Reality Check: Optimism or Entitlement?

Which do you think leads to a happier, more satisfied life: Expecting that life will be easy and becoming disappointed when you learn that it’s difficult? Or expecting life to be hard and being pleasantly surprised when some things work well?

In these columns, my general suggestion is that we’re more likely to create satisfying lives if we adopt a positive, optimistic outlook rather than a negative, pessimistic one. However, sometimes we (and others) behave as if we’ve confused optimism with entitlement.

What’s the difference?

Optimism helps us entertain the possibility that positive outcomes could happen. When we’re optimistic, we tend to take action toward that positive outcome, which in turn, makes it more likely to happen.

A sense of entitlement comes when we believe that we deserve the positive outcome that we want. It’s associated with the choice to be dissatisfied if the positive outcome that we think “should” happen does not happen.

For example, in your job, you are entitled to be paid for the work you do. You may be optimistic that you will do specific tasks, love your work and make workplace friends.

However, you are not entitled to love your work, to have friends, or to perform only the tasks that you love to do. Your ‘entitlement’ is limited.

When you believe that you are entitled to an outcome that’s not, in fact, an entitlement, you set yourself up for unhappiness.

Entitlements and optimism show up all over.

In marriage, for example, you may be entitled to believe that your spouse will be faithful. You may be optimistic that your spouse will always respond positively to your wishes.

What happens if you confuse entitlement with optimism? If you believe that you are entitled to a spouse who positively responds to everything you want, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Whether your goal is a job, a relationship, a training program, or even a vacation, you can choose your beliefs around entitlements and optimism.

For example, in a training program, you are entitled to competent teaching. You can be optimistic that even though the work may be difficult, you can succeed through hard work and persistence.

In your job, you are entitled to your pay. You can be optimistic that even though work entails unpleasant tasks, through diligence, you will have opportunities for more enjoyable work in future.

In your relationship, you may be entitled to believe that your spouse will treat you with respect and consideration. You can be optimistic that even though you will sometimes have bumpy times, with love and working together, the two of you will build a satisfying life.

If you choose a belief that you are entitled—that life or society or an individual owes you, then you give up something very powerful. You relinquish the recognition that you are in charge of your own life. You can choose your own expectations.

When choosing between entitlement and optimism, consider which choice will provide more happiness and long-term satisfaction.

I believe that optimism is helpful, particularly when it motivates us to take steps toward achieving the positive outcomes that we want. It’s not so helpful to fall into the trap of choosing to feel entitled, because that puts our happiness under the control of others.

Earlier columns suggested that expressing gratitude and letting go of grudges can help with happiness. This column’s suggestion is to cultivate optimism rather than entitlement. Do you think that’s helpful?

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