Not really a psychological article, is it? And yet, it’s probably one of the hardest things for us all to think about. The what was, the what could have been and the what will be? Our hopes, dreams and expectations.
As far as we know from the study of animal behaviour hopes, dreams and expectations are not exclusive human concepts. Of course consciousness, as we know it in humans, permits forethought, consideration of the future, of what could be, of ‘the end’ – death, that frightening yet inevitable finish line by which we must attempt to achieve everything we want. Or else be at peace with what we did.
But expectations, ritual, needing things in their right place – that’s not exclusively human. I’m sure if you have a pet you’ve noticed the phenomenon of them meeting you at the door. Maybe someone pet sits and they’re like “They were waiting by the door for you – must have known you were coming home?” well, yes. Many animals have an acute awareness of time. Cats, for example, are very spatio-temporal. They organise their territories as such, your garden might be your cat’s during the day but night is a different matter and the cats know this. When they have a disagreement about it is when you get the howling and wailing.
Why the howling and wailing? Because one or other of them was expecting that space to themselves and didn’t get it. Whatever the reason, to chill out and lick their genitals, to sniff corners of things, to rub their head on stuff, to hunt – the reason doesn’t matter. What matters is the expectation, an expectation that wasn’t met.
This, then, causes a conflict – in this case a stand-off, possibly a fight. The cat is distressed, to give it any other emotional label would be anthropomorphising, I think. It causes the cat elevated levels of stress hormones, increased heart rate, perhaps piloerection, that’s when hairs stand on end and not some weird dick thing. All signs that humans experience, too, when they are disrupted and distressed.
As far as we can tell, though, cats live in the moment – cognitively. They’re not masters of mindfulness or anything. Their disruption is present “My ritual behaviour led me to expect this territory to be solely occupied by me. There is another cat. That is a disruption. I am distressed. I will deal with this disruption by either standing my ground or running away. I shall learn from this experience and future behaviours shall be shaped by it.” As far as I know that’s the cat thought process.
Humans, though, well disappointment punches us in the future, too. Our response might be “My ritual behaviour led me to expect this territory to be solely occupied by me. There is another person. That is a disruption. I am distressed. I will deal with this disruption by either standing my ground or running away. I shall learn from this experience and future behaviours shall be shaped by it…But I’m scared. What if this happens again? What if this happens next Tuesday when I’m supposed to be getting my MRI and some other bastard just walks in? What if this happens when I’m on the toilet? Who is this damn invader? Is this how things are going to be in the future?”
Cats might fear a place where they have had and lost a conflict. Forcing a cat to be in that place may cause it exceptional stress and fear. But they won’t necessarily have the same reaction at the mere thought of that place. The idea of ‘going’ – a future tense – to that place is not enough to cause stress. It can in humans.
We’re insensitive about that. “If at first you don’t succeed…”, “Good things come to those who wait,”, “When one door closes another one opens,” – It’s not true, though, is it?
We’ve talked about various cognitive biases before and they all tie in to disappointment; whether selective biases, confirmation biases etc. cause us to believe something should be; or whether things like the just-world hypothesis lead us to believe that so long as you try hard enough you’ll eventually ‘win’.
The problem is it just doesn’t work like that. Human disappointment is inevitable. Sometimes things won’t go your way. Your football team won’t win every match, you won’t get every promotion, you probably won’t get 100% on every test and unfortunately some, if not the majority of the electorate, will vote for that political party you hate.
But we also need to accept that some people’s lives, try as they might, don’t seem to ever go according to plan!
This is not a personal failing or fault. Bad luck is, but also various biases humans possess lead us to mistrust those who fail, we see them as a bad omen. Someone who has been long-term unemployed looking to get back into the job market may be a bundle of energy reading-and-willing to learn and hit the ground running – but people will employ the safe option. People are naturally risk averse. This makes the unlucky ones also feel responsible. Those who suffer disappointment probably take more ownership of their disappointments caused by others than people who are successful give due credit to the others who helped them, or to luck, which certainly played (the major) part.
Making the world ‘just’ and avoiding disappointment, it’s not a personal matter. It’s actually a social one!
We need to help each other succeed.
Something of modern life, the anonymity of it, the disconnect from the community, has made bad luck and disappointing lives a personal fault. But when you analyse the lives of the chronically disappointed you see people failed, time and again, by others, by society and – yes – often by themselves. But, rarely themselves first, they usually give up on themselves once others, once life, once circumstances and luck have had their shots.
What’s more we see people fighting back, trying their best to overcome all these disappointments only to be judged on their past, rather than them as they currently are.
I think this has to change if we are to improve as a society. I know it has to change for me. Because I have been one big disappointment after another and you might be thinking “But mate, haven’t you nearly won major writing competitions, done really well at X, Y and Z and are 400.000 words deep in one of the greatest casual educational projects ever? The kind of thing it should be impossible for 1 person to achieve in six months and yet you’ve done it! You’re a hit!”
Nah, I’m not. Yesterday I busted my arse on articles seen by a handful of people. I don’t get paid a penny. My living situation is far from ideal.
There are stages of dealing with disappointment you go through. Realising that I was never going to score the winning goal for Everton at the Kop end of Anfield, hopefully in a really important game like a league decider or something. I can live with that. I’ll just fantasise about it. I wasn’t even much good at football. Cricket, though, I was really good at that and realise I’d never don the whites for a local club, never mind England. That was a disappointment.
But…I’m at a stage now when I’m starting to think my life situation might not permit me to have even the ‘normal’ things I wanted.
Worthwhile employment. I’ve been out of the game for nearly 10 years now, and it hurts. Every time I apply for something and I get told how great I am but how I’m not what people are looking for it’s a bitter disappointment. I get angry at those disappointments.
A partner. You shouldn’t need another to feel fulfilled but I let myself get close to very few people, having someone I can be my ‘true’ self with is not only a huge comfort but a refuge. What’s more I thought I had my ‘one’ – as it were – and then that disappeared in a confusing, disappointing, saddening wisp of smoke. I still have no idea what went wrong which makes me tentative to leave the past behind and move on because I fear I must have made some dreadful mistake.
A family. I’ve always wanted one, at least one child. But it takes me a long time to trust people, to form a relationship and time is running out.
None of this would be a problem if I was a cat. I’d have no conception that my disappointments are likely to extend into a future, there is no predictive capability.
But alas, I’m not a cat. I’m a disappointed man, with a disappointing life, trying to be more appointed and finding other people – well very few of them, anyway – will do me any favours.
You can read more about neurological and psychological phenomena and how they mess up my life in the ‘My Life and…’ Series.
My Life and Learned Helplessness
My Life and the Halo Effect
My Life and Executive Dysfunction
My Life and Autism
My Life and Intolerance to Uncertainty
My Life and Rejection