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How High Expectations Can Lead to Disappointment, Depression, and Anxiety

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

I was sitting on the couch in my bedroom, at sunset, looking at the trees outside my window. I felt a profound sadness, frustration, disappointment, and desperation taking me over.

While I was staring into oblivion, all my expectations came flashing to my mind.

“No, this is not what my life was supposed to be. I was supposed to be successful. I was supposed to have my own house. I was supposed to be happy. What happened?”

What happened was that I am part of the majority, not the exception.

My entire life I expected to be the exception. I assumed that if I worked hard enough, I would succeed; if I did well in university, I would succeed; if I poured my heart and soul into something, I would succeed; my dreams could come true.

I had become a slave to my expectations, and they were ruining my life.

In my mind, things were supposed to be different. My great expectations were robbing me of happiness, because I wasn’t where I wanted to be, I didn’t have what I expected to have, and I wasn’t who I expected I should be.

The truth of the matter is that there are few people out there who are lucky enough to be living their dreams.

Most of us survive on crumbs of our expectations. We have a job, even if it’s a job we don’t like. We work from nine to five every day to pay the bills. If you’re lucky, you get to go on a vacation once a year, and for the very lucky, two of them.

Statistics show depression and anxiety are on the rise. I am part of those statistics, along with 350 million other people who suffer from the same hell I do.

How could depression and anxiety not be on the rise when we are constantly bombarded by repetitive messages that tell us about all the great things we can accomplish?

Of course giving people high expectations is what sells. If beauty creams advertised their products by saying, “It will moisturize your skin and that’s pretty much it,” not too many people would buy the product.

Marketing survives by raising people’s expectations. When the product doesn’t meet up with their expectation, disappointment follows. And so it goes with most things in our lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I truly believe that dreams can come true. The point is that we shouldn’t expect it to happen. If it does happen, it will be a nice surprise. But if it doesn’t and we’re expecting it, we are likely doomed for disappointment and frustration.

Of course it would be amazing if we could all live our great expectations, but we shouldn’t base our happiness and personal satisfaction on them, because there is no rule that says that we will all live to fulfill them. I know this might sound pessimistic, simply because it goes against everything we’ve heard.

We read great stories of people who defied the odds and became a success, but we never read about the people who did their best and failed. Their stories never become motivational quotes and bestselling books, because they didn’t make it.

We never hear their stories about how they put their heart and soul into something and failed, because that doesn’t sell books; that doesn’t sell conferences.

Many motivational books and personal coaches survive by raising people’s expectations instead of focusing on finding happiness with what they already have.

Of course meeting our expectations could bring happiness, but if we’re waiting to be happy for that to happen, we might be waiting a long time.

Maybe you’re not Anna Wintour or Mark Zuckerberg, and you don’t have a million dollars in the bank.

Maybe you’re feeling frustrated because parenthood didn’t turn out to be what you had expected (it’s tiring and demanding).

Maybe your job is not fulfilling, and at one point you expected you’d grow up to be somewhere completely different from where you are today.

I could sit here and write that you can change everything and you should fight to meet your expectation. I think you should, but you shouldn’t base you personal satisfaction and happiness on that.

I’m here to tell you that it’s all right if you didn’t meet your expectations.

Sometimes life throws curve balls at us, and for some reason or another life doesn’t go to plan. It doesn’t mean we have to stop working toward our goals; it just means that we can be happy regardless.

Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, we need to focus on what we do have.

Capitalism shoves down our throats to strive for more, and we obediently follow, only to meet a brick wall and realize how frustrated we are for not being everything the system promised we could be.

Millennials in particular are battling this problem harshly.

We were sold the idea that if we went to college, got great marks, and did tons of unpaid internships we’d be destined for the stars. Instead, millions of millennials have a huge amount of debt from student loans and are finding it hard to find a job. I’m not even talking about their dream job—just a job.

Did you know that millennials have the highest statistics on depression and anxiety ever recorded in history? That’s mainly because we expected to at least have the quality of life our parents had. But things have changed, and now we are not even close to what they had at our age.

Our expectations were too high, and we live in a world where it’s harder to meet those expectations.

It would have been a lot better to break things down to millennials in a realistic way, and if some of them got to meet their expectations, then good for them. But for the rest, we’d know that not all expectations need to be met for us to be happy.

I know you might be reading this and thinking of all the expectations that you had that you didn’t get to live up to. Maybe you’re feeling frustrated and sad.

The best and easiest way to be happy is to work toward our goals but never expect for them to become a reality. It’s a paradox. It’s the duality of existence.

We need a goal and a dream to keep us motivated, but at the same time we need to not expect anything from life. That way, regardless of the outcome, we don’t become disappointed.

I know it kind of goes against the motivational quotes we read, and it especially goes against the greedy perception that has been incrusted in our minds. We are taught to never be content with what we have and to always strive for more. But this greedy mindset is what has many feeling frustrated with their lives.

I’m not saying that it’s good to get comfortable in mediocrity, but to push ourselves to be the best person we can be without expecting a great outcome. To do things because we love doing them, not because we’re expecting something.

It’s like doing a good deed expecting a “thank you.” If the “thank you” doesn’t come, you become disappointed. If you do it regardless of the gratitude, you still feel content.

It’s about being happy while working to be better, not by placing happiness on a goal. You find that happiness in your progress, in your daily life, in feeling grateful for the small things—for having food on your plate, a roof over your head, health, and loved ones to share your life with.

It is about coming to terms with the idea that your dreams might not come true. Making peace with life—that even if it doesn’t allow you to fulfill your dreams, it has given you life, and life itself is a treasure.

As the saying goes, happy people are not those who have the best of everything but the ones who make the best of everything they have.

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About Caroline D. James

Caroline D. James is the founder and writer of wanderside.com, where she explores a different perspective to ordinary life.

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  • PJ

    I always get irritated when I see or hear claims that ‘ANYONE can become a [millionaire/business mogul/etc].’ If “anyone” can do it, there’d be no poor people in the country.

    I’ve had to let a lot of my expectations go due to crippling mental illness. And while I was sad that that was necessary, I’ve become happier since. I still have depression and anxiety and all my illnesses, but Buddhism has helped me learn to be (mostly) happy.

    I always find something to relate to on this site, in nearly every article I read. I feel like I’ve come home to my people, in a way.

  • microagent

    Great article! High Hopes, Low Expectations. Something I was told in High School (but didn’t appreciate at the time) and something that applies throughout life.

  • monta

    Damn! This part “The best and easiest way to be happy is to work toward our goals but never expect for them to become a reality. It’s a paradox. It’s the duality of existence.” hit me. Well phrased! Thumbs up!
    But I agree. It’s like deciding to do something in order to become, rich, famous, beautiful, skinny, etc, etc, etc instead of working out to become stronger, to become more disciplined, to work not because you want to become rich, but because you become better and improve yourself through doing something. I believe in the concept of mastery – doing something and improving upon something because you want to do it and it makes you feel good. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey itself that should be enjoyed. A lot of people rush through life to the destination rather than enjoying the beauty and difficulty, sometimes frustration as well as discomfort and dirt of the path. It’s also intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation. Pink in his book “Drive” wrote about a research where the researchers followed up students after finishing their studies. They found out that students who wanted X income, X job promotions, X position and reached their expected goals were happy but not AS happy as those students who were leading their lives according to intrinsic motivation. It’s like reaching a goal you expected to reach and be like “meh, what’s next?”

  • “Goals aren’t about getting. They are about growing.” I learned that from Bob Proctor. In our quest to chase after our dreams, it is important to be outcome independent (or as you put it, stop setting high expectations.) Only by detaching from the outcome can we then be happy with whatever outcome there is because we stop being disappointed. It’s disappointment that causes us to stop chasing after our dreams, to capitulate prematurely, and to blind us from our own shortcomings.

    Want to run a 6-figure business but can’t even make a hundred dollars in the past several years of trying? It just means you have a deficiency that needs to be addressed. Stop blaming the situation. Instead, look at the person who’s looking back at you in the mirror and ask: What can I do? What can I do?

    In other words, being outcome independent helps us to think of numerous more things to try rather than simply give up.

  • Its Great artical thanks for sharing . thanks lots for sharing such a decent data , save sharing a add-on taking into consideration this in order that we are practiced to profit to grasp added ideas and build taking place.

  • Oneness Journey

    ❤❤❤❤

  • Autumn Good

    I suppose this starts with more self-compassion. I’m currently one to not accept anything mediocre of myself – and to think that I shouldn’t be happy with anything less than great. Anything. I don’t want or allow myself to be happy that way, because I don’t want to be like “them.” Sometimes it’s necessary, however, and I’m sure that my life may even improve if I did. I think I would do more things.

    Thanks for the reminder, author… I need to work on that.

  • bigdo

    Yeah it’s true… it may sound messed up, but yiu kind of have to stop caring and stop expecting so much in life in order to really get somewhere… the more you expect things to happen the harder you try and the bigger the resistance there is in your life….

    Just do whatever you want and do no harm… that’s the onliest, best way to be happy…

  • N.Krishnamurthy

    Precisely what Lord Krishna says in Bhagvat Gita!

  • Caroline James

    Thank you for your comment. Yes you’re right, we need to stop expecting so much in life, which is hard. But once we become conscious of it, it’s easier to let go.

  • Caroline James

    WOW, great reply. Thank you. Yes, you address areas I didn’t address in the article. Detaching from the outcome, you’re completely right.

  • Caroline James

    I love the Bhagvat Gita, it’s a great source of wisdom.

  • Caroline James

    I completely agree, we need to start we self-compassion. Being more understanding with ourselves. We do tend to come to terms with the toxic idea that we’re not worthy of happiness, that we shouldn’t be happy because we don’t have this and that or because we’re not perfect or look perfect.

  • Caroline James

    Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.

  • Caroline James

    I think you do have a very important point here. Our goals are set to all the wrong things, beauty, fame, wealth. Instead of focusing on more trascendental aspects of things we want to conquerer.

  • Caroline James

    I completely get you. Wise things that we are told but that we don’t fully grasp until we’ve lived life for a bit longer.

  • Caroline James

    I know the feeling, I also battle greatly with depression and anxiety. There was a time when they got so crippling that I couldn’t do anything. And deep down I kept feeling guilty because I was told that I SHOULD be happy, I wanted to be happy! But I was holding so tight to this expectation, that it just made me even sadder. So I let go of happiness, I accepted by sadness and slowly (very slowly) I started coming out of it, until I eventually found happiness again. It’s still a daily battle trying to keep my demons in the closet, but its like the battle that I was brought to fight.

  • Autumn Good

    Thank you for your feedback, Caroline. It’s a worthy journey to travel, and you help to give me inspiration to travel it.

  • Autumn Good

    Do you have any advice, perhaps some books or articles that can point me in the right direction? You seem to be wise in this aspect.

  • Caroline James

    I’m sorry, I really don’t have any source expect my own brain. Thinking has been my source. What I would tell you is to think, think and then doubt everything you believe in. Why? why do you feel that you’re not allowed to make a mistake? why are you not allowed to maybe be mediocre? what’s mediocre anyway? whose standards are you measuring yourself by? whose life and whose parameters are you taking into account to measure your level of success? what’s keeping you from being happy? Look deep inside yourself and start asking yourself questions, you hold all the answers, it’s just a matter of looking inside with a truthful and honest mindset. If you want to chat or write me here’s my email thewanderside@gmail.com

  • Caroline James

    Thank you 🙂 I believe we’re all in this journey together, so we should stick by each other. I actually also find inspiration in these wonderful comments of amazing people who find themselves in the same crossroads as I do. We’re traveling this journey together, on different roads but pointing at the same destination.

  • Becky0237

    I firmly believe in having high expectations that life will be amazing. I think we need specific expectations about the more important but less tangible things. When we pursue physical goals like a certain amount of money or owning a home, it’s usually because we think those things will make us happy or secure. What if we make it our goal to be at peace with where we are, or to find a job or way of living that will bring peace and stability without needing the hard to obtain tangible things. I wanted more money and lived in a feeling of lack and struggle for years. When I finally realized it wasn’t about money so much as it was about having flexibility and security, and time to travel and relax. And that I really needed less stuff cluttering my life, not more. I’ve somehow been able to find greater contentment without having much more money once my perspective changed. When we realize what we have and where we are at is enough, it’s only upward from there.

  • Autumn Good

    That’s very true. Thank you again, Caroline, for your help. I’ll enact this, and if I find that writing to you would be of my benefit in the future, then I may take advantage of it. Good luck to you, with your endeavors. 🙂

  • Rubi

    Love this
    Thank you for helping me finally accepting life as it comes

  • Nik Poplavsky

    I totally agree that modern marketing pushes happiness from a very materialistic perspective. And it’s done by showing all the success stories without talking much about what people went through to get there. This creates high hopes and expectations in people who get affected by this marketing strategies.

    I also think that being in the present moment (as opposed to focusing on the future) will help deal with any disappointments and anxiety while working on your goals. We spend too much time thinking ahead instead of what’s happening now.

  • sebastianwrites

    I’ve not read this fully, and for this I apologise, but you damn well “should” feel aggrieved.

    The generation before us have truly ‘shafted’ ourselves and we have to fight.

    “Never” stop caring… FIGHT!!!

    And actually as your ancestors did, with the First and Second World Wars.

    Life is not easy, any blog, post any “person” who says you don’t have to fight for what you believe, I feel is misleading people.

  • Gissica

    Yessss! I’m okay with being second, third, or forth hahah! and not worry about the outcome as long as I enjoyed the ride.
    I totally agree with you about how society push us to live a life of materialism life, but is up to us to change it.

  • Jenna Clyne

    I so needed to read your words today, thank you Caroline.

  • Sugs!!

    Well said!!
    A thought provoking write up .

  • Thal

    I think what you just wrote here impacts me, as much as the article. To expect to be happy, paradoxically is the shortest path to the opposite. My gratitude!

  • Great article. We’ve gone so far down the road of materialism that we’ve forgotten who we are. There is a greediness scale. Some have it a little and some are over-endowed with it. I think that is why the system as we knew it is crumbling. So we’ll learn to appreciate and support each other again. We’ll be more human. And that is something great to strive for! We’re all in a tough transition. Your parents were deceived, too, as they are being laid off just prior to retirement.

  • Greg Cruthers

    Great article!

    Carefully defining success is very important concerning dreams or goals. As a softball coach of teen-age girls, I give players an abundance of encouragement. I also spend lots of time teaching them how to deal with failure. The team can win, while one of the players did not perform to their expectations. Simultaneously: Happy team; Sad player. Or the team may lose, but a player had the best game of her life. Teaching players how to deal with failure (and success for that matter) involves helping them set realistic goals (expectations). Once they learn that they cannot always win or have exceptional performances, that they’ll make mistakes (errors), strikeout, etc…..that they cannot expect perfection….they’re better off for it. I believe that learning these lessons as teens through sports will help them in their adult lives.

    It is challenging (for them) trying to relate their sports experiences to what they may face 5-20 years down the road in their careers or personal lives. And believe it or not….I have to spend time trying to teach their parents the same lessons too. Their expectations for their daughters are often extremely unrealistic. I tell the players that their attitude, effort and focus are all I “expect” them to work on…..to try to be the best they can be….and whatever happens, happens.

    I have learned to accept the fact that some players (and their parents) will meet “my” expectations and others will not. And then….I sometimes have to remind myself of these lessons if I find I’m beating myself up over my own failures in coaching and in life. It’s a process 😉

  • Ioana Draghita

    Thank you for sharing this! Very good article!

  • It is interesting that Millennial’s have the highest expectations in history…almost a sense of entitlement, yet when they don’t achieve or meet their expectations, they become completely distraught. Perhaps, instead of constantly raising them up to “be all that they can be” society should be teaching them the benefits of failure and how to use it as a way to better grow themselves. Keep the high expectations, but understand that they don’t just magically happen overnight.

    I wonder if that would lower the depression rate?