Sundered Peak

through the mind of kyle tolle

The Future Happiness Myth

Published on December 26, 2013.

tl;dr: Placing your happiness in the future is dangerous; the future never truly arrives. How can we learn to be happy presently?

Today, I read an article that echoes my thoughts and wanted to finally put them into words.

I’ve had the fortune to read several interesting books this year. Snow Crash, Ishmael , The Selfish Gene, My Ishmael, and The Story of B top the list. They’ve all provided insights into what we are as humans, our nature, and the story of how we came to be. They have jumpstarted my thinking in many areas.

The subtleties of my personality interact in interesting ways. Occasionally, I glimpse behaviors I’ve learned and see how they do not contribute to my happiness. Here, I want to explore one behavior in particular. The tendency to think I’ll be happy, but only at some time in the future.

Our species has the advantage that we can see the present and use it to infer the past and the future. A simple example is a hunter coming across tracks in a forest’s floor. He can observe these prints, deduce the animal’s species, where it came from, and where it has likely gone. This ability to imagine the story of the past and how it continues into the future is uniquely human. While limited in scope, to glimpse the world in this way is to sample the power of the gods with their vast, unlimited knowledge.

This ability powered the success of our ancestors and lead us to where we are today. It can however also go awry. While growing up, I placed a lot of pressure on my self scholastically. I hated learning in the fashion that schools use, but I feared how I did in school reflected on my character. Not doing well in school, meant something was wrong with me. This self-imposed pressure to do well meant I spent a lot of time studying, doing homework, and attending classes. The fear of failing as a person drove me to succeed as a student. I thought the reverse of the fear was true too. If I succeeded as a student, I’d succeed as a person. This fear and the pressure did not make me happy. To the contrary, it made me quite unhappy and angry. “But", I thought, "I will be so much happier when I am done with high school. When I’ve graduated high school, I will have made it.”

Enter college. Though college was a voluntary choice (however influenced by societal and familial norms), I felt it a necessary evil to pursue my career in software. College was much like high school in the departments of the fears and the pressures I felt, only amplified. I slept little (thinking it a waste of time) and studied my little heart out. I didn’t do much of the socialization others did, because not studying would stress me further. I had to study to get good grades. Without those perfect grades, I was a failure. Again, I was miserable in the present. The only thing that got me through was thinking, “It’ll all be better in the future. Once you graduate and get a job, you will be happy.”

This mode of thinking is tricky though. I’m coining this the Future Happiness Myth. It allowed me to live in the present, however miserably, because I hoped the future would be better. Except, I only live in the present. I never arrive in the future. There’s always a future relative to my present. Even when I get to a time where, in the past, I thought I’d be happy, my viewpoint has shifted, and happiness lies further ahead yet. The future holding that happiness is a long-distant one with no clear path to it.

Even these days, I struggle with this same mentality. I’ve graduated college and entered industry as a Software Engineer. While in school, that’s what I thought would make me happy. But then, I wasn’t happy at that company. So I learned a new technology stack and got a job that suits me better. Now, it’s easy to think I’d be happy after I’ve started my own company. Or I’ll be happy once I’ve written a book. The difference is that I now see how those things won’t lead to me being happy if I don’t know how to be happy. Or if I don’t allow myself to be happy presently.

The largest obstacle to my happiness is my mind. I have literally nothing to complain about right now. I am on vacation, from a dream job, in my parents' home, with food abundant, spending time with my loving family, and was just given some cool gifts for Christmas. So why am I not elated? Why am I not supremely relaxed? Because I have difficulty appreciating the present. I don’t know how to be happy now. I only know how I’ll be happy in the future.

To date, I can say that I’ve identified an issue. Seen a part of me that I need to work on (one of many). I’m not exactly sure of the steps I need to take to appreciate the present more, but I have identified my Future Happiness Myth. I won’t ever be happy if I keep this same mindset, because the future never arrives. This post is meant to explore the problem. Solving it is another matter all together, and an ongoing project. I hope to unlearn these habits of thought and replace them with new ones which allow me to appreciate my life more.

I have a lot to be thankful for, I can see that. But actually feeling that thankfulness can be challenging. Of the things I’ve tried so far, talking with counselors, meditation/mindfulness, and yoga have made the largest impact on my life. As I enter into the new year, I’m going to give a resolution a try. I will begin practicing yoga again. It’s an activity to center yourself on the now. To recognize and appreciate how you are mentally and physically. This seems like a perfect habit to cultivate if I want to live more in the now.

I know others who have the same symptoms. Maybe they focus on level of physical fitness, or they put up with unhappiness now because they believe they’ll get their true reward in heaven. Our culture perpetuates the Future Happiness Myth by advertising products and services that purport to make you happier. I’ve noticed those fixes aren’t lasting ones. I’m working to be more presently-focused and happy with where I am. To allow myself happiness now. I’m excited and already feel my mood changing for the better.