Helpful Hopes, Unhelpful Expectations

The inspiration for my presentation today on “Healthy Hopes, Unhealthy Expectations,” came from recent reflections upon my past and current life. I have often revisited difficult decisions I made during my youth and young adulthood, sometimes wishing I would have chosen differently. Although fortunately not often, from time to time, I see those moments reflected back to me by my children, and it has caused me emotional suffering because I wish for them not to repeat my mistakes. So, learning to have healthy expectations and to have hope to endure through these times has become essential to my own happiness.

I’ve come to realize that many of the conflicts and difficulties of family relationships and friendships have had at the root of them unreasonable or unmet expectations, often due to lack of communication. Brad Warner summarizes my thoughts in the following quote: “Suffering occurs when your ideas about how things ought to be don’t match how they really are.”

The other thing that I have struggled with is to accept that in the past I was only doing the best I could with what I knew at the time. There are a few moments when I made life changing choices that I have tried to replay over and over again trying out different possibilities and outcomes. Of course, one can never know what really would have happened if it were truly possible to try again; things could have been better, but maybe even worse. And, it’s likely I would end up doing it all the same anyway, unless I could know the future.

Not long ago, I found a movie at the library called “Mr. Nobody”. The movie is set in the year 2092, in which the last mortal human on Earth, Nemo, reflects upon his long past of 118 years and thinks about the lives he might have led if he had made different choices during 3 life changing moments at ages 9, 15, and 34. In the movie, we are taken through multiple scenarios of how life could have been if he had made a different choice. This movie had some very powerful quotes that resonated with me of which I shall share two of them: 1) “I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid I haven’t been alive enough. It should be written on every school room blackboard; ‘life is a playground or nothing.’” 2) “Every path is the right path. Everything could’ve been anything else. And it would have just as much meaning.”

My hope today is that no matter your age or experience, you will strive to be contented with your life as it is and will have learned about the importance of creating hopes that inspire you to move forward with reasonable expectations of yourself and others.

Continuing on, let’s revisit the story of Pandora’s Box, which will lay down the foundation for my discussion on the duality of hope and expectation being both helpful and unhelpful.

Before moving forward, there is an interesting tidbit I would like to share with you. In Hesiod’s story about Pandora, it was not a box that Pandora opened, but a jar. The original Greek word was “pithos”, meaning a large jar, sometimes as large as a small person. This mistranslation is usually attributed to the 16th century humanist Eramus of Rotterdam, who translated the story into Latin, rendering “pithos” as the Greek “pyxis”, meaning box, a phrase which has endured ever since [from Wikipedia].

Another interesting tidbit is regarding the meanings of the names of the key characters in the story: Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora. Prometheus means forethought, while Epimetheus means afterthought. And, Pandora means all-gifted, all-giving. Prometheus was portrayed as very intelligent, able to think things through clearly and carefully, and plan for the future, while his brother, Epimetheus, was portrayed as a bit slow, only able to react, after events have already occurred. Basically, the two brothers represent the duality of the positive and negative of humanity’s nature, which reinforces another concept of duality in the story—hope and expectation.

Now I would like to turn your attention to an important word in the story—Elpis. In classical Greek literature, Elpis can be interpreted as an expectation of the future in either a positive or a negative way, such as hope or foreboding. Interestingly, in the story, the only gift that didn’t escape the jar was Elpis, which hung on or was caught in the lip of the jar and did not escape before the lid was replaced.

One interpretation of this is that hope wasn’t released to dissipate out into the world, but was contained within the jar of the human form. If we mix our ancient stories together and add in something about the “jars of clay” that human beings are likened to in the Christian scriptures, we could interpret this to mean that the jar is a metaphor for the container of the human body, made from dust and returning to dust, and indeed, Pandora herself is shaped from dirt in this myth. Interpreted this way, the story tells us that though we cannot control our fate, we can still have hope contained inside.

Alternatively, if we translate Elpis as foreboding, then the fact that it was not unleashed on the world gives us hope, in the sense that we usually think of hope. If this foreboding is more like despair, a perspective on the world that expects the inevitability of chaos and entropy, then foreboding’s entrance into the world would have sent humanity into a downward spiral of despair and meaninglessness.

This leads us to wonder why only it remained in the jar: Was it to keep hope available for humans or, rather, to keep hope from man? Is hope consequently to be regarded as good (“a comfort to man in his misery and a stimulus rousing his activity”), or as evil (“idle hope in which the lazy man indulges when he should be working honestly for his living”)?

Keeping these questions in mind, let’s further explore these ideas about hope. First, here is a definition of what hope is: Hope means to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence; to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something to happen or be true. It differs from its weak cousins, wishing and unrealistic positive thinking. Although they share a positive vision of the future, they don’t connect us personally to that future through our own efforts.

We often think of hope with warm, fuzzy feelings, yet it actually encompasses the full range of our emotions. As Shane Lopez says in Making Hope Happen:

“Hope encompasses awe, interest, joy, excitement, and even euphoria. Hope inspires us to transcend ourselves. We dream a little bigger, we aim a little higher. We may be lifted emotionally by a goal, but our vision may need to be tweaked many times on its way to being fulfilled.

“Hope also walks hand in hand with fear, one of the most universal and most painful emotions. When fear is working for us, it reminds us of realistic limits or alerts us when we’re straying from our path to a meaningful future. But fear can also hijack us. Fear gives us only three behavioral options: flight, fight, or freeze.

“Hope can be described as the golden mean between euphoria and fear. It is the feeling where transcendence meets reason and caution meets passion. This interplay between hopeful thoughts and feelings is dance-like. Thoughts react to feelings and feelings respond to thoughts.”

“The Hope Cycle,” created by Rick Snyder, combines goals, agency and pathways to help guide individuals toward attaining hope. First, we set goals. “We seek out and identify an area of where we want to go, what we want to accomplish, and who we want to be. Hope is built from the goals that matter most to us, that we come back to again and again, and that fill our minds with pictures of the future.”

Next, is agency, which is “shorthand for our perceived ability to shape our lives day to day. As ‘agents,’ we know we can make things happen (or stop them from happening), and we take responsibility for moving toward our goals. Over time, we develop our ability to motivate ourselves; we build our capacity for persistence and long-term effort.”

Finally, “We seek out and identify multiple pathways to our goals, pick the most appropriate routes for our situation, and monitor our progress over time. These are the plans that carry us forward, but we’re aware that obstacles can arise at any time. So we remain curious and open to finding the better paths to our desired future.”

From my research it seems the way to know if you have a healthy hope, is that it is one that requires action, for the lack of action is merely a wish or a positive thought that is unlikely to ever happen.

Scientific research supports how hope is beneficial to us in our lives. The positive physiological effects of hope are well-documented in Jerome Groopman’s “The Anatomy of Hope,” where he writes: “Researchers are learning that a change in mindset has the power to alter neurochemistry. Belief and expectation—the key elements of hope—can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins, mimicking the effects of morphine. In some cases, hope can also have important effects on fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation and motor function.”

Groopman’s research showed that during the course of illness, belief and expectation—two mental states associated with hope—have an impact on the nervous system which, in turn, sets off a chain reaction that makes improvement and recovery more likely. This process, he points out, is fundamental to the widely accepted “placebo effect,” which is created by a hopeful outlook.

Other research [found in Making Hope Happen by Shane Lopez] has shown compelling evidence for a connection between hope and academic success. Long term studies followed college students’ success from their freshman year to their graduation. Researchers had first semester students complete a test measuring hope and acquired permission from students to access their personal school records for years to come. It was found that how students think about the future predicts their academic progress and success more than standardized tests. Of note, one study showed that low hope students are three times more likely to be dismissed from school for poor grades.

Other research [found in Making Hope Happen by Shane Lopez] has revealed a link between hopelessness and mortality, or between hope and longevity. Scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio set out to study mortality in older members of the local community. Psychiatry professor Stephen Stern and his colleagues began with a big question: “Why do some people die while others, who may be no less ill or in no less physical danger, continue to live?”

Included in a simple questionaire of 795 residents, ages 64 to 79, was a simple question about hope: “Are you hopeful about the future?” Of the respondents, 722 (91 percent) said “yes,” while 73 people (9 percent) said “no.” Both groups were equally diverse and the only major difference between the two groups were that many more of the hopeful were rated “high” in physical activity (48 percent versus 28 percent).

Years later, the results were clear. Of the hopeless group, 29 percent had died, compared to only 11 percent of the hopeful participants. There were no cases of suicide, but 25 participants had died of cancer, and another 25 from heart disease; these diseases claimed 7.2 percent of the hopeless compared with 2.8 percent of the hopeful. When all the data was taken into consideration, it revealed that the people who said they felt hopeless were more than twice as likely to die during the followup period than people who said they were hopeful about the future.

Now let’s move on to talking about expectation and what it is. Unlike hope that has an element of uncertainty, expectation has an element of certainty. It is a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; a belief that someone will or should achieve anything.

Like hope, expectation has both positive and negative aspects. On one hand, expectations can inspire us  to greater achievements; on the other hand, expectations cause us to feel disappointment and unhappiness. In this talk, I will attempt to focus on how we can find a balance between these two aspects.

From an article, “The Foundation of Love: Releasing Judgements and Expectations” Carolyn Hidalgo shares some insights into creating authentic connections and having unconditional love. She says:

“We hear about unconditional love, that we must love ourselves first before we can love another. It requires something so simple, yet difficult in practice: letting go of making ourselves, and others, wrong.

“When you make someone else wrong, you hold the energy of needing to correct, convince, control, or change someone else (the 4 C’s, as I call them). Someone should be or do the way you expect. Blaming, complaining, or condemning becomes acceptable.

“When you make yourself wrong, you hold thoughts of how you should be, and end up feeling not good enough. We now see ourselves and others as objects or problems that need to be fixed.”

In close relationships, often “harmony exists because everyone knows what to say and what not to say. Many believe love is putting up with, sacrificing, tolerating, or suffering in silence, thinking their commitment is proof of their love. This is not love. Understanding, seeing, hearing, and accepting someone for who they are is love.”

“When you make someone wrong, there’s a value you hold being stepped on. It’s black and white in your mind, but in between lives everyone else’s perception of truth. Someone not living up to your value of ‘hard work’, you may judge as ‘lazy.’ Someone who does not follow your idea of  ‘giving’, you may judge as ‘selfish.’ Someone you judge as ‘inconsiderate’ is not acting in a way you see as ‘kindness.’

“Notice how it feels when others project their values onto you. The question is not whether someone is right or wrong, but whether the words and actions are coming from the spectrum of fear on one side or love on the other. The result will be either constructive or destructive.

“When you let go of needing others to live according to your ‘right’ way, you realize how others respond is simply a projection of their reality. A shift can now happen away from your fear-based ego toward love and compassion, where you can seek to understand, share, teach, and model. Trying to be patient is next to impossible in the place of fear, but shift to love and you will find all the patience you need.

“We are all seeking truth, but truth is in the eye of the beholder. Discernment not judgement leads you to truth by getting curious and noticing whether someone’s perception of reality comes from love or fear. It’s the difference between competition and cooperation, doubt and trust. It will lead to holding on or letting go.

“You stand in a place of superiority when you judge and see others as inferior. It’s a destructive energy of being attached to “I am right” that you project onto someone else. Notice that what comes back will be defensiveness because no one believes they are ‘wrong.’ Criticism is also being attached to ‘I am right,’ but you don’t neessarily see someone as inferior.

“The Golden Rule found in all spiritual teachings: Are you you treating someone the way you want to be treated? Who wants to be treated to criticism and judgement? When you let go of convincing, correcting, controlling, and trying to change others, you release the need for ownership, which is a big illusion in love.”

In addition to releasing this need of ownership, another way to improve ourselves and our relationships with others is to focus on gratitude, rather than expectations. Whatever you focus on, grows. As Tony Robbins says, “Trade your expectations for appreciation and your whole world changes in an instant.”

Some tips for developing more gratitude are: 1) to spend time each day thinking of things you’re grateful for; 2) share with others what you appreciate about them; and 3) stop thinking about what you “should” be doing.

None of this means we must stop having expectations, but it means we need to think about them in a different manner. This is borne out through research that reveals the effects on others when we have low or high expectations of them (or of ourselves). Two psychological phenomen that are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy are the Golem effect and the Pygmalion effect [referenced from Wikipedia].

The Golem effect is a psychological phenomenon in which lower expectations placed upon individuals either by supervisors or the individual themselves lead to poorer performance by the individual. The effect is named after the golem, a clay creature that was given life by Rabbi Loew of Prague in Jewish mythology. According to the legend, the golem was originally created to protect the Jews of Prague; however, over time, the golem grew more and more corrupt to the point of spiraling violently out of control and had to be destroyed. The effect was named after the golem legend in 1982 by Babad, Inbar, and Rosenthal because it respresents the concerns of social scientists and educators, which are focused on the negative effects of self-fulfilling prophecies.

The counterpart to the Golem effect is the Pygmalion effect. It is the psychological phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. It is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion. In the story told by Roman poet Ovid, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created. George Bernard Shaw borrowed the theme for his play “Pygmalion,” in which Professor Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility. The professor becomes besotted with her even as he successfully teaches her how to speak proper English.

Most research conducted has been upon the Pygmalion effect. One famous research study was conducted by Harvard professor, Robert Rosenthal [from an article: “When to be Unreasonable with Yourself” by James Clear]. In this study, a group of 18 elementary school teachers gave their students a special test that Rosenthal put together. The test predicted which children were primed for a boost in IQ over the next few years.

“The catch was that it was not a special test at all. It was just a general IQ test with a fancy sounding name, but the teachers didn’t know this. Once the results came back, Rosenthal picked a random group of students from each classroom and told the teachers that these students were “bloomers” that were predicted to blossom into brilliant students.

“In reality, there was nothing different about these students from their peers.

“A few months later, the students were given another IQ test. The results were astounding. Students who were labeled as “bloomers” (even though they were average students to begin with) scored significantly higher on IQ tests than their peers. Why did this happen?

“Researchers have discovered that the improvement was due to the different way that the teachers treated the students that they expected to succeed. Compared to the other children in the class, the “bloomers” were given more feedback, allowed more time for answering questions, and generally received more smiles, nods, and gestures of approval from their teachers.”

In other words, when a teacher treated a student as if they were destined to become smart, the student became smart. Although there has been little research done on the Golem effect, the result has been a negative outcome in which individuals performed worse as a result of low expectations.

So, it seems that when we look upon others more favorably, we treat them better, and therefore, are better able to help them achieve more.

One last discovery I would like to share with you is about the effects of expectation on the brain. Professor Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University in England has performed studies showing the links between dopamine and reward circuitry. This information comes from an article by David Rock, “Not so Great Expectations”.

“Dopamine cells sit deep within the brain in the nuclesu accumbens, and fire off in anticipation of primary rewards. Schultz found that when a cue from the environment indicates you’re going to get a reward, dopamine releases in response. Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones.

“However, if you’re expecting a reward and don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steeply. This feeling is not a pleasant one, it feels a lot like pain. Expecting a pay raise and not getting one can create a funk that lasts for days. However, low levels of unmet expectations are something we all experience constantly: expect the lights to change and find they take a long time and your dopamine levels fall, leaving you feeling frustrated. Expect the service at the bank to be fast but find a long queue, more frustration. Not only does dopamine go down in these instances, you also get a mild threat response, reducing prefrontal functioning for deliberate tasks.

“Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of desire. Dopamine levels rise when you want something, even something as simple as wanting to cross the road. The number of connections made per second in the brain is also connected to dopamine levels. When dopamine levels are too low, the number of connections per second in the brain falls.

“The dopamine cells in the nucleus accumbens connect to many parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where the right levels of dopamine are critical for focusing. You need good levels of dopamine to ‘hold’ an idea in your prefrontal cortex. Positive expectations increase the levels of dopamine in the brain, and these increased levels make you more able to focus.

“The link between expectations, dopamine, and perception may explain why happiness is a great state for mental performance and problem solving. Lots of research has been done, such as by Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina, showing that happy people perceive a wider range of data, solve more problems and come up with more new ideas for actions to take in a stituation. Perhaps the elusive search for happiness is really a search for the right levels of dopamine. From this perspective, to create a ‘happy’ life perhaps you should live a life with a good amount of novelty create opportunites for unexpected rewards, and believe that things are always going to get slightly better.

“Whether your goal is to be eternally happy, or just to improve your performance, clearly it’s going to be useful to improve how you manage expectations, to create the right levels of dopamine.”

In closing, I would like to go back to our earlier question: Is hope and expectation to be regarded as good, or as evil? It seems to me, it all depends upon our perspective and the pathways we choose to achieve our aspirations. We must keep in mind that we cannot change or control others—only ourselves, but we can be supportive to help others grow and be better. And, if our expectations involve others, we ought to make them known to them.