Happiness isn’t over there, or in a few days it is right here, right now. Have you ever felt a general sense of discontent and longing, but been sure that whatever was missing in your life was just one plane ride away or just a few weeks down the line? I think at points in our lives that all of us will feel that way. This relates to what Dr. Dan Gilbert discussed, the theory of perception – our ability to perceive a future state. Human’s do this to a higher level than any other species, and it is largely responsible for a broad sense of unhappiness. By constantly envisioning a future state of happiness we fail to appreciate the present. As Dr. Gilbert discussed in his Ted Talk, humans tend to overestimate their future states of happiness arising from a certain event. So many of us thing that if we win the lottery, then we will be happy, or when we get to live here then we will be happy, or when we fall in love then we will be happy. Those aren’t bad things to wish for per se but often times those things fail to make us as happy as we expected, and in many cases, they never happen at all. What then? This post is about learning to feel happy in the moment.
I have been guilty of the aforementioned thought patterns many times in my life. There have been moments when I recognized extreme unhappiness in myself and would say: if only I could move to Sydney Australia. I would surf every day, see the sun, take weekend trips in the outback, and then I would be happy. Or I would contemplate my career and think: I don’t make enough money, or I don’t have enough respect from society for what I do. When I get THIS job and make a lot more money and people actually see what I do, then I can be happy. So I would get busy making plans, update my resume and search for exciting jobs, or look up apartment listings on the other side the world and plot my relocation to happytown.
It is a good thing I didn’t wait to become happy until I ended up in a new setting because you know what? I never did make that move, I still live here in the same town I did five years ago. I am probably the happiest I have been in that time and while certain external circumstances have changed, it wasn’t that something needed to happen to me, or that I needed to be somewhere else or do something else. What needed to happen was that I needed to change. I needed to look deep within myself, get in touch with my fears, take stock of and appreciate what I had in the moment, and to come to know myself. If I had simply gotten on a plane and left do you know what I would have found? After a few weeks maybe of the new stimulation that comes from a new setting, I would still be that sad and lonely person I was back here in the United States. Or worse, I would have probably been even lonelier, finding myself separated from my family and friends, whose love and support I sometimes took for granted. Happiness wasn’t over there waiting for me, it was inside of me, I just needed to find it and create it by recognizing that the here and now is what we should be grateful for, not some abstract possibility of an alternate life across the ocean or in the future.
It’s a similar experience to what we feel around a vacation. Instead of making a life that brings us joy and meaning every day, we endure long work hours, unrewarding labor, and general misery all in exchange for a nicer house to cry ourselves to sleep in and for those occasional few weeks a year when we can go on vacation. As the date of our week off approaches our anticipation builds. Yes, we have some miserable meetings on our calendars and it’s going to suck having to finish that report early but it will all be worth it, vacation is just around the corner and that week we will be happy. The vacation comes and for the first two days it is bliss, but we find ourselves stressed out trying to make sure we cram as much fun as possible into that short time. This is our week to be happy remember, don’t let this moment slip. By the fourth day dread slips in as we realize we only have two more nights and then back to the grind again. Sound like a familiar experience? I have done this before. I pick out an exotic location with my friends and plan an epic time, which overall turns out to be fun but isn’t quite the life altering moment we thought it would be. A cloud of morose hangs over and before long we return home.
It isn’t that our normal day to day is really that bad, it is just our perception. Even if your job isn’t the most rewarding thing, take stock of yourself and all for which you can be grateful. I guarantee there is something you can look at each and every day that will add meaning, value, and happiness into your existence. Happiness doesn’t have to be those three week-long trips to the beach or mountains, if you are unhappy right here and right now you will be just as unhappy sipping cocktails on the beach though you may be temporarily able to forget about it. Rather than dream of a world where everything is perfect: we have the fit body we always wanted, no debt, fame, 2 vacation homes and more; how about we synthesize happiness right here and now. Most of those circumstances lie largely outside of our control or may ultimately be not worth the sacrifice to achieve. What is in our control and our grasp is our ability to appreciate the present. This is the moment we have been given, let us enjoy it.
I understand that there are circumstances where change may be necessary. Maybe you find yourself in an unsafe neighborhood where your very security is threatened – of course you should seek to move and find a safer place if you are able. Maybe at work you are being asked to do something that goes against your moral and ethical beliefs or even the law. Of course you should look for another job that doesn’t compromise your freedom and integrity. There are plenty of exceptions to my advice in this post, but in general terms we are able to create lasting happiness for ourselves in our gratitude for the present moments. I will quote two of my favorite thinkers in closing. “By longing for things to come it (our soul) will lose the ability to enjoy present things,” – Seneca the Stoic. “What day is it,” asked Winnie the Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh Don’t long for a better future. Celebrate the present instead. Make today your favorite day.