When my niece was around 3 or 4, she was sitting on my brother’s shoulders as we walked back from the park. It was a typically lovely California afternoon, sunshine, birds chirping, cars driving by on the suburban street, kids on skateboards, and my niece was perched up on my brother's shoulders, singing her spontaneous made-up song,
“This… is…. my life.”
This little song has become a mantra in our household. It’s always relevant! No matter what’s happening, whatever mood you’re in, whatever circumstances are going on around you, it’s always true. This is my life - the one that’s happening right now, the real deal, and the only deal.
How easy it is to get lost in some other conversation in our heads- what should be happening, what happened in the past, what better thing is happening in someone else's life, or what might happen in the future! Whether it’s conditioning, biology, or human nature, we are always tempted to believe we will be happy just as soon as one or two more things happen. Then we can relax and enjoy life and really start living! All we’re trying to do is get to a certain plateau, achieve a few more milestones- a girlfriend, an acceptance letter to a particular college, a goal weight, a bigger income. Usually by early mid-life, it’s not hard to look back and recall how deeply you may have longed for a particular accomplishment or event, and how it didn’t deliver on the promise.
At the age of 17, when I got my driver’s license and my pre-owned copper Honda Prelude (lovingly nicknamed Andre), I was ecstatic. For the next few months, the ability to drive myself anywhere I wanted to go was like a superpower. Freedom! Independence! Adulthood! It was unthinkable to consider that a time might come when the act of getting in the car and driving somewhere could become a chore (spoiler alert- that time has come).
The flip side of this distortion is believing we will be happy once a certain circumstance ends. As long as I am struggling with this financial problem, illness, relationship conflict, bad job, then happiness and peace is not an option. We may not even bother to consider it, believing it’s not even worth appreciating what we have as long as this burden is with us.
If we let go of the idea that some future milestone or the cessation of a burden will bring the long-awaited happiness, we have the unpleasant job of accepting how imperfect everything is in this moment. The unsatisfactory present can be hard to look at, like looking at the sun.
It’s much easier to envision coasting in the blessed future than accepting the hand we’ve been dealt today- sink full of dishes, our child’s social struggles, a hostile co-worker. But paradoxically, accepting the myriad of flaws in this moment opens us up to deeper appreciation of the good stuff we do have.
One of the under appreciated, yet empirically proven paths to greater happiness is a habit of gratefulness. Gratefulness may not sound terribly sexy (it always seems like one of those things we know we should do more of, like giving to charity or flossing), but it is effective. Martin Seligman’s quick and easy “Three Good Things” exercise has lots of research behind it, and it’s one of the best tools I’ve found to help clients implement this habit.
Training our minds to notice, accept, and appreciate the reality of today is a worthwhile effort that pays off. When the gratefulness muscles get stronger, it gets easier to tear ourselves away from the delusion that happiness is just over the next hurdle.