“Happiness is a way station between too little and too much.” ~Channing Pollock
The vast majority of my life has been a giant race to get things I’ve assumed would make me happy.
More money so I could do what I want when I want. A more meaningful career so I could feel both fulfilled and proud of myself. More connections so I could feel loved and worthy. And mostly, more distractions so I could avoid acknowledging why I was unhappy with myself.
“I’m making progress,” I’d delude myself. “I’m pushing myself to accomplish big things that will help people all over.”
While those things may have been true, what I was really doing was chasing the possibility of happiness as it existed in an elusive tomorrow.
Tomorrow, when I’ve made a name for myself. Tomorrow, when I can be proud of making a difference. Tomorrow, when the stars align just right.
Though I still have to make a conscious choice to root myself in today, I’ve realized nothing I want will ever bring me joy if I consistently attach happiness to something just out of my reach. In fact, more often than not, attaining those things will just make me feel emptier because it will remind me of the void nothing can fill—nothing, that is, except me.Perhaps you can relate. Have you ever attached all your hope and energy to something specific you wanted? A job, a home, a date? Maybe you let the act of striving consume your days—your thoughts, your conversations, your actions—and then plowed ahead, thinking all you had to do was get there.
When you finally did, for a fleeting moment the chase seemed worthwhile. Like all your plotting, pushing, and delayed gratification was worth it for that moment when you got what you wanted.
But somehow, the euphoric feeling didn’t last. When you got the new job, you realized you have a lot higher to climb before you make it (though it’s kind of vague where it is.) When you bought the house, you realized it came with a list of new challenges—taxes, renovation needs, and responsibility in general.
Most of us know on some level there’s no reason not to be happy now, even though things aren’t perfect; and yet we consistently find excuses why right now isn’t good enough.
I’ve identified four steps to challenge your instinct to always want more, and actually feel happier because of it, not deprived or limited in any way.
1. Identify what you assume.
So you want to be rich (you and billions of other people). Why do you want to be rich? Do you need copious amounts of cash for a specific reason that’s meaningful to you, to start a business or fund Cancer research, for example? Or do you simply assume being rich, in itself, will make you happy?
The crazy thing about beliefs is that they aren’t always based in fact. Just because you think you’ll be happy when you have money, that doesn’t mean you will, especially if you’re used to delaying happiness to some day when everything is perfect.
Identify your exact expectations so you can look at them more closely.
2. Question your expectation.
Next is to question whether getting what you want will really give you what you expect. Just because something is true for other people (if it is at all) that doesn’t mean it will be true for you.
This requires you to know what’s most important to you in life, also known as your core values. For example, mine are family, independence, freedom, adventure, and meaning. Having money, in itself, won’t create happiness for me unless it supports all the different things that matter to me.
Wealth accumulated through a seventy-hour workweek in a corporate job wouldn’t be valuable to me because it would narrow my time with people I love, restrict my schedule, limit my options for adventure, and potentially tie me to work I find unfulfilling. However, I can likely live a life in accordance with all my core values without ever becoming rich.
3. Look closely at your now.
Sometimes you have desires and goals created to improve legitimately challenging circumstances—when you want a different job because you don’t enjoy yours, or a bigger house because your family needs more room.
There’s nothing wrong with having goals. In fact, research shows people who set and pursue goals are happier than people who don’t.
But it’s important to be mindful about your intentions; whether you’re pursuing something that will enrich your life, or something that’s a distraction from the discomfort of acknowledging what’s really bothering you. Not just the circumstances of your life, but who you’re actually being in life.
Have you chosen to fill your time with things that matter to you? Are you actively pursuing a path that fulfills you? Do you maintain healthy relationships that make you feel good about yourself?
If your choices create a now that feels unbearable on some level—and you indulge a victim mentality that makes you feel powerless—it’s only natural you’ll want to escape the present moment with a fantasy for tomorrow.
4. Be the change you’re seeking.
That happiness exists in the future is an illusion. Whatever it is you think you need to be happy, instead of waiting to get it, create it right now.
If you think having more meaningful work would make you happy, volunteer somewhere and find out. If you think you need more connections to feel happy, call a friend, make some plans, and open yourself up to new people.
If you assume more money is the key to happiness—well, you can’t manifest that instantaneously. But you can find a way to create whatever it is you’re trying to buy. If it’s adventure, join an adventure club. If it’s travel, look online for an affordable travel package.
When you’re willing to be creative and proactive, you have immense power to live a life that feels fulfilling right now, in this moment—not some day, in a very specific reality you’ve attached yourself to creating.
It’s unrealistic to think you’ll ever stop wanting things. I, for one, am glad. When people want change, they innovate, improve lives, and sometimes even save them.
But at the end of the day, yours is the life you have the most power to steer. It all starts with how you think, what you believe, and what you do right now. Not just to get closer to your goals, but to live purposely and joyfully in the present, with whatever you already have.