Many of us longed for a fresh start after 2022, a year of war, mass shootings, and Omicron. Twenty twenty-three, we hope, will be better: more peace, less political strife, and a chance to catch our breaths. New year, new you!
The demarcation between December and January may be arbitrary, but those of us who follow the Gregorian calendar have given it a meaning that serves an important purpose for us, says researcher Kevin L. Rand.
“We have to get out of bed in the morning, and we need to believe that getting out of bed in the morning is going to lead to good things,” says Rand, an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
But how much good should we expect in 2023, exactly? In other words, is it possible to get our hopes up too high for a new year that, if we’re being honest, might turn out just like the last? Research can give us some helpful guidance on how to keep our expectations under control, while still maintaining some hope in the face of the uncertainty ahead.
Don’t get your hopes up too high
When reality fails to live up to our expectations, disappointment can ensue—and research bears this out across a variety of different situations, from work and school to illness to politics.
In a 2002 study, students imagined getting their grade back on an exam. Overall, they thought that getting a C would feel worse when they predicted they would get an A, compared to getting a C they expected. They had similar intuitions about getting a raise at work: A $1,000 raise is nice when you expect it, but less pleasant when you were looking forward to $1,500.
“People feel bad when their outcomes fall short of their expectations and feel elated when their outcomes exceed their expectations,” write coauthors James A. Shepperd and James K. McNulty.
The same seems to be true in situations that are much more serious than a single college test. In a 2016 study, researchers asked 214 breast cancer survivors whether their quality of life was better or worse than they expected. Then, they filled out surveys about their emotions several months or a year later. Those who thought their quality of life was much worse than expected felt more depressed, tense, angry, and fatigued.
Surviving cancer is a big milestone in patients’ lives, a looked-forward-to future that is hitched to particular expectations. That may be true of other big milestones in life, too, like getting a new job or moving to a new country.
In a 2012 study, researchers surveyed 153 immigrants who moved from Russia to Finland. In Russia, they identified what their expectations were for their new life in terms of relationships and career. Then, around two years later, researchers surveyed the immigrants about their actual experiences in Finland, their mood, and how satisfied they were with life.
For expectations around relationships—which included family, friends, hobbies, and free time—about 47% of people were doing better than expected, while 33% were doing worse. For career expectations like their job, working conditions, and economic opportunities, 41% were doing better and 31% were doing worse.
The researchers found that people who were doing better than expected socially had higher well-being than those who were doing worse, while their career expectations didn’t seem to matter. Why? It’s possible that people moved for more social reasons, the researchers speculated, or that our social lives simply have more of an impact on our happiness than our economic ones. This goes to show that it’s not just our expectations that matter, but how closely we cling to them.
In addition to very personal expectations, we may also have high hopes for the larger societies we live in, whether they’re related to the COVID-19 pandemic, social change, or politics.
Before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, researchers recruited 153 students (mostly white and liberal) who weren’t fully committed to a candidate. In the month leading up to the polls, they asked students several times about who they thought would win and who they were going to vote for. The day after the election, students reported on who they voted for and how elated or disappointed they felt.
The researchers found some evidence for wishful thinking: After students chose a preferred candidate, they were more likely to think that candidate would win the next time they were surveyed. And the more they expected a certain candidate to win, the more (marginally) disappointed they felt if that candidate lost.
So high expectations can set us up for disappointment when they are not met. By expecting the best, we might be unprepared when the worst happens—both psychologically and practically. At the same time, though, countless studies find that hope and optimism are good for our well-being, health, and success in life. How can both be true?
Focus on what you can control
We may use the words “hope” and “optimism” interchangeably in everyday speech, but researchers make a clear distinction between them.
Hope, according to psychologists, is more relevant to situations we have control over. It’s the capacity to see ways to reach our goals, and the motivation to move toward them.
Optimism, on the other hand, involves expecting a positive future whether or not we have control over it, thanks to generally rosy views of other people and the world itself. Somehow, we believe, things will turn out OK.
When you look forward to the rest of 2023, it may be useful to distinguish between the things you have control over and the things you don’t (and anything in between). You may have a good deal of control over your diet, for example, and a lot less control over who wins elections (although even there, there are actions you can take to influence the results).
“Sometimes we can overestimate how much control we have in a situation and then that can lead us down a path of despair,” says Rand.
A 2004 study illustrated how control matters. Researchers asked 164 newlyweds about their expectations for their partner and their marriage, and then followed up with them every six months for four years to see how they were doing.
Of course, we never have full control over how our relationships will turn out, but some people may be in a better position to influence the course of their marriage than others. In this case, the study zeroed in on the relationship skills people had, like a tendency to give their partner the benefit of the doubt and avoid criticism during disagreements.
Were couples with high expectations setting themselves up for disappointment? Not always. That was only true for couples lacking those relationship skills—couples who, practically, had less ability to cultivate a happy marital future.
The upshot isn’t that we should have low expectations all the time, though. Couples with low expectations who had the skills for a good relationship actually became less satisfied over time. Coauthors McNulty and Benjamin R. Karney suggest that low expectations may reduce our motivation to take the steps that will bring about our happy ending.
In the best cases, they explain, expectations act like goals that guide our behavior in the present so our future hopes come to pass.
“It’s probably better to focus on situations you have some control over”
How do we get our expectations to play that role? In a series of studies, researcher Gabriele Oettingen found that high expectations are good for us when we have a clear picture of the outcome we’re hoping to achieve—what she calls a “positive fantasy”—plus a clearheaded understanding of the obstacles that stand in our way. This was true, she found, whether people were thinking of an important personal goal, an attractive stranger they wanted to meet, or future work-life balance.
When people had that magic combination of optimistic motivation and pragmatic realism, they were more engaged and motivated in taking steps toward their goals. Notably, these were all situations where people could exercise some control.
“It’s probably better to focus on situations you have some control over,” says Robb Rutledge, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University and cocreator of the Happiness Quest app. “Thinking about what you could do differently is a better strategy than just expecting something different.”
Don’t expect the small stuff
The newlywed study looked at specific expectations—whether people predicted their partners would rarely make mistakes, agree with them about important things, and make time for them. And that may be an important distinction, the researchers note.
The more specific our expectations are—whether we want to get pregnant next month or keep our household RSV-free throughout the winter—the more likely reality will throw a curveball our way. The reason optimism may be so beneficial, even when it applies to things we cannot control, is that optimistic people seem to have a very broad definition of what constitutes a good outcome.
It’s the difference between “I’m really confident that I’m going to be able to go to Europe this summer” vs. “Whatever comes my way, I will figure a way to handle it,” says Rand. “You’re not rigidly trying to get one particular outcome, but you’re flexible and adaptive depending on what reality dictates.”
Similarly, University of South Florida professor Sandra L. Schneider argues that part of “realistic optimism” is focusing on the positive aspects of a situation and appreciating the present. And research suggests that optimism and gratitude go hand in hand.
For example, if your son can’t make it home from college for the holidays, maybe that time away will help him build up his social network at school—and give you extra-special bonding time with your daughter. If we’re able to reinterpret and reframe outcomes as positive, even when they seem otherwise, optimism becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“No need to force a fake smile on your face or to deny reality to be an optimist: rather, optimistic individuals trust in their ability to deal with stressful problems”
“No need to force a fake smile on your face or to deny reality to be an optimist: rather, optimistic individuals trust in their ability to deal with stressful problems,” write Marie Forgeard and Martin Seligman in a 2012 paper.
Even if the optimistic person is forced to confront their shattered expectations, their positive outlook still allows them to move forward without getting stuck in disappointment.
This may be what happened in a 2020 study, with findings that run counter to lots of research on expectations. Researchers asked 571 adults to imagine running into traffic on the way to a job interview. Some were told they could divert to an alternate route (and decided whether they wanted to), while others simply had to wait. Then, they predicted whether they would arrive on time. Some found out they made it to the interview and got the job, while others got the bad news that they were late and didn’t.
Surprisingly, whether or not people had any control in the situation, those with high expectations—who believed they would beat the traffic—felt greater positive emotions when they found out what happened, even if they didn’t get the job.
Having a general sense of optimism seems to be an asset when life doesn’t go your way. That optimism might remind you, “Oh well, I didn’t get this job, there’ll be another one,” says Rand, one of the study’s coauthors. Or perhaps the participants simply weren’t putting that much stock in a single job interview. In short, Rand imagines, they were being flexible rather than rigid.
How to shift your expectations
Although it might seem wise and enlightened to simply have no expectations for 2023, Rutledge reminds us that that isn’t realistic. Predicting the future, after all, is the way our brains make decisions. Knowing how tasty a restaurant’s food was last month helps us make next week’s dinner plans; receiving kindness and help in the past lets us know we can probably trust that friendly stranger.
“Our brain makes expectations without our permission,” says Rand.
Across all this research, the somewhat banal message seems to be that we thrive when we have upbeat but realistic expectations—a “moderately positive distortion of the self and the world,” in Oettingen’s words, or an “optimal margin of illusion,” according to researcher Roy Baumeister. That’s more true, Rutledge points out, if your social and economic circumstances are such that you do, in fact, have a good amount of control over your life.
If you notice that you might be getting your hopes up too high, Rand does suggest a few ways to temper them. You could imagine a variety of different outcomes—good, bad, and mediocre—and picture how your life would still be OK in each one. By practicing mindfulness or doing cognitive behavioral therapy, you might learn to notice your own expectations but not get overly attached to them. Schneider also suggests regular “reality checks”—taking a moment to see how things are going, notice any roadblocks or new opportunities, and recalibrate your expectations and behavior.
As for 2023, what should we hope for? “I have no idea what 2023 has in store for us, and I have (like probably many people) been humbled in the last three years to what the world can throw at us,” says Rand. “But I feel hopeful that whatever comes along, we are resilient and flexible and we will make it work.”