A couple of weeks ago, I was dragging myself through the last day of work before vacation. I spent long procrastinating breaks scrolling through the website of the resort I was headed to, thinking about how happy I'd be when I was there. Then I forced myself back to work and felt miserable about it.
I love my job, but any work is still work. I spent the day-before-vacation pretty unhappy for no reason other than that I was expecting to be happier soon.
We all do stuff like this. We put off our expectations of happiness to a future time when something will be over. "I'll be happier when I finish this semester of school," I thought, every semester of college and grad school, even though I loved school. It's not just about big accomplishments either: "I'll be really happy when I lose 10 pounds," or "I'll be so happy when I'm at home on my couch watching TV and not sitting in traffic."
In this way, we actively and purposefully put off happiness. Meanwhile, what if the podcast you were listening to on your commute was better than the TV show? Or what if those years in school were actually the best years of your life?
You can't just wait for happy
And how many times have you achieved the thing that would "make you happy" — whether big, like a graduation or a marriage, or small, like losing weight or getting home to your couch — only to find that you aren't all that happy? Maybe your clothes fit better and that makes you feel good when you get dressed, or you feel more confident searching for a job because you have that degree, but after a while, the thing you thought would bring great happiness is just background to your new normal. As sports Psychologist Dr. Jason Richardson argues in the video above, finding happiness should come first, not the other way around.
Sheryl Paul, therapist and author of "The Conscious Bride," writes, "We create an entire life (or fantasy) around what we think our life will be once we achieved these goals. The reality is real life never had a chance compared to the fantasy that has been immortalized."
This is not to suggest that we should try to be happy all the time. But what I am saying is that maybe it makes sense not to assume that happiness isonly going to happen after a certain goal is achieved or once something difficult is over.
Waiting for the perfect moment to allow yourself happiness means you never give yourself permission to feel it otherwise — and that limits the happiness.
Watch out for conditional thinking
It's important to realize that happiness isn't a monolithic state of perfection.
"Happiness does not mean you can not feel difficult emotions. Dissatisfaction, frustration and happiness can co-exist," writes Aleks George Srbinoski, author of several books on happiness.
If that idea surprises you, you might want to define what happiness means to you. Determine if you're confusing or conflating it with relaxation, joy, excitement or other emotions. For example, for years, I confused happiness with relaxation — once I realized that, I understood that I felt happiness quite often, but I was stressed out. So I didn't have to pursue elevating my happiness, but rather reducing my stress. This allowed me to experience my happy moments without anxiety.
You can also ask yourself if you're making happiness conditional on some force that's outside your control or just by its nature not going to happen until some time in the future. Srbinoski advises: "Look out for the words 'if and when'" to help identify conditional thinking.
Also keep an eye out for language and thinking that puts your happiness on other people's actions. Examples of this include, according to Srbinoski, saying things like, "If you stop making me angry, if you start being nicer to me, if you maintain your weight, then I’ll be happy." Assuming that someone else's actions will change how you feel is very disempowering, Srbinoski writes. "You are declaring that because there are circumstances in your life that you do not have full control over, you can not be happy."
Don't let someone else's actions (or inaction) govern how happy you are or aren't; beyond the basics (food, clothing, shelter), your happiness is up to you and can be experienced almost anytime. So, don't push it into the future, make it conditional on something specific happening or not happening, or dependent on another person. If you can avoid most of those pitfalls, most of the time, your chances of experiencing happiness right now will increase.
As the therapist Paul writes, thinking in these happiness-delaying or negating ways is easy and normal because so many of us do it. But she reminds us, "There will always, always be another transition just around the next bend. And even if we're not enduring a major life transition like getting married or having a baby, life itself is a transition, a fundamentally unstable existence where the only permanency is change itself."