Let me start by asking you two questions:
- How happy are you right now?
- How happy do you think you will be in the future?
Please take a moment and think about these questions before reading the rest of the article. You could think of your happiness level by using a scale from 1 (very unhappy) to 10 (I could not be any happier). Of course, it’s hard to say exactly how happy you are and will be, but give it a try.
Now let me tell you the truth. The correct answer to the second question is the answer you gave to the first question.
This means that in the future you will be as happy as you are now.
You may not believe me, and I may be wrong about certain things, but this is something I am very sure of. A few years ago, I would not have believed this either. But if you are curios why this happens, keep reading. You may change your perspective by the end of the article.
What society thinks
We both know that society talks about happiness quite a lot. And movies, celebrities and regular people believe they know what happiness means. What we see and what we are told is this: you need to study (although there are some exceptions), get a good, long-term job, get a promotion, make a lot of money, buy everything you want, go on exotic vacations, find a great boyfriend/girlfriend AND THEN YOU WILL BE HAPPY.
This message is not always expressed directly, but it is imbedded in all forms of content, social media posts and regular talks with families or friends. Almost everyone tells us that we have to do certain things for some time and then we will be happy. So we study things we don’t care about, we go to work to jobs that we hate, we work for bosses we don’t like, we struggle to save some money and we do all this because we believe it will be worth it.
Happiness seems to be a reward we get after we jump through several flaming hoops.
Now let me ask you this: do you know anyone who jumped through all those hoops and then lived happily ever after? And if you do, how many people live this dream and how many jumped through the hoops and got nothing in the end?
I honestly cannot tell you how happy people are. Happiness is subjective so if you want to know how happy one person is, you have to ask him/her. But I do know this: most of us got used to postponing happiness and many of us never get to experience it.
We have been told that happiness is some reward we will get in the future. And we live our lives anxious, scared, stressed and depressed waiting for happiness to come to us.
The result is that we are a society of people that ignore the present because we are too busy waiting for the future.
We do not think we are worthy of happiness now so we do nothing to be happy in the present. Surely thinking that we will be happy in the future is nice and comforting. But we do not live in the future. We can only live in the present. And if we forget or ignore this, we may never get to be happy.
What I used to think
A few years ago I used to think that happiness is something I experience when I achieve my goals. After years of struggle and hard work, if I achieve my goal, I would be happy.
At the time I was working in a call center. My dream was to become a conference interpreter working for the European Union. I needed a master’s degree for that, so I was working in that call center to save some money so I would be able to pay for my studies and take care of myself for a while. And I used to think that what I had to do was this: get my degree, work for other institutions and companies for a few years to improve my skills and get experience, then apply to work for the EU. If I were lucky, I would be hired and then I would finally be happy!
Visting the European Parliament where I dreamed I would work
One day, I was talking to colleague of mine about my plan. And even though she encouraged me to follow my dream, she replied by telling me this:
“I think that’s great. But you should know that if you are not happy now, you will not be happy then.”
I did not understand this at the time, so I was sticking to my plan.
What I think now
Years have passed since that day and many things have changed. At one point I came to realize that I was no longer inspired by that dream. So I gave up on this plan and I decided to do something else instead. And even though I started looking for a new dream, it took me a while to let go of my belief that happiness was a reward waiting for me at the finish line. But in time, I started to understand the insight my colleague shared with me.
I spend most of my time learning or working for The Sunshine Review
I now believe that in the future I will be as happy as I am in the present.
If I want to be happier, I have to focus on making myself happier now. If I expect on some future event or a certain date to bring me happiness, it will never happen. The more I learned about happiness and the brain, the more I believed this to be true.
Our future selves
One of the ideas that made me realize this came from a really great book: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. In the beginning of the book, Gilbert said that we tend to treat our future selves like our kids.1 We make plans, we suffer, we do the hard work and make the tough decisions all in the hope that, one day, our future selves will be happy. 1 Just like parents make sacrifices for their children, we do the same for our future versions. But…just like children end up being dissatisfied with something their parents did or did not do, so will we in the future.
The you from 2025 will look back on you and say: “Why on earth did you do this?”. My future version may be disappointed because of something I am doing or not doing right now. And if you think this will not happen to you, let me ask you this: have you ever looked back on your past and said “I was really stupid/naïve/ignorant when I did that!”. Or maybe you have simply asked yourself “What was I thinking when I decided to do that/go there/say that thing/date that person/move to that city/wear that dress?” If you are human, I think you know what I am talking about.
Even if we try our best to make the right choices and use our time wisely as much as we can and avoid risks and seize the opportunities that are right for us, it’s still not enough. Because our future selves will know more and think differently than we do now. Moreover, they will have lived through all the decisions we are making now so they know the consequences of them. And they can better judge if the decisions we are making now are “good” or “bad” for us.
Trying to live just to create the perfect life for your future self will not make you happy – not now, not in the future.
I believe that living to create the perfect life for our future versions is not a great way to live. But I’m not saying that we should only live in the present and ignore the future either. Honestly, I think this may be even worse. It’s alright to plan and think ahead, but don’t think that the “right” decisions will definitely make you happy 5 or 20 years from now. We often overestimate how happy a single event can make us anyway.
The happiness set point
There’s something else that made me rethink my understanding of future happiness. And that is the happiness set point theory presented by Sonja Lyubomirsky.2
According to this theory, we have a baseline happiness level which is mostly determined by our genes.2 Some of us are naturally happier and some of us are less happy and a bit more negative.2
No matter what happens in our lives, we always return to that happiness set point. 2 Any exciting experience or life change will make us happier, but only temporarily. Likewise, any dramatic and negative life experience will make us suffer, but only for a while. After a few days, weeks or months, we return to our normal level of happiness. So if you think about it, your current level of happiness does determine your future level of happiness.
You will only be as happy as you are right now.
But what should you do if you are not happy now?
If you are not happy now and you want to be happy in the future, you need to learn how to be happier in the present. It is possible to experience more happiness than your genes dictate. But in order to do that, you need to make a conscious effort and choose to do the activities that increase happiness and refrain from doing the ones that take away happiness. There are so many things to say about this that I could probably write an entire book about what we should or should not do to become happier. So I cannot share everything in this article, but I will give you some advice.
To be happier, stop doing this
1. Stop thinking negatively
Rumination refers to the activity of often thinking about your challenges, your problems, your misfortunes. When you ruminate, you think about these aspects in a negative way, focusing on the problems, their causes and effects, but not about solutions. This type of negative thinking can seriously lower your happiness level and even cause you to feel worried, anxious or depressed.
If you are pessimistic and you often ruminate, there is a very high chance that you will become depressed.3 So if you want to feel happier but you often engage in negative thinking, you need to learn how to manage this.
2. Do not believe that you are powerless
When you are faced with a failure, a misfortune or a challenge you do not know how to face, you may sometimes feel powerless. You feel that you cannot control your own fate and you begin to think that your actions do not matter. And if you keep thinking this way, you will give up and start acting like you are powerless. When your challenges are big and complex, it may be tempting to think that you are powerless and fantasize about giving up.
But this has two terrible effects: it will take away any chance you have at succeeding or dealing with your problem in an effective way and it will make you depressed. According to Martin Seligman, when you are depressed you are actually helpless since you believe that nothing you can do really matters. 3
As you can imagine, the belief that you are powerless has negative effects on your happiness. That’s why it is very important not to succumb to this idea and find ways to improve your situation.
3. Do not isolate yourself
This is another mistake you might make when life become difficult or challenging. You tend to isolate yourself because you may not want to explain your situation to others. But isolating yourself may deteriorate your relationships and it can hurt you too.
Moreover, the happiest people know the value of relationships so they invest their time and attention into strengthening them.2 If you want to become happier, you should learn how to stop isolating yourself and start investing more time and attention in the relationships that matter to you.
To be happier, start doing this
1. Choose optimism
If pessimism and negativity lead to depression, optimism and positivity lead to happiness. Therefore, it is essential that you learn how to be more optimistic (if you are not already). Some people are naturally optimistic. But even if you are not, you can learn how to become more optimistic.
For example, when something unpleasant or unexpected happens, you may immediately think about the way this new event is an impediment or a source of stress. You focus only on the negative effects. But you can also “train” your mind to look for the positive in any situation too. Even a bad situation can help you in many ways, so try to ask yourself: What can I learn from this situation? Is there a skill or trait I can cultivate while dealing with this unpleasant event?
I know that this seems overly simplistic, but I think looking for the good in any kind of situation, not just the bad, can help us deal with any kind of challenges better. And it is true that this is easier said than done – but only in the beginning. After a while, it becomes much easier and more natural.
In the world of positive psychology, gratitude seems to be a sort of a superstar. That’s because many psychologists recognize the power of gratitude. If you practice gratitude regularly, it can help you enjoy positive experience more, it makes you feel better about yourself and it makes you happier.2 Moreover, the effects of gratitude can last even after you stop practicing it! 2
If you do not know where to start, you can sign up for my free gratitude challenge here!
3. Work out
Exercise is not good just for the body, it’s also good for your mind. Working out makes you healthier, more energetic, lowers anxiety and stress and makes you feel happier.2
If you are depressed, regular workouts may actually help you overcome your depression. One study proved that working out 3 times a week for 45 minutes is just as effective at treating depression as antidepressants.2,4 Moreover, it lowers the risk of relapse more than antidepressants do!4
If you want to work out for your own health and happiness, you can do any type of exercise you want. Walk, go hiking, lift weights in a gym or go to a swimming pool. The possibilities are endless and you can choose the activity that you enjoy the most. Just make sure that you exercise frequently to reap the benefits!
4. Experience flow
When you do certain activities, you sometimes enter a state of flow. When that happens, you become so lost in what you are doing that you forget about yourself and the rest of the world.5 It seems like time no longer exists. And at the end of that activity, you feel an immense satisfaction and you know you want to experience that again.
You normally experience flow only doing certain activities like painting, running or writing. If you are watching TV or scrolling down on Instagram, you will never experience flow. For flow to happen, there are 2 criteria you have to meet. First, you have to do something that requires you to use your talents or skills. Second, the activity has to be challenging for you. When you do such an activity, you sometimes experience flow.
Flow is one of the ways you can enjoy life more – in the present. If you can find a way to create the right environment and occasion for flow to occur, you will become happier.
What I have outlined above
are a few guidelines to help you minimize negative thoughts and feelings and maximize happiness. But there are many more things you can do to reach the same goals. I have written and will write about other ways to become happier as well.
The idea that I want to leave you with is this: if you want to be happier in the future, you need to learn how to be happier in the present. And that is something you can achieve if you are willing to put in the effort. You can learn how to do the right things and stop doing the wrong things to elevate your happiness level. It takes time and effort, but it is worth it. Keep in mind that the best way to prepare for the future is by shaping your present.
“We rarely seem to live in and savor the present moment, believing that what counts most will happen in the future. We postpone our happiness, convincing ourselves that tomorrow will be better than today.”
My goal is to help you experience more happiness.
One of the ways I can help you become happier is by sharing what I have learned about happiness and the science behind it. If you want to learn more about how to overcome depression and become happier, sign up for my Happiness School. It is an ongoing course that teaches you the basics of happiness. And it’s also free!
- Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert
- The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
- Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman
- The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor
- Authentic Happiness – Martin Seligman