We say it all the time: “I’ll be happy when _________.”
I’ll be happy when I’m out of school.
I’ll be happy when this project is over.
I’ll be happy when I have more money.
I’ll be happy when I’m in a relationship.
I’ll be happy when I’m engaged.
I’ll be happy when I’m married.
I’ll be happy when I’m out of this relationship.
I’ll be happy when I get this job.
I’ll be happy when I get promoted.
I’ll be happy when we have kids.
I’ll be happy when the kids are grown.
I’ll be happy when it’s summer.
I’ll be happy when it’s the holidays.
I’ll be happy when the holidays are over.
I’ll be happy when….
Why do we always set ourselves up to have to wait to “be happy” and what does “being happy” actually mean?
Yes, things will be “easier financially” when you get that job, but that’s not what makes you “happy”.
Yes, things might seem “more stable and supported” when you feel that you are in a committed relationship, but that’s not what makes you “happy”.
Yes, things will be “a little less stressful” after this project is completed, but that’s not what makes you “happy”.
We put our self in a tough spot when we are convinced that a) we have to wait for happiness b) our happiness can only be derived from external sources/events, and c) happiness is a sustained level of existence that we just coast on for the next 50 years. We do ourselves, and others, a disservice when we fall for the distorted expectation that our life is supposed to look like this:
When in actuality, everyone’s life looks more like this:
What is “happy”?
Are you defining happiness to mean the absence of any stress or negative emotion? But, we need our negative emotions and part of ongoing development in life will necessitate some struggle. So that can’t be it.
Are you defining happiness to mean achievement and accomplishment? But, if we can always do more, improve, learn, and achieve something else then we will always be waiting to attain that happiness. So that can’t be it.
What if you have no stress in your personal life, everything is amazing, and you’ve accomplished so much, but work is blowing up? Where is your happiness in that situation? Do you have to wait for the planets in all areas of your life to align perfectly and then you’ll be happy? That can’t be it.
What does “happy” mean to you?
I would suggest to you that happiness is not the absence of negative emotion or even a state that sustains itself forever, rather, happiness comes from our ability to connect to our values and things that we find meaningful as we move through life. We don’t have to wait for happiness, we don’t have to sit idly by hoping that something happens to be happy, we can empower ourselves to actively seek opportunity to connect on a daily basis with our own values despite stressors we may be experiencing. That’s not to say some times in our life are more/less stressful than others, and that relief of stress (financially, time-wise, emotionally, etc.) can make it more possible to connect to our values, but that relief of stress itself is not happiness.
What does that image of our life-track look like? If we want to relate it to something in our daily life, what about the stock market?
If you invest, or know anyone that does, there is a general rule that you don’t look at your investments every day. Why not? Because you will drive yourself nuts trying to determine “success” and “wellbeing” with something that is ever-changing. Instead, you are generally advised to zoom out and look at overall trends.
If we look only at our day-to-day, we might see only one of these undesirable (and inaccurate) options:
UGH! UPHILL BATTLE!
OH NO! EVERYTHING IS GOING TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET!!
Versus our capability to pull back out and get perspective on where we’re at in relation to other times in our life or what we are building for our future, otherwise we can become muddled in these constant changes. With an ability to zoom out and see where we’re at we can have perspective on progress, on accomplishment, on future goals, and on our ability to connect on a daily basis to the things that are important to us.
What about comparing our own stock market to someone else’s?
Bad habit to say the least, but we are making those comparisons based on assumptions and wildly inaccurate ideas of the lives of others – taking a snapshot of someone else’s life and assuming that’s their whole life. Everyone has their own “stock market” happening and to compare your spot to someone else’s doesn’t take into account where that other person has been, stresses you may not know about, or where they are headed. We don’t post pictures on Facebook of sleepless nights worried about work, or selfies of us crying after a difficult breakup. We post pictures of brunches, sunsets, vacations, snarky politics, and pets/kids doing funny things. That’s not all of our life, that’s just what we present to the world. That doesn’t mean we’re all just being fake, but as a society we kind of have a tacit agreement with each other to talk about good stuff and be positive if we don’t know each other very well. We may find it socially inappropriate or uncomfortable if someone shares something very vulnerable and we don’t have that level of trust with them. So if your only information on someone else’s place in life is outward appearance, I can guarantee you are not getting the whole picture. Meanwhile, you’re comparing yourself to someone and someone else out there is comparing themselves to a polished version of you and wishing they had your life.
Happiness is not the absence of struggle, it is your connection to your values and the things/concepts/actions that are meaningful to you.
So let’s talk about values. How do we know what is important to us. Well, I suggest checking out some Values Assessments that may be helpful:
Another good exercise is to sit down and write about 5 people that you have/do admire a great deal. Write out some descriptors or adjectives of these people, their personality, how they are. What was it about these people that really drew you in, and that you respect/value/admire in them? These are characteristics that can also reflect what is important to you and some of your values. When you are able to clarify what some of your values/priorities are, ask yourself if/how you are able to connect to these on a regular basis and what you can do to increase that contact.
If we can focus on a process/values-oriented approach to our life as opposed to an outcomes-approach (I’ll be happy when”), we are better able to actually experience happiness and live our life. If we relegate ourselves to just focusing on the outcome, we will miss everything and subject ourselves to the perspective that “it will never be good enough”. Putting our happiness in external things/event guarantees we will not find it, allowing it to come from within and derive itself from connection/values/process empowers us to cultivate that happiness ourselves.
So, the key to happiness is learning to look for it in the right place: in our values, not simply through an absence of struggle. Radically Accepting that our life is a stock market of change allows us to see that our true sense of contentment and peace comes from our connection to our values and the things of meaning in our life. In pursuit of those values we may also struggle, and that’s ok.