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Great Expectations of Change

written by Derrick Carpenter 22 January 2009

Derrick Carpenter, MAPP '07, is a founder of Vive Training where he coaches individuals and corporate clients on creating high-engagement lifestyles through physical and psychological wellness. Full bio.

Derrick's articles are here.

A Promise of Change

Hand happiness change responsibilityWith an eye on our January theme of change and this week’s inaugural address of America’s new President—a man who campaigned on the promise of change—I feel it is necessary to offer a positive psychology perspective on the way in which we handle our expectations for change. As the United States ushers in a new political leader, many people across the world have high hopes for change, whether that be in an improved state of the world economy, substantial progress towards global peace, or a greater sense of purpose to get them out of bed tomorrow morning. Whatever the desired change may be, many people are wondering whether their high expectations can possibly be met.

romantic change expectationAffective forecasting research suggests that our expectations related to emotional outcomes (i.e. changes that make us happier) are often too lofty. Paul Eastwick of Northwestern University and his colleagues have found that people overestimate their emotional reaction to a breakup with a romantic partner. Although they assume they will be unable to get out of bed, to eat, or to survive the day, when faced with the reality of a breakup, most people are able to continue on with life, albeit less happily. Eastwick and his team attribute this effect to an initial intensity bias, a tendency to exaggerate how strong our emotions will feel immediately following a change.

Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert finds that we also overestimate how long our emotional reactions to events will last. Studies by Gilbert and researchers at the Universities of Texas and Virginia find this duration neglect in response to rejection by a prospective employer and the defeat of one’s preferred candidate in an election. We tend not to be upset for as long as we expected. These are good rules of thumb to keep in mind whenever we have high hopes for change.

The Limitations of External Change

I believe that some of these findings are a result of our inability to accurately assess the effect of external changes on our internal condition. External changes refer to changes beyond the self. If your favorite sports team loses the big game or you find yourself rejected for a new position at work, you will expect to be devastated, but what you feel as you survive the disappointment will be more manageable than you imagined because the change was external, related to your environment and circumstances, but not to your character or identity.

beach happiness changeWriting from the chilly Northeast as I daydream about sunny beaches, I am reminded of what the UC San Diego Rady School of Managment’s David Schkade and Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman found about expectations for well-being based on location. Study participants predicted that individuals living in Southern California are happier than those living in the Midwest, but the actual happiness data is the same. Anyone who has spent a morning scraping ice of her windshield has been jealous of bikini-clad beach dwellers. But moving to sunny California won’t make you significantly happier than you are now. Unless, that is, you leverage your newfound advantages.

Leveraging External Change

If we know that a new political administration or a move to a tropical location won’t live up to our expectations, should we all just become cynical about change and accept the mediocre status quo? Absolutely not! We know that expecting change can have great positive outcomes and positive psychology is grounded by the fundamental ability of humans to create change in their lives. The problem comes when we place too much of the responsibility for expected change in the hands of an external agent like California. However, if we leverage the external changes to help us initiate internal change—taking personal responsibility for the outcome—we can come much closer to meeting our expectations.

Imagine a grumpy lawyer named Susan who, after scraping the ice off her windshield one cold morning in Chicago, decides in a fit of frustration to transfer to her firm’s San Diego office in the hope of a better life. It should be obvious—now that we’re experts in affective forecasting—that a grump from Chicago who moves to San Diego will simply be a grump with a better suntan. But what if Susan uses the move to reinvigorate herself and begins taking up more outdoor activities like jogging and tennis. Perhaps she joins some local recreational teams, and makes wonderful friends. Susan could have made similar changes while in Chicago (perhaps substituting bowling for tennis), but the move to California inspired her to take advantage of her new surroundings. External changes can mean big differences when we use the shift as a source of inspiration and momentum for internal transformation. Then our expectations of change can be transformed into tremendous opportunities.

Taking Personal Responsibility

Hand responsibility changeLet’s not kid ourselves. This is hard work. Grumpy Susan won’t make many friends unless she is committed to changing her attitude as well. But the hard work of internal change is where the real payoffs begin. President Obama stated in his Inaugural Address on Tuesday:  “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”

The President understands that he can only do so much and that the greatest change will be experienced by those who help create it. Those who idly sit back waiting for change should expect disappointment.

Draw your inspiration from your expectations for the external changes around you and use that to leverage your personal power for internal change. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Ghandi’s often-quoted suggestion reads so simply that it can be easily overlooked. Go back and read it again.

Acknowledgements: My humble gratitude to Alison Wood and Jason Zellner for their help with this month’s contribution.

Images:  All images from David Niblack.


Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2007). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. doi: 101016/j.jesp.2007.07.001

Gilbert, D. T., Wilson, D. W., Pinel, E. C., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 617-638.

Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does Living in California Make People Happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9(5), 340-347.

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Louis Alloro 22 January 2009 - 1:23 pm

Awesome, Derrick. Really powerful.

Yes, change has to come from within, but leveraging the environment as you say is so crucial. How do we expect people to begin recycling more unless we provide receptacles in places where garbage cans are normally found?

I like how you give good warning to us at this crossroads in presidential leadership: He is but ONE man and while his vision is inspiring, it will be up to US to help live it — to realize it — to create it. A good time for practitioners of Positive Psychology, I’d say!

Thanks again.

Aren Cohen 22 January 2009 - 2:07 pm


What a fantastic article. Thank you for making the political perrson, explaining to us what really motivates change and how we must “carpe diem” if we want to make the profound changes that make us happier and healthier.


Joan Young 23 January 2009 - 12:02 am

Great article Derrick! I think it is so important for us all to realize that it’s not just our president who has some tough work to do: it’s all of us, working together and taking responsibility.
I was listening to John Mayer’s song, “Waiting for the World to Change” this morning, and thinking how that song was born of a time when many were disenfranchised and unable to see themselves as part of any solution or contribution.

I hope we can mobilize, and have faith and hope that our efforts can truly be put into action like the Ghandhi quote: Be the Change You Wish to See in the World.

Iris Marie Bloom 28 January 2009 - 3:15 pm

Yay Derrick! I think many people are saying this same thing in many ways, reflecting the spirit of the inauguration, but not usually as eloquently as you, in such an organized fashion, with footnotes and pictures and links to boot!
I’ve been interested to observe the hope factor in terms of how it’s been playing out in my own life. I’ve noticed myself “raising the bar” in both small and large ways in response to the reality that new leadership is moving forward with, instead of against, many of my ideals. Someone powerful is providing leadership regarding emission limits; I’m doing more to organize for clean water, and have even started using a “gray water” system to conserve water in my own home. (I always knew it was a good thing to do, but was somehow too lazy to get around to it! But it’s so simple, even turns out to be fun!) Someone powerful is possibly being more constructive in the Middle East; I go out to events to listen to Palestinians, Israelis, Jewish peace activists, anthropologists and foreign policy experts so that I myself can become better informed and more engaged again, as I used to be. Someone powerful is giving a clear “no” to torture; I breathe a big sigh of relief and feel more space in my life to meditate, as I feel slightly less of a screaming emergency to respond, as a citizen, to the needs of the least visible and least powerful others whose lives are daily impacted by my government.
In this way, I actually believe a political environment is similar to a physical environment. Thus, to add another metaphor to your argument: People can write incredible poetry from a prison cell (which for political prisoners is both a political and a physical environment), using the most adverse circumstance as a catapault for creativity and spiritual development. Once the constraint of the cell is removed, they may at times find it challenging to re-organize their creative energy! But most people will then find a way to “raise the bar” for themselves, which is exactly what you are challenging our whole society to do now that the change in administration gives many idealists more room to organize for good.
That said, with all the focus amongst the punditry on keeping expectations within reason, let’s also keep in mind that sometimes the synergy between positive leadership and positive grassroots idealism in action can actually create a very dramatic positive difference throughout a society (the tremendously effective literacy and healthcare campaigns of Allende’s Chile, for example)…so, let’s not underestimate ourselves, either!

Iris Marie Bloom 28 January 2009 - 3:25 pm

Sorry y’all, my comments look so long and blocky! So here is my pledge for the future in the form of a “note to self”

Dear Iris,

You need to have compassion for the reader and keep your comments shorter and you need to learn how to make your paragraph breaks show up when you post comments! Otherwise people may think you are ranting, when actually you are saying subtle, interesting, positive, specific, useful things which expand our imagination of possible futures!

love and laughter,

Angie LeVan 29 January 2009 - 10:07 am

Derrick, what a fantastic article!! I truly enjoyed it and may post a link on facebook, urging my friends to read it!

Thank you!! Miss you!

Barry Elias 15 February 2009 - 9:14 am

January 22, 2009

Dear Mr. Carpenter:

“Great Expectations of Change,” as published January 22, 2009 by Positive Psychology News Daily, was quite prescient.

Your presentation comports with my belief that development occurs intrinsically and empowers self efficacy.

It is interesting that you note how extrinsic (external) events and/or environments can provide the impetus for positive, internal growth.

Your biographical information is quite impressive.

I would love to learn more about your work with Team Concepts (e.g., possible application of the Losada Line methodology).

Thank you kindly for your consideration.

Barry Elias


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