The other morning, my middle school child told me he would “be so happy when it was summer vacation.” This seems like a pretty common sentiment for a young person starting to experience the early pangs of spring fever. While I could somewhat understand his feelings, I also thought about how many times in life we say, “I’ll be happy when…” Thinking about the missing key that will unlock our vault of happiness often causes us to lose sight of the joys available right in front of our eyes.
Telling ourselves, “I will be happy when…” means we subscribe to the theory that there is something out there we need in order to achieve that elusive state of “happiness”. Of course, it is natural and healthy to be aware of things we would like to happen, or plan how we will try to achieve our desired goals. A single person who would like to be in a relationship might look for opportunities to meet that special someone. A worker feeling extremely unfulfilled in a job likely searches for a position that feels more suitable. Attaining something we want contributes to our happiness, but does not instantly make our lives perfectly happy. Instead of thinking, “I will be happy when…” we can ask ourselves “what makes me happy right now?”
The best way to discover the happiness right in front of us is to focus on the present, rather than the past or future. We recently were fortunate enough to spend a few days in a warmer coastal climate. Not long after returning to damp and dreary weather, I found myself thinking, “I would be so happy if I could go back to warmth, sunshine and those ocean views.” I traded crystal clear water and bright blue skies for stubborn gray clouds and barren trees, so it was certainly tempting to idealize this very recent past. Yet, when I turned my attention to what made me happy that first morning back to reality, it was pretty easy to rattle off a list – the magnificent red cardinal dodging snow flurries to eat at the bird feeder, the ability to check in with friends and family with a few taps of my phone, drinking coffee with my faithful yellow Labrador curled up at my feet. These were things I could truly appreciate when I reminded myself to focus on the here and now.
When my children were young, I sometimes lapsed into thinking about imagined happiness of the future. I imagined I would be happy when competition for one toy did not lead to full-blown battles, when we could eat dinner without most of it landing on the floor, when we could stop padding the college funds of our neighborhood teenage babysitters. Telling ourselves, “I will be happy when…” sometimes leads to one of the worst pitfalls of all – wishing the time away. It was frequently exhausting, isolating and frustrating to take care of little ones. It was also the time when blowing bubbles outside provided hours of entertainment, and skinned knees were often the most monumental issues we faced. Most crises could quickly be made better with a double scoop ice cream cone. As the passing years bring more complicated issues and less control, that kind of amazing parental power quickly disappears. No matter what we might idealize about the future, it is crucial to see what makes us happy right now.
No matter what seems perfect about the past or fabulous about the future, turn your gaze toward the present. We cannot appreciate today’s gifts if we look backward or forward for the elusive secret to happiness. The less we search somewhere else for the ideal conditions to make us happy, the more we can wrap our arms around the happiness available to us today.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.