never found one.

Ever since, the memory has reared its accusatory head whenever my children show the slightest sign of dysfunction. Teenage cynicism? Computer-game addiction? Disinterest toward math? Part of me believes that if I'd just kept my mouth shut, avoided creating unrealistic expectations, I could have averted them all.

But of course, the real issue isn't the Magic Pine Needle. The real issue is managing assumptions. Many of us have misconceptions about how to do that, but expectation management, so necessary this time of year, is a vital skill you need no matter what the season.

Great expectations?

Our thoughts about an event can have a dramatic effect on how we go through the event itself. When our expectations are low, it's easy to be pleasantly surprised. When they're not, we're vulnerable to painful disappointment. Because of this, many people spend a good deal of effort trying to avoid developing high hopes about anything.

I learned this from a terrifically scientific poll I conducted by discussing preconceptions with several friends, plus a UPS delivery person who showed up at my house unexpectedly during my research. The consensus was that we should learn to live in a Zen-like state of present-moment awareness, looking forward to nothing and so precluding disappointment. If we can't manage that, we should at least diminish our expectations until they're pretty much invisible to others (and, in a best-case scenario, to ourselves). A third recommended strategy was deliberately bracing for bad things so that reality, when it arrives, will at worst confirm our predictions but potentially be a happy surprise.

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.
A final reason to expect the best is that anticipation is, in itself, a joyful activity. As a life coach (and also as a human), I've found that the idea of something as simple as going to the movies, having a mint mocha, or sitting down to read a book can brighten a whole day. Nothing's more useful than anticipation for helping us slog through life's dull, frightening, or onerous tasks.

So, I say we should not only allow ourselves and others to expect the best, we should encourage it. True, this puts us in danger of possible disappointment, of awful prospects such as Christmas without a Magic Pine Needle—and this calls for preparation.

Preparing for the worst

The best way to deal with anticipation is not to deaden all hope but to have an effective plan for dealing with disappointment. It's like buying insurance: You don't go out looking for bad things to happen, but if they do, you'll have the resources to cope. You "insure" yourself against failed expectations by expecting up a storm: Expect to have expectations, expect that they will sometimes be unfulfilled, and expect that when they are, you'll go through the predictable stages of the grieving process.

You probably know these stages already, but since reviewing them helps make the ordeal more endurable, let's recap. The phases of grieving are (not necessarily in order): denial, bargaining, anger, pajamas, grief, acceptance, and shopping. Okay, I added pajamas and shopping, but with good reason. When you experience disappointment, you not only need to allow yourself room for disbelief, anger, and sorrow but also give yourself a lot of TLC and some small but special treats. Handle yourself as gently as if you'd contracted a terrible flu. Sleeping in, a Big Mac for breakfast, a new book, a manicure—these small kindnesses add up to an environment where your disappointed psyche can heal.

It's also important to have a support system you can turn to during the healing process. Recruit people who understand failure, who can help you mourn the dead relationship or the job you didn't get. You don't need a professional, just someone who will remain present and empathize with the experience. For extra credit, find someone who can also make you laugh. Then set up a code word that can initiate the recovery process.

I have such an arrangement with my friend Annette. We both write for publication, not because we are particularly verbal or insightful but because we are certifiably insane. The writing life is lush with unrealized expectations. Annette and I use the term PRS (postrejection syndrome) to refer to the devastating mix of shame and despair that overcomes us when our work gets savaged by public criticism or trashed by some high school freshman with the vocabulary of a mold spore and a summer job as a publisher's assistant.

When this happens to me, I have only to pick up the phone, dial Annette's number, and say "PRS." Instantly, Annette swings into action, sending me waves of understanding and support. At a certain point, she'll ask, "Are you out of your pajamas yet?" When the answer is yes, it's time to shop. So off we go—not to break our budgets but to purchase, say, a T-shirt or a pen—preferably something with enough sparkly stuff on it to get my expectations rolling again. Then we stop at a coffee shop and talk until we begin to laugh about failure and humiliation in a dark, faintly crazed way. At that point, I'm ready to go home, fire up my computer, and start expecting all over again.

I know this kind of rolling with the punches can work for you, too, because I watched it work for Katie, who is intensely prone to expectations and their attending disillusionments. Shortly after the Magic Pine Needle debacle, when Katie was 8, we moved to a snowless region of Arizona where virtually every one of her stereotypical holiday scenarios was doomed. I knew Katie would be all right when one morning, shortly after putting up the Christmas cactus, I heard her teaching her siblings to sing, "I'm Dreaming of a Beige Christmas" and "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Labor Day." Katie is 19 now. I expect great things of her. And if I'm disappointed, well, that'll be all right, too.

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