Happiness is…Expectation Management

Public relations professionals continually hound their clients and employers about managing expectations. That is, we work to ensure that the expectations of a target audience don’t get so unrealistically optimistic that the audience becomes disappointed with the client/employer when an outcome inevitably doesn’t match unrealistic expectations.

For instance, if key stakeholders believe a company is certain to report that earnings have increased by 25 percent, the PR staffer may work overtime to convince the stakeholders that such an expectation is unrealistic, so the stakeholders don’t judge the company a failure if earnings have increased by “only” 10 percent.

The need to manage expectations effectively makes PR people into their organization’s Chief Wet-blanket Officer (CWO). We have to continually tell people, “let’s not state that quite so optimistically…”

Well, a recent CBS 60 Minutes story about Denmark indicates that expectation management is perhaps much more than just a tool for business and politics. Perhaps it is something much more profound — the elusive Key to Happiness.

Excerpts from the story:

Happiness is that quirky, elusive emotion that the Declaration of Independence maintains we have every right to pursue. And we do pursue it: we are suckers for an endless stream of self-help books that promise a carefree existence for a mere $24.95; and television hucksters of every kind claim they have the key to Nirvana. So the happiness business, at least, is one big smiley face.

As for the rest of us, the main scientific survey of international happiness carried out by Leicester University in England ranks the U.S. a distant 23rd, well behind Canada and Costa Rica. But you’ll be pleased to know we beat Iraq and Pakistan.

Over the past 30 years, in survey after survey, this nation (Denmark) of five and a half million people…consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes. It’s hard to figure: the weather is only so-so, they are heavy drinkers and smokers, their neighbors, the Norwegians, are richer, and their other neighbors, the Swedes, are healthier.

…after careful study, Christensen (Professor Kaare Christensen at the University of Southern Denmark) thinks he isolated the key to Danish anti-depression. “What we basically figured out that although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations they were pretty modest,” he says.

By having low expectations, one is rarely disappointed.

Christensen’s study was called “Why Danes Are Smug,” and essentially his answer was it’s because they’re so glum and get happy when things turn out not quite as badly as they expected. “And I was thinking about, What if it was opposite? That Denmark made the worst, number 20, and another country was number one. I’m pretty sure the Danish television would have said, ‘Well, number 20’s not too bad. You know it’s still in the top 25, that’s not so bad,'” he says.

History may also play a role in the country’s culture of low expectations. If you go to the government’s own Web site, it proudly proclaims “the present configuration of the country is the result of 400 years of forced relinquishments of land, surrenders and lost battles.”

Could it be that the true secret of happiness is a swift kick in the pants, or a large dose of humiliation?

Just some food for thought. Have a non-catatstrophic day!

– Loveland

tax filing kind

6 thoughts on “Happiness is…Expectation Management

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    An interesting segment especially when considered in the context of current psychological studies focussing more on the origins of happiness rather than simply the causes and treatment of pathology. Do you think that at least in western culture we’re ingrained from the outset to seek and expect “more”: better grades, better job, better income, better looks, better anything…? Does any shortfall from realizing this arbitrary script lead to dissatisfaction–unhappiness?

  2. jloveland says:

    This story took that position Dennis:

    “Do you think there’s some kind of inverse relationship between the more powerful you are, the more unhappy you are? And the weaker you are, the happier you are?” Safer asks.

    “Well, at least the pressure’s off you, you know?” Christensen says. “And if you’re doing pretty well and once in awhile there’s outstanding, you’re very happy about it. But if your starting point is you should be outstanding, that’s not good.

    …Danish students can fairly be described as utterly laid-back. Even so, they’re surprised to be told they live in “happiness ville.”

    “When I go abroad, I usually see people look much more happy. For example, in southern Europe. They go about in the streets laughing much more than we do. I think you could say maybe we are more content,” one male student tells Safer.

    “What’s the distinction you make between happiness and contentedness?” Safer asks.

    “Well, if you’re content you don’t have so much to worry about. That’s what I think,” the student says.

    …Denmark also provides free health care, subsidized child care and elder care, a social safety net spread the length and breadth of the country.

    “I mean, we’re pretty much free to do whatever we want. We’re secure from the day we’re born. For a Dane who lives in Denmark,” a male tells Safer.

    Fish and beer-a-holics they may be, but workaholics they are not: Dr. Christensen says the average work week is 37 hours, and workers get six weeks of vacation.

    …But in getting all of these wonderful gifts from the government, the Danes do pay a price. Christensen says a middle income person would pay about 50 percent – half – in taxes.

    And that is one trade-off most Americans are not willing to make. Americans, according to Harvard Psychology lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, want it all.

    “In America, part of the ethos, part of the American dream, is that more is better and the more is better usually applies to the material realm. And that doesn’t pan out. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t make us happier,” he says.

    …”The number one predictor of well-being is close friendships and close relationships in general, which includes of course, family relationships. Much better predictor of well-being than affluence is,” Ben-Shahar says.

    Ben-Shahar says Americans could learn a lot about happiness from the Danes. “It is about having realistic expectations. It’s about not trying to fit in more than we can handle. We can’t handle it all. We can’t have it all. But we can have a lot,” he says.

    “You’ve lived in the states. You visited the states,” Safer asked a man. “Would you live there?”

    “It’s got a grandness to it that you can never imagine here in Denmark. Because it’s on a much larger scale. And the differences are much, much bigger. But I wouldn’t want my children to grow up there,” the man replied.

  3. Dennis Lang says:

    Great subject! Returning to the p/r industry for a moment, might the adept p/r guru capitalize on this sensibility of our “high personal expectation” in product marketing? For instance,drug company GlaxoSmithKline with p/r firm Cohn and Wolfe turned shyness from a personality trait into a personality disorder. It was as though they created a medical condition–shyness becoming a dysfunction– and Paxil was the miracle cure, playing off the self-perception of the shy person that they must be less than normal. Did they manufacture a health problem, and oh, by-the-way, here’s just the right fix for it?

  4. jloveland says:

    If shyness keeps you from leading the kind of life you want to live — from finding friends or a life partner, or from being employed in your preferred field — then it’s a big problem. To me, promoting a solution to that problem isn’t dishonorable.

    The problem is when marketing talks people into a problem. That is, they didn’t think shyness was ruining their life until an ad persuaded them so. Mass media direct-to-consumer drug advertising — a relatively new phenomenon — makes this more likely.

    Direct-to-consumer drug ads have raised expectations that there is no problem that a pill can’t solve. As that expectation gets jacked up, unaddressed problems perhaps cause more angst than they used to. Before ads: I have nail fungus. Whatever. After ads: Nail fungus, eeek. Must have pill. Must not have little green men living in toes!

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