It was the moment Becky* had been building towards her whole career. She’d finally been given the much-awaited promotion that she’d sacrificed so much for at a law firm. But as she was being congratulated by colleagues, Becky was overwhelmed by an unexpected feeling of disappointment.
“I thought I’d be elated, but I was numb,” she admits. “I’d neglected all the other areas in my life to reach my goal. I had no one to call to share the good news with and when I thought about the work ahead, I realised I was burnt out. I had the perfect job but my life was far from perfect.”
Becky, 36, had spent five years in Dubai working late every evening and at weekends, taking every opportunity to network, and yet was left feeling hollow. “I realised work didn’t make me happy but I’d focused so much on that, I didn’t have anything else.”
She started to question whether she’d actually be happier if she’d kept her expectations lower. And she’s not alone. In a world where only the best seems good enough, should we actually stop aiming so high?
A recent study by researchers at University College, London, suggests that the key to happiness could be keeping your expectations low. That way, they discovered, people have something to celebrate when things go well, rather than aiming too high and being disappointed.
Celebrity life coach Sloan Sheridan-Williams (www.sloansw.com) says many of her clients in Dubai have high expectations, which may be holding them back.
“Everyone needs to have goals and ambitions in life that will keep them motivated and challenge them to be the best they can be, but these goals have to be achievable,” she says. “When you set yourself unrealistic targets, your life becomes severely challenged and happiness can elude you. Lowering your expectations doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It can be very fulfilling and rewarding if done the right way.”
Sloan insists it certainly isn’t about settling for second best. “To ensure you still feel happier without selling yourself short, it is crucial that you lower your expectations while also raising your standards,” she insists. “So although you are demanding less, you are not accepting less from yourself or giving up on your dreams – just learn to be realistic.”
For women like Becky, it’s not about giving up on a career but working out what it will take to be truly happy. Being top in your chosen profession won’t mean much when you have no one to share the achievement with.
Lisa Orban, psychologist and founding director of Golden Notebook, a London-based personal branding consultancy (www.goldennotebook.co.uk) is keen to remind us that perfectionism and a desire to excel are two very different things.
“A desire to do your best is reasonable and flexible whereas a need to be perfect is rigid, demanding and self-defeating,” Lisa explains.
“Perfectionism can hold you back in life and keep you stuck in the status quo. It implies that mistakes are unacceptable so can prevent you from taking the necessary risks that are a part of growing and improving. Perfectionism can lead to burnout as the need to be flawless is exhausting. High self-expectations can result in unnecessary pressure that can affect you physically and mentally.”
So what’s the answer? Lisa says we need to challenge the demands we put on ourselves. “Strive to do your best, while accepting that no one can be totally perfect”.
But not all experts agree lowering our expectations is the way forward. Andy Cope, co-author of Be Brilliant Every Day is studying happiness in the UK and argues that the opposite is true. “Most people get stuck in what I call a C+ life – in school report terms, it means you could do better and for many, life can become a bit mundane,” he says. “The solution isn’t to lower your sights! Too many people settle for C+ in the hope that A+ will happen next year or when they retire. We set out to expect mediocrity in the hope that something good might happen.”
Andy says accepting mediocrity is a defence mechanism because you’ll rarely be disappointed, but at the same time you won’t be genuinely happy either. “The solution is what I call ‘realistic optimism.’ Not a rose-tinted glasses approach that annoys people and papers over the cracks of reality, but a genuine expectation that today is going to be a great day because you’re going to choose to be upbeat, passionate and positive. “Thanks to your mindset, you’re more likely to have a great day!”
Andy admits that the downside is that despite your best efforts, the day might still conspire against you but tomorrow, you go for it again. Andy says lowering expectations isn’t the answer, instead you need to learn to be upbeat. “If you’re going to have a happier life, you need to put some effort into being your best self – those A+’s don’t happen by accident.”
UK-based Jacqui Cleaver, director of New You Boot Camp agrees (www.newyoubootcamp.com). She reached for the stars and success has followed. Jacqui’s bootcamps are now in the UK and Spain, and clients from all round the world fly in for her expertise.
“People who think life is going to be easy are deluded,” Jacqui says. “My dad used to say ‘there’s no such word as can’t, and as a teenager it was infuriating to hear but he was right. I absolutely needed to aim high to start my business. I remember some of my friends telling me to be careful but I took the plunge and look where I am.”
Jacqui believes that when you aim for big things, you need to stay focused and enjoy the journey. That way, when you reach your ‘perfect’ destination, you won’t be disappointed. “There’s always something to be thankful for and I think a gratitude diary is a must,” she says. “I write down three things every single day that I’m grateful for. On tough days that can be hard but there’s always something from a simple hug to finding a parking space just when you need it. Remember what you’re aiming for and continue to remind yourself why it matters to you.”
The problem is, according to Dr Vanessa Bokanowski, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at Dubai’s Wellbeing Medical Centre, that striving for perfection is in our nature and the rise of social media is only fuelling the desire. “It’s a natural human tendency to want the best and thrive for excellence,”
Dr Bokanowski explains. “With social media like Facebook and Instagram, people only put the best part of them on there – perfect photos, successful life moments, happy updates – it’s far from the reality of daily life.”
Dr Bokanowski explains we have a tendency to compare ourselves to each other and social media makes it easier than ever to do this. That, along with a culture in Dubai that leads us to believe we can have whatever we want, whether it’s a luxury home or a top job, results in us never being truly satisfied. We should expect less and set up achievable goals, in line with our abilities. “We need to focus on the now, not the future, and be aware of our limitations,” Dr Bokanowski insists. “Having dreams is healthy but make them realistic.”
Caroline McIntosh from the UK is testament that lowering your expectations can bring about big changes. Within weeks of joining a leading PR company in Scotland, she was given the opportunity to take the lead position for the area. “On paper it sounded like a hugely exciting opportunity but I was dealing with demanding clients along with high expectations I put on myself. When I wasn’t in the office, I was at home worrying about how I could’ve done things better,” she says. “The more I delivered, the more my clients expected. It wore me down.”
Caroline had been tempted by the increased salary, and the step up the career ladder. But she ended up spending her salary on ways to defuse the stress of her week like a massage or a short break. The effects were always short lived. “I’m a naturally driven person and I wanted to progress in my career and show people what I could do, but eventually I chose to walk away,” she admits.
It took almost a year for Caroline to resign and admits that some people thought she was mad. “But for the first time I realised I didn’t care what people thought, I knew I had to get out or I’d never be happy.”
Caroline went on to freelance and her yoga teacher suggested she train as an instructor. She hasn’t looked back since. “Yoga had been a passion for a few years. I never imagined I’d make it my way of earning a living but I’ve never been happier,” Caroline said. “Lowering my expectations enabled me to be more accepting of myself, and to do something that many would think is unconventional. It allowed me to find the real me, not the person I thought I should be.”
Life coach Sloan says our inner critic can be our worst enemy. “The negative self-talk we engage in, fuelled by our disappointment at not being where we think we should be in life can have a detrimental effect on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Once you see that being happy is more important than being perfect, you can live the life that you not only desire but deserve.”
Becky turned down her promotion and is re-evaluating her life. “For the first time ever, I’ve started to think about what will make me happy. I aimed high and found myself lonely and close to breaking point. It’s time to lower my expectations and accept that perfection is far from perfect.”
*Name has been changed