Monday, May 4, 2015

The Expectations Trap

Sometimes we get caught up in the emotion. 

It may be lack of perspective where we don’t appreciate what we have, and don’t appreciate that most Americans are far better off than those in other parts of the world and far better off than our grandparents were only 50 years ago.  We get excited about new opportunities, adventures or acquisitions and forget about gratitude.  Instant gratification trumps planning for the future.  Sometimes expectations are so high that we set ourselves up for disappointments. 

It may be lack of critical thinking.  Looking at the facts is never as much fun as living in a pretend world or persuading ourselves that the details don’t really matter.  Again we develop unrealistic expectations and are let down by reality, sometimes seriously.

Two recent stories serve as interesting examples.

A table on this website shows the average wedding cost in the United States for 2014 is up to $31,213 (excluding honeymoon).  Information comes from “The Knot 2014 Real Weddings Study” of 16,000 couples.  Now this survey is not going to include couples that just stop by a Justice of the Peace or have a private wedding.  It most likely includes formal weddings, those involving wedding planners and such. Also an average can be skewed by a few very expensive Hollywood affairs, but still! – That number represents the cost of a respectable middle class house in 1970.

It would not be out of line to mention that according to information from The Economist, Americans lead the industrialized world in both frequency of divorce and brevity of marriages.  Divorced couples stay together only about eight years before going separate ways.

This is clearly an expectations problem.  Little girls grow up dreaming about their wedding and being the star of the show.  (If the smallest thing goes wrong the whole affair may be declared a disaster – all that money down the drain!)  We know what little boys grow up thinking about, which motivates them to keep the peace and go along with any plans.  The point is:  it’s the marriage that counts, not the wedding.  It’s a shame that in America today it’s likely that your tattoo will last longer than your average marriage.  Let’s just hope the people spending $31,000 on a wedding are not the same ones owing an average of $29,000 on student loans. 

The second example comes from this USA Today report on low morale in the military.  “More than half of some 770,000 soldiers are pessimistic about their future in the military and nearly as many are unhappy in their jobs, despite a six-year, $287 million campaign to make troops more optimistic and resilient.”  This clearly says something about military leadership, but I was astonished to read a summary of comments from two sources that “the results are not surprising” given the realities of “[f]ourteen years of war and recent decisions to downsize.”  Wait a minute; if war is a reason for low morale, it’s pretty clear these soldiers joined with unrealistic expectations.  That’s what an army does: train for war or go to war.  People shoot at you and you shoot back.

I recently heard of a young man who couldn’t find a job and decided to join the army.  While he was in basic training, both he and his wife were surprised and angry that he couldn’t take time off to attend his daughter’s first communion.  They apparently didn’t understand that members of the military often spend extended periods of time away from their families and often do not get to choose when or for how long that occurs.  They were too busy concentrating on the prospect of getting a first assignment in Hawaii.  Imagine their surprise if he goes to war instead!  With these expectations – partly the fault of overzealous recruiters only interested in making the “numbers” and partly the fault of the enlistee failing to do enough research – it is not a mystery that morale is low.

Sometimes we get caught up in the emotion and forget that realistic and appropriate expectations are so important to a happy life.

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