Do you find yourself occasionally fantasizing about an external event or reward that will make you happy? Do you imagine that your day-to-day life is just the background, and something special will occur to make your life more exciting, fun, or worthwhile?
What are you hoping for in your life that will make you happy?
Public recognition for your work?
A winning lottery ticket?
Hoping for a better future is a normal, human trait. But what is the down side of counting on these expectations for our happiness?
The Down Side of Hoping for Future Happiness
John Lennon famously said, "Life is what happens while we're making other plans."
By shifting our perspective from our mundane real lives to an exciting fantasy life, we're treating our day-to-day existence as a 'dress rehearsal.'
We're actually putting our lives on hold by assuming that we'll be happy after something external happens to us. The worst part is that we stop living in the moment. And this moment is the ONLY time we can be happy, grateful, or have any other experience...it's the only free part of our lives. The past is complete, and while we can INFLUENCE the FUTURE for good or for bad, I've come to believe that it's not under our direct control.
Example: Writing a Book for Publication
Writing a book, and trying to get it published, has been a great lesson for me in how to stop hoping for a future event to bring me happiness and meaning. When I started writing, I needed a literary agent to represent me. I hadn't been published, so this was a big hurdle. I sent query letters to dozens of agents, and then waited while they sent back my SASE, usually with a polite rejection letter.
I wished that I could have calmly opened my post office box each day, or even skipped a day of checking the mail. But I couldn't. I went to the post office anxious with anticipation, and left feeling let down if there was nothing in my box related to my writing.
I actually did find an agent fairly quickly, but instead of that "victory" being any kind of Holy Grail, I found that the process started all over again now that I was waiting for responses from editors my agent had sent my proposal to. I'd check my voice mail with the same urgency, hoping for a phone call telling me that an editor wanted to buy the book.
Fortunately, my husband pointed out the foolishness of my ways. Getting an agent, getting a publisher, and getting a book published were simply steps in a long, slow process of marketing the book on an ongoing basis. He pointed this out the night I popped open some champagne to celebrate signing a contract with my first agent. "Why are you so excited? You're life isn't going to change. If you weren't happy this morning, you won't be happy now that you have an agent."
I hate it at first when he's right about stuff like that. But I am very grateful to have someone who will tell me the truth about these things when my emotions or insecurities get in the way of seeing that truth. Bob inspired me to put the issue of getting published into perspective, and now I truly do see it as part of a long, enjoyable, process. And without the excitement, and resulting disappointment, that created the rollercoaster ride that I was on before.
Getting a Child Into College Has a Similar Effect
Because of my psychotherapy work with teenagers, I've seen quite a few parents of high school students. Getting their child into college is winning the "lottery" for this group. For some it matters which college. For others, just knowing their child is continuing their education is enough.
But the result is the same. Success is measured by an external goal which will make them, and their child, happy. But talk to almost any adult and you'll find that whether or not they went to college, or which college they went to, hasn't done much for their overall happiness as an adult. As adults, they're involved in raising a family, pursuing a career, and enjoying hobbies. Most adults in their 40's aren't thinking that their life has been a breeze because they went to Harvard. It's just part of the path they traveled, and their day-to-day life rarely references where they went to college.
[FOR THE RECORD: I believe that a passionate love for learning contributes greatly to our happiness. That is the best reason to seek higher education.]
Avoiding the Present Moment by Focusing on the Future
So why do we focus on the future instead of being fully present in each moment?
If you've ever tried to meditate, you probably know part of the answer. It's really hard! Our mind is constantly wandering from the present moment to the past to the future, and back again. But although the concept of living in the present is a SIMPLE one, it's definitely NOT EASY.
What can we do to be in the present moment more often?
1. Meditate each day. If you meditate for even a few minutes each day, you teach yourself how to quiet your mind. By practicing this exercise, you'll get better at it. You also detach from your thoughts, and aren't as likely to be bossed around by them, because you see that you are not in control of your thoughts. They race by even when you don't want them to.
2. Think about who you are separate from your present or future accomplishments, or failures. Try to get in touch with how you are a valuable person because of your essence, not what you've done.
3. Contemplate the idea that there's something higher than your thoughts and feelings. This can help put your wishes, desires, and worries into perspective.
Shrink the size, strength and influence of your ego (your superficial self) and try to see who you really are deep down (your True Self). When you get in closer touch with that True Self, success, failure, and publishing contracts will fade as measures of your true worth.