Honing Happiness: Finding Peace in the Present
by Taylor Slattery | May 20, 2021
If I were to ask you to close your eyes and recall the last time you remember feeling happy, what comes to mind? Maybe it was an especially delicious peanut butter cookie you ate last week or how excited your dog is to see you whenever you come home. It was probably something pretty simple, right?
I think if we could access the part of our brain that stores all of our happy memories we would find that more often than not they were simple, spontaneous moments. There are undoubtedly some significant milestones like graduations, births, or weddings in the mix, but I think the scales tip in the favor of those unplanned moments—it’s those times that life catches us off guard that become inside jokes or have us reminiscing years later.
These moments don’t happen by design or according to any sort of plan. If managing our mood were as simple as writing “be happy” on our calendars, pharmaceutical companies would be in serious trouble. It seems fairly obvious that beyond the occasional vacation or that one day a week you allow yourself a donut, happiness isn’t something you can plan for or schedule.
Yet, I would also imagine that over the years, you’ve—perhaps unconsciously—constructed an entirely different mental image of what it means to be happy, and let me guess, this mental image of happiness takes place somewhere in the future, right? In this image, are you living in a house, with a spouse, car, job, and lifestyle all different from those that you have right now?
If so, you’re not alone. For our conscious minds, happiness seems to live at some point in the future. But for our subconscious minds, moments that make us truly happy are readily found in the present. What is the cause for this disconnect, and what exactly makes happiness so elusive?
As humans, our ability to perceive time is one of the things that makes us so unique. Unlike other animals for whom changes in temperature serve as a cue to store away food for the coming winter, our understanding of the passage of time is much deeper and extends beyond mere survival. Time is the great conductor of our lives. It’s on our minds constantly.
Time is a cultural, even global, obsession. From a young age, through due dates, calendars, and school bells we’re conditioned to understand its importance. We’re taught that it’s money, and we’re made to be aware when we’re wasting or killing it. Gradually, the birthdays start to stack up and our perception of time hits the accelerator. We start to see our youth fade and that carefree optimism we once had is replaced with back pain and knowledge of our coming deaths.
Along with money, time plays a huge role in how we view our lives. An acute awareness of this finite resource motivates our actions in the present to plan for our futures. This emphasis on the future leads us to plan for things like promotions or homeownership and make sacrifices in the present to make them a reality. It’s through this gradual sacrifice of agency over our happiness in the present that happiness slips into the future. But while we can plan for many things, happiness isn’t one of them.
Linking our happiness to external things or events in the future is sure to keep it elusive. As humans, we tend to maintain a baseline level of happiness. A stimulus can raise this level, but it eventually returns to its baseline as we grow accustomed to the new circumstances. This means that while a new car might make us happy in the short term, it’s only a matter of time until we’re right back where we started. This is what’s referred to as the “hedonic treadmill.”
Fixating on future happiness is often to the detriment of the happiness we could be experiencing in the present. The future is an abstract concept—it’s always out of reach. By building a mental construction in which our happiness lives there, we ensure our happiness will always be out of reach, too.
By thinking in this way we give up agency over our moods, and when something like our mental wellbeing is at stake, leaving too much to chance can prove dangerous. Changing your view of happiness is a gradual process, but you can start taking small steps today.
Start by making note of the little things that make you happy. Once you build this habit you’ll start to see just how many of them there are. Don’t let tunnel-vision focus on the future prevent you from finding happiness in the present. Happiness is elusive. You can’t plan for it, but once you know where to look, it’s easy to find.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.