Valentine's Day: Don't expect too much and you'll be happier

It might seem rather unromantic to be a pessimist, but setting the bar low when it comes to expectations for a happy Valentine's Day could be a good strategy for feeling better on Feb. 14.

Set the bar low and you could be pleasantly surprised on Feb. 14

If you keep your expectations for Valentine's Day in check, there's a better chance you won't be disappointed on Feb. 14. (luminaimages/Shutterstock)

At first blush, it seems rather unromantic to be a pessimist.

But setting the bar low when it comes to expectations for a happy Valentine's Day could be a good strategy for feeling better on Feb. 14.

"On Valentine's Day, people often tend to have these unrealistically high expectations for their partners," says Samantha Joel, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto whose psychology research delves deeply into romantic relationships.

"They want their partners to wow them and blow them away with some moving, grand, romantic to-do, and that expectation itself is probably setting them up for disappointment."

The problem is, she says, "you simply can't wow someone who is expecting to be wowed."

Even trying to find the right Valentine's card can be a bit overwhelming. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Of course, it can be hard to ignore the pressure that builds up to make Valentine's a special day, be it personal or commercial, particularly with stores pushing cards, chocolates and other heart-bespeckled things or florists touting the need to order the roses early.

In the U.S. alone, the National Retail Foundation is estimating total Valentine's spending on candy, flowers, clothes and other items will hit a high of $18.9 billion this year.

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In Canada, Walmart is expecting more than 60 per cent of Canadians will spend an average of $177 on Valentine's.

Joel's idea that it may be better to keep expectations in check on Valentine's Day flows from research she and colleagues from U of T and Carleton University in Ottawa are doing about relationships.

Expect less

"When it comes to concrete, specific things that your partner does for you, the fewer things you expect on a day-to-day basis, the happier you are," says Joel, whose relationship research caught the eye of the New York Times this week.

The letdown on Valentine’s Day is mainly around an expectation not being met.- Hina Khan

And there doesn't seem to be a lower limit on those expectations. "The more pessimistic people are, the greater boost to well-being they experience," Joel says.

In other words, as Joel and her colleagues have suggested, it may be better to "under-promise and over-deliver" when it comes to doing things to bolster a relationship.

That suggestion rings true for Hina Khan, a Toronto-based personal coach and psychotherapist who has appeared as a relationship expert on CBC-TV's Steven and Chris.

"The idea to 'under-promise' is all about managing expectations," Khan said in an email.

"The letdown on Valentine’s Day is mainly around an expectation not being met. The week leading up to the big day, one partner may be having a mental movie of what they see happening, only to see the reality fall short."

And that, she says, can leave someone feeling deflated, hurt and frustrated. 

"But if they weren’t expecting much and then the partner over-delivers, they will be pleasantly surprised and really touched."

Wouldn't you know?

Still, if you're in a decent relationship, and you've known each other for a while, wouldn't you assume that partners have at least some sense of what the other person might want or like — and by extension be able to meet expectations?

Maybe. Joel says partners do sometimes meet high expectations.

"But my data show that it's even better for the partners to exceed expectations," she said in an email.

"So even if you have a highly responsive partner, the lower your expectations are, the greater the gap between your expectations and what the partner delivers, and so the happier you'll be."

For Valentine's Day, that leaves the possibility that surprising a partner could turn out well.

But, cautions Joel, surprises "are only romantic if your partner actually enjoys them."

Dump the clichés

Instead, it might be better to go with what you know.

"Forget about clichés, unless your partner is into those," says Joel. "Demonstrate that you pay attention to your partner's particular interests and desires by planning something that is geared for your partner's particular tastes."

And maybe it's a good idea to talk about it and plan whatever celebration you might like together.

"Take the pressure off the day by removing judgments and expectations on each other," says Khan.

It's probably also a good idea not to get too bent out of shape if Valentine's Day doesn't live up to your expectations.

"Go easy on each other, and recognize that the experience that you have on this one particular night does not say very much about your relationship as a whole," says Joel.

"If your Valentine's Day turns out to be a flop, oh well. You will have plenty more opportunities for spectacularly romantic nights down the road."