Do you know what makes you happy or what will make you happy? According to Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness you don’t. That is because although we think about the future a lot (and like no other species on the planet), we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy when we get there.
As a species, human beings tend to imagine pleasant events in the future as overly pleasant. We imagine that perfect future job, the perfect future vacation, the perfect future experience. And the farther away in the future an event occurs, the more perfect it becomes. Retirement? It sounds like bliss if you are 10+ years away from it. If you are retiring in a couple of months, you probably have some apprehensions. When we finally get to the future, it’s never as good as we imagined in the past.
This all sounds like a downer! Nothing is ever going to be as good as we imagine it to be? That’s terrible! But there is an upside to this – nothing is going to be as bad as we expect it to be either. While we tend to imagine future pleasant events as overly pleasant, we also tend to imagine future unpleasant events as overly unpleasant. So, you can stop working yourself up worrying about the future, because while it may not be as good as you imagine, it’s also not going to be as bad as you think either.
But, if I don’t know what is going to make me happy, how am I ever going to be happy? Well, a lot of our happiness actually comes from daydreaming about future pleasant events. In fact, thinking about future pleasant events makes you happier, and for a longer time, than the actual event. When you are going on vacation in two months, what do you do? You daydream about that vacation. You think how awesome it is going to be to get out of the office and be on that beach, in those mountains, or wherever your travels take you. Every day, you find yourself lost in reverie imagining that upcoming vacation. All of that happens before you even pack your suitcase and lasts months. Your vacation probably lasts about a week. And your post-vacation happiness? About 15 minutes.
Okay, but how far does daydreaming about one vacation get you? What else can you do to improve the chances that you will be happier on a day-to-day basis?
First of all, you could make your happiness a priority. What? Of course, being happy is my priority. Isn’t it everyone’s priority? Well, think about that for a minute. If it’s a priority, you must devote a lot of time to it, right? You must be thinking about how to be happier all the time. You must be engaging frequently in activities that make you happy. You must be focusing on self-care, eating right and getting adequate sleep every day. You must be spending very little time getting annoyed with your co-workers or family members, venting your frustrations of the day, ruminating over the daily news. And of course, you must be laughing and smiling an awful lot. Sure. If you are doing all of that, then happiness is definitely your priority.
Wait. Does that not describe you on a daily basis? Maybe not even on a weekly, monthly or – egads – yearly basis? Well, then maybe you think that happiness is your priority, maybe you want happiness to be your priority, but you’re just stuck in an unhappiness loop.
So, get unstuck. There are a thousand ways to be happier, some of which I just listed. Some of those suggestions are more challenging than others – like learning not to let other people bother you so much. But you don’t have to start with the hard stuff. Start by adding some fun stuff to your life on a regular basis. What do you enjoy doing? Make a list, pick some things from the list, do them.
Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, took this idea one step farther. Actually, she took it many kilometers farther by taking on happiness as a year-long project in which she focused each month on a different set of resolutions designed to cultivate her own personal happiness. Some of Gretchen’s monthly resolutions appealed to me, such as committing to eat better by keeping a food diary (January), or finding more time to read (September), while others didn’t reasonate at all, like Study St. Therese (August) or try hypnosis (October). But then again, that makes sense, because while she ultimately wrote a book and launched a now famous blog on her pursuit of happiness, originally, it was her pursuit of happiness that she was focused on – things that would make her happier.
You will have your own set of resolutions. Gretchen’s book is a good read and not a bad place to start, but only you know what tweaks you can make to be happier – and not just when you are dreaming about your next vacation. Take some time today to think about that and jot down some ideas. If not today, then when?