Expectations – the source of hope and the seed of discontent

OPINION: Expectations are the spice of life. As the saying goes (paraphrasing a bit) it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive to find disappointment. Expectations tend to be high at this time of year with the weather steadily improving and Christmas now well and truly on the horizon. For some that will mean Xmas trees and presents and for others the chance to catch up with family and friends. Expectations are usually high but sometimes the reality is not so hot. Christmas is, unfortunately, a busy time for the Police in dealing with family disputes and the like.

Contentment in life (I think contentment rather than happiness is the best word to use) is to some extent about managing our expectations of life at a reasonable level. There may be a time when things are going well and it seems like it can only get better – and expectations for the future are escalated accordingly. When things don’t work out there is disappointment or discontent. The trick is to recognise that special moments are just that – they are to be treasured when they occur but not really expected to become the new norm.

I think that is particularly true as you get older. Most people develop generally rosy expectations of what life will be like when they retire from work, and sometimes things work out that way. They are the fortunate ones. For others, retirement can be a disappointment. That is particularly true if proposed retirement involves galloping around the place like a 40-year-old instead of accepting that age brings some unavoidable limitations.

For some people, the limitations are unexpected and can be severe, and I have had a taste of that myself because of health issues. In those circumstances, it is important to be realistic about cutting back the “bucket list” (or your expectations) to match what is feasible – or more positively rewriting the bucket list so its revised goals can still be achieved. The key is to be content with what life has handed out and not pine for the unachievable.

Humans have been blessed with the intelligence to work all of that out. But interestingly the issue of expectations affects animals as much as it does humans – so there is something in the way that all animal brains are wired that is common.

The cautionary tale of a seagull with unreasonable expectations

This is the cautionary tale of a seagull with unreasonable expectations!! Yes, it turns out that birds like seagulls suffer from the same problem.

Seagulls abound on the Kapiti Coast where we have a beach house and the red-bills particularly are a cheeky breed. They will take the food off your plate given half a chance. Seagulls tend to be scavengers, i.e. they will eat whatever happens to be going. Because they look “cute” there is a temptation to feed the seagulls but you soon discover they once they have you taped as a source of food they are very difficult to get rid of. The only option is to resist giving them any food whatsoever and eventually they give up.

So, my wife and I went through a period when we did feed the seagulls, got heartily sick of the way they messed up the roof and the windows with their excrement, and went through the withdrawal process. All save for one seagull who happened to have a deformed leg and looked particularly forlorn when hopping around our back lawn. My wife felt sorry for the seagull (Let’s call him “Limpy” for the sake of this story) so kept feeding him – ideally in a targeted way so the other seagulls would not be encouraged.

Two interesting things happened.

The first was that the other seagulls cottoned on to the fact that “Limpy” was getting special treatment and kept a very close eye on his movements. Many a time Limpy appeared to be on this own so he got fed – but that was an illusion. Usually, within about 10 seconds the rest of the seagull population arrived, from where I have no idea. They also very quickly cottoned on to our little tricks like pretending to throw the food in one direction (or throwing a very small morsel) while the real food went in the other direction to Limpy.

But the most interesting discovery of all was that Limpy developed expectations which had a huge influence on his feeding behaviour. At the start, he would eat anything. Then we began to give him the fatty offcuts from our ham. And on occasion, he got some of the meat instead of just the fat. Not surprising he rather liked being fed that well but it was soon clear his experiences had coloured his expectations for the future.

Bear in mind that we are talking about a disfigured bird who I would guess would struggle in competition for food with healthy seagulls. However, he is now at the point where he won’t touch scraps like bread, even if he is surrounded by them, and is even inclined to turn up his nose at offcuts of fat or even fish. It is either genuine ham meat or nothing!! Well, the reality is that this unreasonable expectation means that most of the time he makes do with nothing.  But that seems to have done nothing to change the basic behaviour. He seems to be a permanent presence around our beach house and has continued to reject any food that does not meet his high expectations.

So, it seems that even birds like seagulls can develop unreasonable expectations but it would seem – from this one case anyway – that they have difficulty in discerning when the expectations have become unreasonable, will not be met, and should be abandoned in favour of something more reasonable.

So, I guess there is a lesson in this little tale for all of us!


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.