To have more satisfaction and equilibrium in our lives we need to learn how our brain deals with expectations and manage ourselves accordingly. Easier said than done though.The brain is finely tuned to expectations, and an expectation that isn’t met, no matter how seemingly unimportant, can sometimes pack a punch.
This is because of the link between dopamine and the reward circuitry in our brain which this fires off when there is a cue in our environment indicating there might be a reward. Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. Thus, the surprise bonus at work, even a small one, can positively impact your brain. chemistry more than an expected pay rise.
On the other hand if you’re expecting a reward and you don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steeply. This feeling is not a pleasant one, it feels a lot like pain. Expecting a pay rise 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. If we can understand better how our brain reacts and responds it’s easier to manage our emotions more effectively – this the crux of EQ – emotional intelligence.
Dopamine levels rise when you want something, even something as simple as wanting to cross the road. Put simply, dopamine is central to the toward state, to being open, curious, and interested. 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.
So the key to all this is to get our dopamine levels right – this is something that we can actually influence if we want to. To create a ‘happy’ life perhaps we should live a life with a good amount of novelty, create opportunities for unexpected rewards, and believe that things are always going to get slightly better.
Managing our expectations is a big part of this. It’s an opportunity to be more proactive in the way we regulate emotions, setting the scene for good performance rather than just sorting out problems when things go wrong. Unmet expectations are one of the important experiences to avoid, as these generate the stronger threat response.
Consciously altering what we expect can have a surprising impact. Imagine you are preparing a proposal for a new work project. If you keep your expectations low, you will either be okay if you don’t win the work, or thrilled if you do. Whereas if you allow yourself to get excited about the contract, you may be heavily disappointed when you don’t win it (and unable to see past the rejection), or only mildly happy if you win it. When you step back and look at all the possible outcomes this way, it makes sense to minimize one’s expectations of positive rewards in most situations. Keeping an even keel about potential wins pays off.
Another good way to manage dopamine levels is to pay more attention to positive expectations that you know will be met. For example if we have a holiday to look forward to it helps us to stay positive. This may not seem logical but remember it’s about the dopamine! Choosing to focus on things always getting a little bit better, even with evidence at times to the contrary, helps you maintain good levels of dopamine.