Our expectations define our experiences.

Consider Paris Syndrome — a condition experienced by people who have long romanticized the city that lends the label its name, only to one day visit and find it’s not all they’d hoped for.

They wanted romance and beautiful streets. They wanted delicious food and cheerful music. And what they got, in most cases, was reality. A real city. A beautiful city, certainly, but one that is less a movie set and more a fully functioning place where people live.

There are rude people in real cities. There is trash on the streets. Pigeons are everywhere.

These people who romanticized Paris, then, as a result of visiting the city and finding it to be flawed, sometimes become depressed or begin to hallucinate. Some they become anxious, dizzy, or even, in extreme cases, kill themselves.

The cause of this syndrome is not Paris, it’s the expectations of the people who romanticized it.

Going into the city with different expectations — with the understanding that they’d experience something different, but perhaps not what they saw in the movies or read about in classic literature — they would likely have enjoyed their vacation. Instead, because they were comparing a real place to unrealistic standards, they fixated only on the gap between expectation and experience. This kept them from appreciating the potential joys to be found in their less-predictable experience.

This tendency is not limited to Parisian vacationers. It’s something we do with many aspects of life: from the food we eat to the people we date. We build up a caricature of what a thing should be — an amplified archetype — and then mourn when reality fails to live up to this fantasy.

A far better approach is to keep expectations simple and realistic. Have preferences and priorities, but allow them to be frameworks rather than fully realized dream worlds. This allows real life to fill in the details, while your prime needs — which will be much simpler — are more likely to be met.

This also allows you to change your priorities as new opportunities and tastes evolve and arise. To decide that you will meet a certain type of person and fall desperately in love is a nice thought, but fixating too hard on the specifics means you may not recognize the opportunity to fall for another sort of person, or have a different flavor of relationship with someone that you’ve never before considered to be an option, but which begins to sound kind of nice.

All too often we deny ourselves happiness because it isn’t the exact happiness we imagined we’d have.

If things are looking bleak, and an experience not fulfilling, look first at your expectations, rather than whatever it is that’s failing to live up to them. Changing this element isn’t necessarily the best or only solution, but it is one that we tend to have the most control over.