Can Low Expectations Make You Happy?

The case for appreciating what’s in front of you

A trophy in the shape of a heart
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

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At the end of each issue of The Atlantic is a short ode by my colleague James Parker. He has praised many of life’s realities, most of them completely ordinary: naps, barbecue potato chips, chewing gum, cold showers.

One of my favorites, the ode to low expectations, seems to describe the thinking behind Parker’s entire ode project. “Gratification? Satisfaction? Having your needs met? Fool’s gold,” Parker writes. “If you can get a buzz of animal cheer from the rubbishy sandwich you’re eating, the daft movie you’re watching, the highly difficult person you’re talking to, you’re in business.”

Appreciate what’s in front of you, Parker is saying. That’s a hard thing for humans to do, in our era of social-media comparisons and heightened expectations. What we expect of our romantic partners, for example, has risen dramatically in the past hundred or so years. As a social psychologist told my colleague Olga Khazan in 2017, we now expect a partner not only to love and support us, but also to help us grow and contribute to our self-actualization. That’s a lot to expect from one person.

High expectations aren’t always a bad thing. But if you’re finding yourself flooded with disappointment more often than you’d like—say, if your partner put effort into a Valentine’s Day gift or plan, but didn’t do exactly what you’d hoped for—you might consider the case for lowering your expectations and turning to gratitude instead. Look up at your loved ones. Look down at your coffee or your tea or your “rubbishy sandwich.” And say: This is enough.

On Expectations

A trophy with the words "Not Bad."
Tim Lahan

An Ode to Low Expectations

By James Parker

You’ll be happier if you grade reality on a curve.

Wax models of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have confetti thrown on them at Madame Tussauds
Jason Reed / Reuters

We Expect Too Much From Our Romantic Partners

By Olga Khazan

How marriage has changed in recent years, and why that’s made staying married harder (From 2017)

A broken meter with stars on its dial
Getty; The Atlantic

Perfectionism Can Become a Vicious Cycle in Families

By Gail Cornwall

When parents have “other-oriented perfectionism,” kids suffer.

Still Curious?

Other Diversions


If you’re really struggling to activate your gratitude muscles, our happiness columnist, Arthur C. Brooks, suggests contemplating your death. This does not sound fun. But Brooks has evidence to back up the suggestion: “Researchers found in 2011 that when people vividly imagined their demise, their sense of gratitude increased by 11 percent, on average,” he wrote in 2021. “As a happiness researcher, I rarely see single interventions with this kind of effect.”

— Isabel