They say, “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” Whether you’re a glass-is-half-full or half-empty personality, people of both opinions have experienced the sting of dashed expectations. Even so, it’s impossible not to get excited by prospects even when we aren’t sure if it will pan out. New research out earlier this month questions whether it’s more important to stay eternally optimistic or guarded against great expectations.
Published in the Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers followed 18 years of personal expectations collected from the longitudinal British Household Panel Survey. Sixteen-hundred Brits were surveyed about their self-satisfaction with areas of life, psychological state, and finances. Check-ins were conducted annually to track how well the survey participants were doing and compared them to their self-reported markers of well-being.
The study found that being an optimist or a pessimist didn’t matter nearly as much as being realistic. The people with the highest well-being markers, both emotionally and financially, were described as not having “mistaken expectations.” People with the most pessimistic expectations suffered a 21.8% decrease in well-being over the almost two-decade time span, while those who had the most optimistic expectations experienced a 13.5% decline in well-being.
As becoming pessimistic can cause you to keep your guard up all the time and not be open to new experiences, it is easy to see how that can ultimately result in a decline of happiness—but what about the optimists also experiencing a reduction in happiness? The researchers of the study believe that the biased beliefs of optimists can mean that they are more willing to expect the best, even when it’s not accurate.
Optimistic people may experience disappointment more often after hoping for something to work out differently, while pessimists may feel relief and happiness when situations that they believed to be worst-case scenarios pan out better than they had initially believed. Either way, there is bound to be a let-down whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic; the only difference is in when you will feel the let-down.
People who strive to fall into neither category and accept facts as they are (such as not over-inflating opinions of themselves or their finances) had better long-term well-being in the study than the groups of people who were either optimistic or pessimistic. The key is to keep expectations as realistic as possible and temper beliefs and attachments to outcomes which could go in either direction. If you’re looking for long-term well-being and happiness, being happy means being real.
de Meza, David, and Chris Dawson. “Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, July 2020, doi:10.1177/0146167220934577.