“When I have a car, I’ll finally be happy!”
“When I go to college, I’ll finally be happy!”
“When I get a girlfriend, I’ll finally be happy!”
“When I buy a house, I’ll finally be happy!”
“When I am a principal, I’ll finally be happy!”
“When I earn my PhD, I’ll finally be happy!”
“When I get married, I’ll finally be happy!”
“When I write a book, I’ll finally be happy!”
These have been my beliefs about happiness throughout life.
While I am a naturally positive person, I generally struggle to feel sustained happiness and peace. Even though good things are happening daily, I'm always looking ahead and thinking about how life will be "so much better" when I clear the next hurdle.
All of the goals listed above have been accomplished. And while reaching each landmark produced brief bursts of enjoyment ... those feelings were gone a few days later.
I am not alone in this thinking. We tell ourselves when we get a promotion, make more money, have more power - life will be good. Yet in most cases, we return to our natural level of well-being shortly after reaching our destination.
Why does true happiness feel so fleeting?
One of the best books written about the pursuit of happiness is Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. In his book, Ben-Shahar outlines the four distinct happiness archetypes - which are patterns of attitudes and behaviors all humans possess. Those archetypes are as follows: Hedonism, Rat Race, Nihilism, and Happiness.
While Ben-Shahar’s research is outstanding, his terminology is a bit academic. To assist with comprehension, I've translated his archetypes into four "happiness mindsets:"
Self-Indulgence Mindset: Do you focus on enjoying the present while ignoring the potential future negative consequences of your actions? Like Veruca Salt in the classic "I want it now!" scene from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, today's instant gratification culture reinforces this mindset. True accomplishment takes time, yet humans are conditioned to forego future benefits in order to obtain immediate hits of satisfaction.
Rat Race Mindset: Do you choose to suffer during the present for the purpose of some anticipated gain in the future? Similar to the self-indulgence mindset, today's culture also reinforces the rat race belief. We are taught to chase the ever-elusive future rather than focus on the present experience. As opposed to enjoying what we have, society tells us true happiness comes when we have more money, power, and possessions than our peers.
Woe Is Me Mindset: Do you struggle enjoying the present moment while also lacking a sense of future purpose? If self-indulgence describes living in the present, and rat-race describes living for the future, woe is me describes living in the past. Rather than imagine a prosperous future, society tells us past circumstances are to blame for our situation. Unfortunately, many people in today's world are chained to past failures.
Fulfillment Mindset: Do you participate in activities that bring you present enjoyment while also leading to a fulfilling future? To feel optimal levels of happiness, people should spend as much time as possible engaged in activities that provide both present and future gains. While society says you can't have it both ways, people who learn how to simultaneously live for today while building a foundation for tomorrow live the happiest lives.
To be clear, constant happiness through the "fulfillment mindset" is impossible as not every activity can provide present enjoyment and future benefit. Sometimes we must focus on the present - such as taking a day off from work to rejuvenate our mind. Alternately, sometimes we must focus on the future - such as skipping a night with friends to complete a graduate class assignment.
Also, understand these are mindsets - not actual people. To varying degrees, we all possess characteristics of all four mindsets. For example, many educational leaders (myself included) get stuck in the rat race mindset: "When I reach the next level of leadership - I'll finally be happy!" they say. However, three months into their "dream job," they discover their general happiness is no different than before.
Some of you may be thinking, "I already know what makes me happy. I don't need to change anything!"
Unfortunately, humans are bad at predicting future happiness. In Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert writes that because we do not take time to reflect on our experiences, we are bad at predicting our future emotional states. Although we all want to be happy, we struggle to forecast what will bring true happiness.
One of the most common mistakes people make is the desire to fill free time with passive relaxation. "I can't wait to lay around and do nothing on Saturday!" is a statement we have all made. However, after a day of laying on the couch, watching television, eating junk food, and scrolling through our phones, we typically find very little happiness. Instead, we feel tired, agitated, and anxious.
Another common mistake is overestimating the enjoyment of a special event. "New Year's Eve is going to be so much fun!" people predict as they plan an evening of fine dining and limitless cocktails. While some experiences meet expectations ("I got a midnight kiss from my crush!"), in many cases New Year's Eve ends up being a huge let down. Combine spending too much money with a terrible hangover ... and it is likely we feel worse the following day than we do most days of the year!
Alternately, say you are part of a community volunteer organization. In these clubs, often you are counted on to give up time to assist with local projects. When the sign-up form comes to your table you smile at the sheet while secretly thinking, "How am I going to get out of this without looking like a jerk?" However, people who regularly volunteer report high levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction.
"Ok, I get it. So how can I learn what really makes me happy?"
We all enjoy and derive meaning from different activities, and to varying degrees. Therefore, we must pay careful attention to the feelings that are produced by everyday actions. Use a notebook or electronic document to record your daily tasks and evaluate them according to how happy each made you feel. Devoting a few minutes to this practice each day when your memory is fresh will provide valuable insight into what produces true bliss.
Looking for one surefire activity to improve happiness? Keep a daily gratitude journal. Each night before going to sleep, write down at least three things for which you are grateful. These can be as little as your morning coffee to as big as the relationship with your spouse. As you write down your ideas, consider the feeling each item brings. Doing this exercise regularly helps to appreciate life's positives rather than take them for granted.
We imagine when we get a promotion, we will finally have peace.
We believe when we make enough money, we will be able to relax.
We think when we have more power, we will experience true happiness.
However, consider this: We are in the part of our lives we used to look forward to the most.
How are you spending this time?
Are you really finding enjoyment by scrolling through your Facebook feed or watching the 24-hours news channel?
Or, are you engaging in activities that help you enjoy the current moment while building a foundation for the future?