How many times have you fallen into the trap of thinking, “I’ll be happy when…”?
I’ll be happy when I… graduate, get a raise, make 6-figures, get married, have a perfect marriage, get in shape, have $X in my bank account, have a nicer house, drive a nicer car, don’t have to work as many hours, get a better job, get my house paid off, finish this week/month/year, have a net worth of $X, take a vacation, or retire.
Unfortunately, the last time you hit one of these milestones, it probably didn’t have the prolonged impact you planned for. You probably got that raise, promotion, or fancy car and you may have immediately set your sights on the next breakthrough. “This raise was nice and all, but I know I’ll be so much happier when I finally make $X.”
This quality ingrained in each of us is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it motivates us to keep pushing and working for more. It’s why we have the technology to read this article. Someone observed an issue, and rather than being content with the status quo, they decided to solve it. But this quality is also a curse because no particular thing will ever magically make us happy forever. We have a bad habit of upping the ante immediately after accomplishing a goal.
People pursuing financial independence or early retirement often fall into the same trap of, “I’ll be happy when I’m finally FI, when I can quit this job I don’t really care for so I can finally follow my passions!”
This creates two major issues, one, it likely won’t be all rainbows and butterflies on the other side. My mom has told me too many times throughout my life that I won’t be happy unless I’m working towards something. Even if you don’t have to report to a boss anymore, life will be pretty empty without goals and a vision to work towards.
But the bigger issue, at least in my mind, every day you’re not FI can feel like torture. It’s like watching a tree grow, you know it’s growing, but nowhere near as fast as you’d like. Going to work can be such a drag because you know it’s not your long-term goal, it’s just a means to an end…. such a far-off end at times.
So how can we make the path less miserable and find more happiness on our journey?
It’s important to understand that all of us have a baseline level of happiness, you can read more about it here. To sum it up, basically 50% of your happiness is attributed to your genes (thanks mom and dad), 10% to your circumstances (here’s where that new car or raise comes into play), and the remaining 40% comes from your actions.
This will hopefully help to explain why some people you know are either so happy, or Debbie downers, nearly all the time, they may be hardwired to be happier, or less happy, than others. But the good news is, you can directly control 40-50% of your happiness, and hence, the reason for this post…
When I was in college I heard a speaker who impacted my life forever. The speaker talked about the subject of being happy, but he talked about it in a way I had never heard before. In order to be happy he claimed we needed gratitude in our lives. I was skeptical.
He went on to share multiple studies backing up his claim. For example, in a ten-week study Dr. Robert Emmons randomly assigned participants into one of three groups. One group of participants was encouraged to briefly record five things they were grateful for each week; a second group was asked to describe five hassles or negative events that had happened to them each week; and the third group was simply asked to list five events, but they were not told to highlight the positive or the negative. Before each participant wrote about their blessings or nuisances, they completed a daily journal in which they rated their moods, their physical health, and their overall well-being. The moods they rated included feelings like distress, excitement, sadness, stress, and happiness, while their physical health included factors such as headaches, sore muscles, stomach pain, nausea, coughing, sore throat, and poor appetite. The participants also rated how they felt about their lives, selecting from descriptions ranging from terrible to delighted.
The results of the ten-week study are impressive for the gratitude group. The gratitude participants felt better about their lives and were more optimistic about the future than people in the other two groups. The gratitude group also reported fewer health concerns, like headaches, and spent significantly more time exercising than people in the other two groups. According to the scale Dr. Emmons used to calculate well-being, the people in the gratitude group were a full 25 percent happier than the participants in the hassles or neutral groups.6
In subsequent studies Dr. Emmons also reported that people who regularly kept a gratitude journal and were in the habit of recognizing and expressing gratitude for their blessings reported feeling closer and more connected to people, had better relationships, were more likely to help others, felt less lonely, felt less depressed, slept better, and were more pleasant to be around.
Robert Emmons’ wrote all of his findings in his book: Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier
All of that is good and well, but what determines how grateful you are? How can you quantify gratitude?
For this he had a simple solution, simply write down three things you are grateful for at the end of each day. The task was so simple, and the promise so grand, I decided to take him up on his challenge.
Although I wasn’t suddenly the happiest person ever (remember this will impact the 40% of your “happiness-meter” you control), this practice did have a discernible outcome on my life. It was difficult to quantify, and of course I still definitely had bad days, but if I was a 7 out of 10 on a happiness scale before, I felt like I was probably a 7.5 or an 8 now. And all for about five minutes of effort a day!
I maintained this habit for a little over a year, but as with many things in life, something came up and it became less of a priority, and before I knew it, I was out of the habit.
Months went by and I would see my journal sitting there, I would long for the days when I would write in it every night. It sounds so stupid to write now, all I had to do was pick up a pen and I could make my wish a reality, but the human mind is strange and often times acts unexplainably.
Something recently changed, I honestly can’t even recall what it was exactly, but it was a strong enough nudge to push me over the edge to pick up the habit again. This time I decided to try a different approach and I downloaded a journaling app, that way it would prompt me when I usually go to bed to write my daily gratitudes. I can even attach a picture if something especially memorable happened that day. It’s been about a month now, and I can’t believe I ever dropped this simple, yet impactful, habit.
Don’t wait to be happy when…. be happy now! Your decisions today control 40-50% of your overall happiness. Don’t be like me and avoid doing something that you KNOW will make you happier for some unknown reason. Don’t plan for a day in the distant future to finally be happy, pick something today and take action; hopefully practicing gratitude is where you’ll start.
What are some habits in your life that make you a happier person?