How Lowering Your Expectations Makes You Happier

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: September 16, 2016

When I moved to New York City and, in turn, launched into a new life, my expectations were high. I assumed I would be in and out of gallery openings, lunching at the latest hole-in-the-wall spots, and soaking in amazing skyline views every night of the week. But it didn’t quite happen like that.

More moments than not, I found myself lonely, underwhelmed and tired. These feelings followed me until I redefined the expectations of what my life in a new city (and as a fully functioning adult) should be. According to a study by the University College of London, “happiness does not depend on how well things are going, but on whether they are going better or worse than expected.”

After graduating from college, I accepted an $8.25-an-hour internship in New York City and made the move from Dallas, Texas. Now a year later, after making financial, living, and really everything, changes, it’s easier to demystify what helped me settle into The City That Never Sleeps.

These are the expectations my year-ago self would have better managed before bursting onto the bustling streets with big eyes and a small bank account.

Related: 3 Inspiring Life Lessons I Learned From Everyday Heroes

1. Lower your living standards.

You are not getting a one-bedroom apartment. You are not getting a charming studio straight out of Sex and the City. Moving to a new city without connections most likely means couch-surfing the first few months and then finding a place just within your budget that includes total strangers for roommates. Once you come to terms with what you can afford, what amenities you’re willing to sacrifice and what is available, the apartment search and settling in process gets easier. I promise.

In fact, living with random roommates who have similar financial situations can be a bonding experience. Embrace your respective differences and learn about their backgrounds and jobs—these are the people you have to come home to every day, so try to find some common ground. Forging positive relationships in an otherwise underwhelming living space can make for an amazing first apartment experience.

2. Making friends is different. Expect it.

Stock images of a large group of trendy New York City socialites clinking glasses and swapping office romance stories lead people to believe they will have a core group of friends who meet up multiple times a week for happy hours at the latest roof-top bar. For most, this isn’t the case. Moving to a professionally competitive city often means people won’t have traditional work schedules. Some of your friends might have to travel every other weekend. Others are bartending nights to compensate for a starter salary. A glamorous happy hour with your besties is more the exception than the rule. I learned to branch out.

By interacting with multiple circles of friends rather than just one ensured I was always expanding my horizons. I’m always meeting new people with different interests, different back stories and different perspectives. Hold on to these new relationships. They can mean as little as a new Friday-night friend or as much as a new contact for future professional opportunities.

3. Say yes to everything (yes, everything).

Saying yes to everything can lead to glamorous adventures—or crusty dive bars. Most likely the latter, but it is still important to say yes! Agreeing to do things that aren’t up your alley might not produce a “story for the books,” but it will probably result in a few laughs, which is worth a lot.

Social media posts pressure us to go to the “best party,” but remember, you’re only seeing someone’s perfectly filtered highlight reel. Enjoy the time you spend with those who take the time to extend an invitation to you. Don’t worry about what night you could be having if you had gone somewhere else. Play foosball in a dimly lit dive. Take a midnight stroll through a park you would never have gone to. Sometimes the best memories are the ones you didn’t plan for. As Shonda Rhimes writes, “Everything sounds like crap until you are in the right mindset.”

4. Sad desk lunches are OK.

Fast-paced cities and fast-paced jobs mean not getting the breaks you were promised in orientation. It might not be fun, but your career is top priority. The extra time now will pay off in the long run.

Use this opportunity to cook more. Try those Tasty video recipes you keep saving and never use. Try that trendy diet your friends have been telling you about. Then try another one. Nothing is set in stone so make up your mind and then change it. Then change it again.

5. Embrace monotony.

Even in the most chaotic city in the world, you will have a schedule. And it will get old. You will not be able to have a fabulous, strut-down-the-street-in-new-shoes day every day. Get used to it. Being on a schedule is part of being an adult, and being an adult, let’s face it, can be boring. Although you shouldn’t let a schedule dictate your entire life, don’t get down on yourself because you went to work, came home, ate dinner and were asleep by 10 p.m. Monday through Friday for the past four weeks.

There is beauty in routine. It can keep you sane (and save you money). Trying to do too much could keep you from focusing on your budding career. Sticking to a schedule can make the transition to a new city feel less overwhelming.

Remember the feeling that brought you here in the first place. Hold onto that when the days get long and the weekends too short. You’re just starting out, and it’s all uphill from here.

Related: 10 Pieces of Career Advice for My 21-Year-Old Self