The wisdom of raising expectations

No politician ever has got in trouble by lowering expectations. You hear and see it every day in the coverage of the Republican presidential campaign. (Google “Gingrich” and “expectations,” you’ll get 18.3 million results.)

So why is Gov. Dannel P. Malloy raising expectations about his plans for education reforms in 2012? Everything is big, bigger and best with our striving governor, who always is looking for a new yardstick by which to measure his administration.

He did it again Wednesday talking about education. He promised that his plan would be “the most far-reaching in our state’s history and probably one of the most far-reaching in the nation.”


What can he deliver to meet those expectations?

Roy Occhiogrosso, his senior adviser and chief message-shaper, said, “He’s doing it on purpose.”

The governor’s view is that the best way to lead a state toward change is set the bar as high as possible, he said.

“He is very explicit about where he wants to take this state and the goals he thinks we need to have in order to get there,” Occhiogrosso said. “He’s been doing this since day one.”

Last year, Malloy didn’t just promise to balance the budget, itself a tough task given the state’s structural deficit. He pledged an “honest budget,” free of the gimmicks that typically help a governor balance the books in tight times.

(Whether he succeeded is a longer conversation, given the savings in health costs his administration is projecting.)

“If you strive for an A-plus and fall a bit short, you still get an A,” Occhiogrosso said. “If you strive for mediocre, where do you end up?”

Um, satisfied?

In an essay about happiness and lowered expectations in 2009, Eric Weiner noted that surveys consistently find Denmark to be the happiest nation on earth. The reason? Reasonable expectations.

Weiner says Danes would make good Buddhists: “They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

“Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the ‘hedonic treadmill.’ That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.”

No one is likely to suggest that Dan Malloy would make a good a Buddhist. But the Buddha, who taught that patience is humility, didn’t have to confront a stagnant economy, low test scores and the prospect of standing for re-election in 2014.