The burden of great expectations

Sep 23 2011 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Is your glass half empty or half full? Do you always look on the bright side of life? Having a positive outlook has been shown to deliver many benefits, not least a sense of wellbeing and confidence that often leads to success on the career ladder.

But according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, having an unrelentingly positive view of life can also bring with it unrealistic expectations. And if these are not fulfilled, previously high-performing individuals can turn into what the study terms "disaffected Pollyannas."

Researchers Olivia O'Neill, Laura Stanley and Charles O'Reilly followed the careers of 132 MBA students deemed to have high "trait positive affect" (PA) over an eight-year period. At the outset of the research, their levels of positivity and negativity were tested on a Positive and Negative Affect Scale and they also stated what they expected their lifetime salary to be.

A striking finding was that every one-unit increase in PA was mirrored by an increase in earnings expectation of $100,000.

Fast forward eight years and those individuals who are were not earning what they predicted were more likely to have switched jobs than those who started off with less ambitious hopes for their earning potential. In fact they had worked in an average of four jobs, compared with two for their less positive counterparts

But these job changes hadn't brought with them any greater sense of fulfillment. In fact those who expectations hadn't been met displayed lower levels of job satisfaction and were less happy overall in their lives.

As the BPS Occupational Digest explains:

The notion is that shopping around means that over time you get a sense of what is realistic and make your peace with what a reasonable job constitutes. But for high PA, the reverse was true, with more job shifts making them more frustrated, bemoaning the absence of the perfect job they are destined for.

So, as the study concludes, "the key to finding long-term satisfaction, then, may be managing expectations, rather than pursuing unrealistic ideals."