Staking one’s happiness on long-term goals backfires because it is based on a fallacious assumption: that happiness is something which lies in the future.
There are many ways we commonly express this assumption. The old adage “good things happen for those who wait,” for example. Or, “From little acorns, mighty oaks grow;” “Rome wasn’t built in a day;” “Patience is a virtue;” etc.. But however it’s expressed, cultural folk-wisdom is filled with the widely-held belief that happiness is something we need to wait for. Something to be postponed until a time when our goals are finally fulfilled.
It’s natural, especially in such a strongly achievement -oriented society such as ours, to view happiness as something only the future holds. Any culture which places such primary emphasis on being successful and attaining goals, implicitly teaches that happiness requires much work, a great deal of patience, and mostly a lot of time. As a result most people never view happiness as anything that’s immediate to them, rather, they’re set in a mode of waiting and anticipating.
Of course this assumption is valid, if, in fact, goal- achievement is the ultimate cause of personal happiness. But what if it is not?
Well, then we find — as, in fact, is the case with most Americans — people postponing their happiness. Waiting patiently for their successes to bring happiness to them, yet it never quite seems to get there.
Early in my research, I stumbled across an interesting twist to this “waiting to be happy” syndrome
We we analyzing some data we had collected using a variant of a “sentence completion” test. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it is a test that many psychologists use to develop insight into an individual’s personality. There are dozens of versions, but they all have in common a series of partial sentences the examinee is asked to finish. A typical series of sentences might include items like:
“My parents were __________________________.”
“I dislike people who _____________________.”
“My greatest fear is ______________________.”
Clearly, each person tends to complete such sentences in a unique and personal way, and what a person writes can often prove quite revealing.
In our investigation, however, I was most intrigued with the responses to one sentence, which read:
“I’ll be happy when __________________________.”
Now, how would you complete this sentence? As you can imagine, we got a wide variety of responses. Below are just a few of them.
“I’ll be happy when I get my degree.”
“I’ll be happy when I finally get married.”
“I’ll be happy when I become a Doctor.”
“I’ll be happy when I get my dream car.”
“I’ll be happy when I have my first child.”
“I’ll be happy when my children grow up.”
“I’ll be happy when I become vice president of the company.”
“I’ll be happy when I make a million dollars.”
Although themes varied greatly, overall, they were just what one would expect. Most people assumed that their happiness would come when one of their important goals came true. That’s not what surprised me…
What surprised me was the responses of the happiest people in the group that we studied. A few of them, apparently, just couldn’t relate to the sentence. They crossed it out, and wrote “I’m happy now.”
“I’m happy now!”
It would appear that the happiest people, unlike so many of the rest of us, aren’t waiting to be happy. They already are!