They say that success begins with belief. To achieve the future we want, we have to believe we can. We have to set our expectations high.

This advice is difficult to implement because we can’t edit our beliefs at will. If we don’t already believe we’re going to succeed, how do we make ourselves believe it?

That’s a hard question. Fortunately, we don’t have to change our beliefs to get the benefits of positivity. We simply have to change our habits of imagination. 

What really matters is not “What do we believe?” but “How much time do we spend imagining positive versus negative outcomes?” 

If we’re going to take a trip tomorrow then we’ll surely think about the trip from time to time today. If all this anticipation amounts to twenty minutes, how many of those minutes will we spend visualizing a pleasant, successful trip? And how many of those minutes will we spend visualizing an awkward trip full of complications? Is it ten versus ten? Five versus fifteen? Or fifteen versus five? 

Our belief about the trip doesn’t really matter. Reality doesn’t “care” whether we’d answer a questionnaire saying “I believe the trip is going to go well” or “I believe the trip will be a disaster.” What might have an impact on the trip is the way we choose to spend our anticipation time. 

We’re under no obligation to dedicate our mental energy to imagining outcomes in a way that’s proportionate with their respective likelihoods. We can choose to spend more time visualizing a positive version of the trip, and less time visualizing a negative one, no matter which outcome we think is the most probable.

Of course, there’s a risk in being too positive, only imagining scenarios that please us. We could miss our flight if we don’t plan for the rush-hour traffic we might face en route to the airport. The day before the trip, it’s helpful to spend a few moments thinking of traffic and how it could delay us. Negative anticipation is a kind of rehearsal that helps us prepare for the situations we’ll need to handle. 

But at some point, a negative visualization fails to offer any new, useful information and begins to hurt us. We could spend so much time worrying about a traffic disaster that we forget to pack our passport. The more attention we give to negative scenarios, the more anxious we feel, and anxiety is not a recipe for good performance. 

If we allow ourselves to envision a smooth, successful trip to the airport we might then have the calmness, the presence of mind to remember other things we need to do to prepare, like packing important documents. Positive anticipation can lead to relaxation – clarity of thought – which helps us make better decisions.

If we were to choose the most beneficial strategy for anticipating the future, what would it be?

Of course, a mix is necessary: we should spend some time considering negative possibilities and some time considering positive ones. But ideally, we’d spend only as much time on the negative possibilities as required to get the useful information they contain. For many people who tend to worry, they’re allocating more time to negative anticipation than the value it returns. They’d get more value from having a positive bias.

To see that value, we can think of our expectations of the future almost like invisible furniture that occupies space in the room where we happen to be. There might be a table here, a chair there, and further in the distance, visible only in our imagination, there’s the event that’s going to happen tomorrow.

Are we situated in a comfortable room, where we can be at ease and do our best work? Or is the table slanted, the chair full of spikes, and the events in the future menacing, like rabid tigers, keeping us in a state of nervous tension – a mode of self-defense – that blinds us to possibilities for contentment?

By dedicating more time to positive anticipation, it’s as though we’re making our room friendlier, more hospitable. In turn, we get the benefits that come from feeling safe.

If it’s possible to do this, if we’re free to choose a positive bias in how we spend our time anticipating the future, why do so many people have a negative bias? Why are so many people afraid of having positive expectations?

There’s a side effect that comes with positive expectations, and many of us fear that side effect. 

Positive expectations can lead to attachment, dependency. They can set us up for disappointment.

We might imagine the trip going well, and that’s a calming thought. But then we imagine the trip going really well. We think of the people we’re going to meet – maybe there’s a romance in the cards, or a possible job offer. Maybe we’re going to love the destination so much that we’ll plan more trips there, or even relocate? Maybe this trip is going to be the lucky break we’ve been hoping for? Perhaps life has been so tedious and frustrating recently that we really need this one thing to go well for a change.

Now we’re attached to this desirable version of the future that we’ve imagined. We’ve made a transition from “I see it going well” to “I need it to go well. I’m counting on it.” Just by imagining all the positive results that could flow from this trip, we’ve raised the stakes.

Once we come to mentally depend on a specific outcome, we face an increased sense of danger and risk. The risk of not getting the outcome we want. The risk of not getting the only outcome that’s acceptable to us. The risk of loss.

So while positive expectations of the future might put us at ease to begin with, they can backfire in time, developing into attachments that breed fear and anxiety.

Many people try to preempt these attachments by holding negative expectations – not because they’re hoping to learn something that’ll help them deal with practical challenges that arise – but because they’re trying to manage their own emotions. 

The idea is that if we expect a negative outcome, we won’t become attached to it. In fact, we’re setting ourselves up for a pleasant surprise if we don’t get this negative outcome that we expect. There’s logic in this anticipatory technique, but it has a major drawback. Again it subjects us to the stress of imagining ourselves in a hostile environment, with menace on the horizon.

There’s a better way to steel ourselves for negative outcomes. Instead of being pessimistic, always “sure” that something’s going to go poorly, we can ask a question: if it does go poorly, what’s the worst that could happen? Usually the answer is that we’d still be OK. We’d find a way to cope. We’d move on.

We can even visualize our resilience – seeing the trip going all wrong, but seeing ourselves handling the mishaps with poise. We can take comfort in trusting that even when external outcomes do not unfold in our favor, we’ll be able to find a positive “inner outcome” – a positive internal experience that is distinct from the events that happen around us. The trip might turn out to be a disaster with flight delays, a crappy hotel room, bad weather, and missed appointments – but we’ll find ways to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all and come back in one piece, and maybe even with a new appreciation for our current home.

Meditation is a good way to rehearse this attitude of detachment, equanimity, unflappability. On the surface, meditation is about relinquishing one specific kind of attachment – our attachment to thoughts themselves. But the magic of meditation is that by relinquishing our attachment to any particular thought, we also loosen our attachment to the thing we’re thinking about. In taking a detached attitude to the mental phenomenon relating to the trip – allowing this set of ideas and images to enter our mind and then dissipate without pursuing or clinging to them – we actually gain detachment from the content of that mental phenomenon – we gain detachment from the trip itself.

While I was meditating the other morning, the thoughts that happened to enter my mind were all positive expectations. I was looking forward to a trip of my own. I imagined it going well. This happy thought was no bother to me, but the process of meditation called for me to release it just like I would release any other thought.

After this meditation session, I found an insight waiting for me. Allowing the thought of the trip to pass through my mind and leave had shown me that although I was excited about the trip, I wasn’t dependent on it going well. The trip could turn out any particular way, or it could simply not happen, and I’d still be my same self, taking one breath after another, just like I was doing now. 

The session gave me a similar experience with other positive expectations that I was holding in mind. For each of several upcoming events – finishing an essay, taking delivery of a product I had ordered, meeting a friend for dinner – meditation helped me release my attachment to this situation turning out any particular way.

If attachment is the root of suffering, I now had a chance to see what it’s like to loosen many attachments at once. It was freeing and empowering for sure. But I found that in this newly detached mindset, with my positive expectations in repose, I wasn’t exactly blissful.

My mind was full of the idea that “I’ll be OK even if things don’t go well.” But that’s a complex idea with at least two components. One component is my own resilience. But the other is an image of things not going well. 

While it’s empowering to think that I’d be able to survive any disaster, this thought requires imagining a disaster. The trip being miserable. The product being defective. The essay not getting done. The dinner with my friend being unpleasant because the restaurant was too loud for us to hear each other. 

No matter that I’m seeing myself survive in each case, these are still “disasters.”  These images still bring that sense of physical unease that can come with negative anticipations that place us in an environment of threat. Yes, it’s worthwhile and somewhat comforting to think that “I’ll be OK even if things don’t go well,” but on a primal level, it feels better to simply think “Things are going to go well. I’m sure of it!”

When we go very far in the direction of releasing our positive expectations and contemplating our own resilience in the face of undesirable outcomes – we might come to think that we’ve arrived at a more “objective” perspective on reality. Our view is no longer colored by our attachments, no longer clouded by our hopes and needs. We’re finally seeing things “as they are.” We’re finally acknowledging that reality is impartial – it doesn’t work for us or against us – it just is. We understand that we shouldn’t be upset when things don’t go our way, because there are no guarantees in life. In fact, success is scarce. The idea that things are “supposed” to happen how we want is an illusion that leads to suffering. Finally, we are seeing beyond that illusion and we can take pride in our newfound clarity.

But how does this “clarity” actually feel?

It can feel quite stark.

And this is where we have an important choice. If we’ve done the work of releasing our attachments – through meditation or another contemplative practice –  to arrive at a place where we’re “free” from expectations, where we’re not depending on positive external outcomes for our inner wellbeing – we have to decide if that’s precisely where we’ll stay.

Should we embrace this neutral viewpoint, where we do not envision reality as being “for” us or “against” us, and where we can’t be disappointed by any particular outcome because we’re not expecting anything in particular? Or should we allow a bit of hope, a bit of faith back into our outlook? Even a bit of magic or mysticism?

It might seem that in the interest of clear thinking, in the interest of knowing the “truth,” we should relinquish our expectations so that we can always see situations “as they are.” We should stay in a place of detachment.

But if we’re interested in clear thinking, we should also notice that we can think more clearly when we feel at ease. When we imagine ourselves in a friendly environment. When we’re able to relax. When something good is on the horizon. That’s when we can see more possibilities and make more connections. That’s when we can be more spontaneous and more creative. 

In some sense, it might be “true” that reality doesn’t care about us, but we can still benefit both emotionally and intellectually by imagining that it does. To attain this benefit of positivity, we don’t have to believe anything in particular, we just have to dedicate a bit more time, more mental energy to imagining favorable outcomes, and a bit less time to imagining unfortunate ones. 

If a dish is oversalted, we might want to prepare it again, holding back the salt. But it’ll taste better if we still add a little salt in at the end. So too, when our positive expectations begin to backfire on us, leading to attachment and dependency, we should practice letting these expectations go. But if we succeed in this, if we reach a place of emptiness – free from attachment, free from dependency, free from expectation – that’s not necessarily where we should remain. We might feel better if we allow some positive anticipation back into the mix.

Yes, they say that success begins with belief. To achieve the future we want, we have to believe we can achieve it. We have to set our expectations high. 

We’ve seen that this “path to success” is also a path developing attachments that cause suffering. We’ve seen that positivity has a side effect. Wonderful, bright, cheerful, positive expectations can train us to become dependent on their coming true, resulting in misery if they don’t.

When we see these attachments forming, we should practice dissolving them. We should understand that we can have inner peace whether we attain our desired outcomes or not. But then having understood this, we should make space for those positive expectations to return.

We get to choose the room we live in, and if we’re looking to manifest the best in ourselves, it helps to be in a friendly room, where we feel welcome, and safe enough to concentrate on the work we’ve chosen to do. ■

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