Happiness Professor Teaches Future/Present Balance
One of my most enduring memories from childhood is of my mother warning me, usually as I was getting ready to play a game of cricket with my friends, to “work hard now, so that you can relax and enjoy in the future.” Chances are that if you come from a family that values education and believes that “enjoyment should be earned and not taken for granted,” you can relate to this feeling of fragmentation, which is really the feeling of being torn between the desire to enjoy the present and the concern that enjoying the present may jeopardize the future.
Many of us believe that we give in to temptation (e.g., eating a tasty dessert) too easily, that we are lazier than we would like to be (e.g., we procrastinate too often), or that we don’t save enough for the future. Thus, many of us carry with us significant anxiety about the future and guilt about our inability to control our myopic impulses.
Suffer Now, Be Happy Later
One would think that we would be averse to experiencing these negative emotions. But most of us don’t want to rid ourselves of these negative emotions because, at some level, we feel that these negative emotions are justified. Moreover, we believe that the guilt and anxiety serve a purpose, that they goad us to adopt the far-sighted perspective that has so far eluded us. For example, we believe that guilt will lead us to make healthier food choices and that anxiety will drive us to save more money in the future.
The irony of the “suffer now, be happy later” philosophy is that the happy future never arrives. As the saying goes, “tomorrow never comes.” Thus, we discover — usually when it is too late and we are “shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” to quote the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song — that we were happiest as children, and that future orientation comes at a significant cost to our present happiness.
There is a fine balance between trading off current enjoyment for future enjoyment.
How does one execute this trade-off? What can you do to maximize your overall — that is, the combination of present and future — enjoyment? This is the question to which I turn in the rest of this article. There are four principles that you can use to maximize overall happiness from life.
Knowing What is Enough
The first principle has to do with recognizing a simple, yet profound, truth: There is nothing in the material world that can make you feel fully and completely secure about your future. In other words, there is no amount of money, fame, power and control that can guarantee that you no longer need to worry about the future. When you attain the amount of money or success that you once thought would be enough to finally feel secure, you realize that you want even more.
This doesn’t mean that a person who doesn’t have any savings shouldn’t aim to save for the future. Rather, it means to be careful to not fall prey to being caught in a never-ending spiral that makes you perpetually future-oriented.
If you believe that the amount of money or possessions you currently have — and the revenue stream that you can reasonably expect in the future — guarantee that you and those who depend on you will never go hungry or without a roof over your heads, you should ease off on being far-sighted and focus, instead, on enjoying the present. Most people are afraid to do this, however, because they fear that if they take their eyes off the future, those around them who continue to be hungry for future success will overtake them in the “game of life.” This leads us to the second principle.
The second principle is based on another basic truth: Success is determined more by the pursuit of intrinsic motivation than by the desire for extrinsic rewards.
As Simon Sinek, leadership expert and author of Start with Why, articulates so well in his TED talk, and as several other scholars have noted, most of us mistakenly believe that success comes from being driven by the desire to be successful, wealthy or superior. In reality, success comes to those pursuing something in which they are truly and inherently interested — their “passion” or “calling.” Most of the successful people we can think of — be it Steve Jobs and Narayan Murthy from the business world, or Mozart and AR Rahman from the music world — have invested several thousand hours completely immersed in an activity of deep personal interest to themselves. It is the expertise that they gained in the domain of their choosing that was instrumental in their success, not their desire to be rich and famous.
Thus, sacrifice your present enjoyment for future enjoyment only when doing so helps improve a skill that you enjoy exercising — and not when it is aimed at enhancing your future wealth, fame, power or control.
Developing the ‘Satisficer’ Mindset
The third principle has to do with developing what Barry Schwarz, author of the book The Paradox of Choice, calls the “satisficer” (as opposed to the “maximizer”) mindset. Imagine that you are on vacation in the Maldives. You had expected to spend time lazing on the beach, but unfortunately, after you arrived, it began to rain and now you are stuck in your hotel room. How would you react?
If you are a maximizer, your mind will constantly turn to your “ideal state” of the world (e.g., the weather is sunny) and you will start to feel frustrated about the current state of affairs. As a result, you will complain to those around you, which in turn will generate negativity around you. Instead, if you adopt a “satisficer” mindset, your attention will turn to maximizing your enjoyment given the current constraints. You will not get caught up in trying to change things, but rather, will attempt to be as happy as you can be given the current reality.
Most of us constantly operate from the maximizer mindset. Shifting from the maximizer to the satisficer mindset is not easy, particularly as the maximizer mindset has proven useful to us in the past. Indeed, trying to fix the “negatives” is an important way of generating new ideas. I would go so far as to say that you should try to operate from the satisficer mindset for at least one or two hours each day as the situation warrants. Thus, when you are with your family and friends or by yourself, when you aren’t thinking of work or can’t work even if want to, you can exercise the satisficer mindset by being grateful for all the positives in your life, rather than complain about all the negatives in it.
Guilt is Not Good
The fourth and final principle, like the third, has to do with unlearning. In this case, it is about unlearning the belief that the guilt, stress and anxiety that we experience when we feel insecure about the future are useful.
The truth is that the guiltier we feel and the more anxious we become, the less capable we are of focusing on the really important future priorities in our lives. Studies show that the more stressed and guilty we feel about consuming unhealthy-but-tasty food, the greater is our propensity to consume such food in the future. Likewise, studies have also found that the more insecure and stressed we feel, the less weight we accord to our intrinsic motivations over extrinsic rewards. Thus, far from helping us become far-sighted in the right ways, guilt and anxiety take us in the opposite direction: they steer us towards decisions that erode our future happiness.
The most reliable way to overcome guilt and anxiety is to recognise that these emotions are the symptoms of a more deep-rooted problem: the problem of being conditioned by a society in which everyone is feverishly and intensely insecure about the future. Only by being able to accept — without passing judgment — the fact that you have been conditioned over several decades to experience future-oriented guilt and anxiety, will you be able to shed these feelings. The more you are at peace with this truth, the greater the speed with which you will be able to shed your conditioning and the faster you will arrive at the capacity to reside in the moment.
When you do arrive at the point where you can routinely — and seemingly at will — experience the bliss of an unfragmented mind, you will recognize an all-important truth: the conventional notions of far-sightedness, which emphasize sacrificing present enjoyment for future money, power, fame and control are, in fact, severely myopic.
Given that everything we do — including our pursuit of wealth, fame, power, control and success —is aimed at leading a happier and more fulfilling life, what can be more myopic than sacrificing both our short-term and long-term happiness?