I’ll be happy when….?
For me it was when I worked for myself. I dreamt of the freedom of being able to choose where and when to work. I told myself that’s when the grinding would stop. I will be happy.
For you it may be when you’re paid more, married or own a pink convertible with the number plate “H8ers”. In each scenario we are doing the same thing. We’re putting a condition on our happiness.
Yet when you look around to the people who have what you’re striving for, are they in a perpetual state of happiness? The harsh reality is that even after achieving this ‘thing’ we’re striving for, happiness isn’t guaranteed.
Part of it relates to the happiness formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectation.
When we pin our future happiness on some change we are striving for richer/fitter/promoted/insert your choice, realisation of that change comes with elevated expectation. Your new reality is therefore only meeting your expectation, resulting in no sustainable change in happiness.
Yet even with this knowledge, I find myself thinking “yeah, but not me, I’ll definitely be happier”. I sense many others think the same way.
To test whether you will be happy once you achieve your desired outcome, ask yourself: are you happy now?
Because the principles that make you happy once you achieve this ‘thing’, apply to your situation right now.
They are principles that smacked Hugh Van Cuylenburg, Founder of the Resilience Project, in the face on a trip to India. Whilst teaching in the country, he noticed despite the poverty people lived in they were happier than people he knew in Melbourne with all of life’s luxuries.
Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness
Those principles are:
“I have described gratitude as the ability to pay attention to what you have, instead of worrying about what you don’t have.”
“Empathy is the ability to psychologically feel what another person is feeling. The more empathetic we are, the more likely we are to act in a kind way, and the neuroscience behind kindness is incredible. When you do something kind for someone else, your brain releases oxytocin, which is known as the ‘love hormone’. Why? Because oxytocin allows us to feel joy, happiness and love.”
“After three months living among them, however, I realised that while they faced daily hardships, pressures and concerns – in fact, their hardships were more immediate and acute than most of ours in the West – they managed their responses differently. The key to this, I discovered, was mindfulness – taking time to focus solely on the present moment.”
One person Hugh saw model these principles better than anyone else was a young boy, Stanzin. Despite sleeping on the street each night with little more than a blanket, Hugh identifies Stanzin as the happiest person he ever met.
A small example is when Hugh walks into the classroom: “Sir, look. Look!’ Stanzin said, pointing at his feet. ‘Sir, dis!’.
The message was, ‘Sir, look at this! Look at my shoes. Isn’t it awesome that I’m lucky enough to have shoes on my feet?’ .
He was well aware that not all of his friends had a pair of shoes. By the look of them, Stanzin had owned his cherished shoes for a couple of years because, as his feet grew bigger, he’d cut the ends off the uppers to allow his toes to protrude from the end”.
Despite it being the simple matter of owning shoes (which didn’t even fit).
It filled Stanzin with joy.
- He was mindful that he owned shoes. How many of us just take this for granted?
- He was empathetic in the knowledge that not all his friends had a pair.
- He was grateful, considering it lucky he owns shoes, not a guarantee.
By doing so, he increased his perception of reality and brought himself joy.
Living My Dream
The importance of these principles smacked me in the face when I found myself in Thailand being a digital nomad. While friends battled 8 degree temperatures in Sydney, I found myself enjoying a buffet and working on a balcony with a view or beside the pool. Due to an amazing manager I found myself living the dream I was striving for. To work where and when I liked, essentially working for myself.
Despite this I couldn’t shake the thought that lockdown was in a funny way a happier time.
How does this happen?
Happiness = Reality Minus Expectation
In lockdown when the days began blurring into month there was no expectation you were happy. With limited ability to even leave the house, all the usual activities that brought us joy were restricted. No avocado on toast. No twerking on dance floors. No $10 beers “off the wood”. Even with limited expectations reality was dark.
However, there were still moments that brought joy if you were mindful.
For me, the moments I spent outside were cherished, with even the smallest ray of sun on the skin bringing a sense of joy. I became more conscious of checking-in on my friends and supporting them. I doubled down on my gratitude practice, reminding myself of things we take for granted. Little things like having a toilet, a comfy bed and my beloved airpods. Together, these things improved my perception of this troublesome time and led me to find joy where there was previously minimal.
In contrast, now I found myself in Thailand, I had an abundance of freedom and a laundry list of to do’s. To ensure I could take full advantage, I continued to work Sydney hours. Waking up at 6am and rolling straight into work so I finished at 2pm. My morning habit of meditation and gratitude journaling was lost in favour of afternoon bike rides, massages and shopping in markets.
It isn’t that these things failed to bring joy. They did, but I also expected them too, inherently inhibiting the experience.
In such a situation, the only antidote to these inflated expectations is to increase our appreciation of reality. The best way to do this?
Practicing gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.
Ironically, in my rush to do everything I wanted to, I failed to make time to do the things that would make me appreciate the experiences more.
So the question I have for you is: how often do you practice gratitude, empathy and mindfulness?
If the answer is you don’t because you’re too busy striving for whatever it is that will make you happy.
The irony is you’re also too busy to be happy.
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