Why does a long-anticipated dinner in a gourmet restaurant leave us unmoved while we fondly remember a quick meal in a bustling tavern years later?

It has to do with our expectations.

We expected the world from the Michelin-starred restaurant and we got a good meal. We didn’t expect much from the hole-in-the-wall place and we got a good meal.

In each case, the outcome (a good meal) was the same. In the first case we were disappointed; in the second case we were thrilled.

The Satisfaction Equation

Satisfaction is a function of outcome and expectations.

satisfaction equation

When an outcome exceeds our expectations, we are satisfied. Even a poor outcome can leave us feeling satisfied if we expected worse.

There’s little we can do to ensure we experience only great outcomes. However, we can learn to experience more satisfaction, no matter what the outcome.

The key to increasing satisfaction is managing expectations.

This fact has wide-ranging implications for our health and well-being in the office and at home. It can mean the difference between burnout at 50 and rarin’ to go at 70.

Done is Better than Perfect

Consider the common affliction of perfectionism. Like Goldilocks, a perfectionist expects that everything should be “just right.” A report that contains brilliant insights is “worthless” if it is formatted poorly. The pitch that won your team a major contract was “rubbish” because it contained a minor error. And so on. Just as good can be the enemy of great, perfect is the enemy of done.

Facebook’s mantra reflects this truth: Done is better than perfect.

Psychiatrist David Burns says the “pursuit of perfection is arguably the surest way to undermine happiness and productivity.”

A healthy and happy individual is not a perfectionist but an optimalist who aims for the best possible outcome while accepting that failure is inevitable and treating it as an opportunity to learn.

What’s to Do?

Counter perfectionism. Apply a healthy dose of the Pareto Principle to everything you do. Remember that 80 percent of the outcome is determined by 20 percent of the effort. The struggle to achieve 100 percent perfection will leave you exhausted with little extra to show for it.

Fight all-or-nothing thinking. Watch out when you catch yourself thinking in absolutes such as “no one is interested in my idea,” “everyone is getting ahead of me,” or “my boss always interrupts me when I am speaking.”

Challenge the accuracy of these thoughts! Ask yourself whether it is true that no one is interested in your idea. You might answer: “Well, Harry said he was fascinated and Margaret asked some good questions in the meeting, so at least some people are interested.” Substitute more accurate statements for over-generalizations.

Learn from unpleasant situations. View a negative outcome as a chance to learn what to do differently. By deriving a future benefit (i.e. learning how to avoid the situation) you will be more satisfied. The Germans have a great expression for this: Lehrgeld zahlen. Pay your dues today. The money is well invested in ensuring your future satisfaction.

When someone criticizes you, take the criticism seriously and ask yourself “is there any truth to what they are saying?” Stay focused on the content of the criticism and what you can do to improve rather than getting bent out of shape about why the other person is criticizing you. Determine what you can do to remedy the situation.

Refrain from mind reading. When someone behaves unpleasantly (criticizes, complains, is indifferent or rude), we make the situation worse by inventing explanations for their behavior. We tell ourselves “that person is a real SOB” or “they don’t respect me” or “they’ve got it in for me.”

The fact is, we can’t know what is going on in another person’s mind or why they behave the way they do. So, stop trying to read their mind! Instead, remind yourself that the other person’s behavior is simply a reflection of where they are right now. If something has got their goat, it has more to do with them than it does with you.

Don’t take it personally. You may not like their behavior, but when you expect people to behave as they do, you will be less hurt and dissatisfied. With this new insight you may also take steps to change the other person’s behavior by empathizing and understanding where they are coming from. This is far more effective than the typical response to criticism which consists of denial, defense and dislike. 


Ben-Shahar, T. (2009). The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Constine, J. (2012). “Facebook’s S-1 Letter From Zuckerberg Urges Understanding Before Investment,” techcrunch.com.

Kuang, C. (2011). “Infographic Of The Day: 13 Rules For Realizing Your Creative Vision,” fastcodesign.com.

McKeown, G. (2013, 30 Oct). “Today, Just Be Average,” Harvard Business Review.

Image: Two Faces, Lajos Vajda (1934), Public Domain