Then I’ll be happy

I hate this job. But when I get promoted, then I’ll be happy.

My current living situation sucks. But when I move into a bigger house, then I’ll be happy.

I don’t make enough money. When I’m rich, then I’ll be happy.

We tell ourselves some version of this story pretty frequently. Our happiness is missing because of some lack, some external thing that we are missing and once we have captured it, we will be relieved of the distress we are feeling. Sometimes that’s true. Usually it is not.

I’ve written before about the hedonic treadmill— about how we fairly quickly acclimate to whatever new upgrade we’ve reached. No matter what we have, achieve, or attain, we are left wanting more. Whenever we get the promotion, the check, or the next thing, we quickly find ourselves adjusting to the new normal, again becoming dissatisfied, and then chasing after the next one. So, how to content ourselves with where we are, rather than falling into the when/then trap?

In this post, I’m going to consider four antidotes to this chase.

Embrace the Friction

The stoic philosophers (I’m a fan) talk about how the struggle is the way. The point is not achieving the thing (whatever it is), but instead urge us to focus on, and take pride in, the journey. It is through the struggle that we derive joy and meaning, not in the achieving. It is the path itself that is the point, not the object at the end of the path. This is an alternative to fixating on the outcome, and a helpful corrective. Rather than keeping our eye on the prize, we need to recognize that the friction on the way is the point.


Gratitude shifts our perspective, encouraging us to appreciate and be thankful for what we already have, rather than constantly striving for more. Instead of focusing on what we lack or what we want to achieve in the future, gratitude helps us to recognize and savor the good things in our lives right now.

When we practice gratitude, we train our minds to notice and appreciate the positive aspects of our lives, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. This shift in perspective can lead to a greater sense of contentment and satisfaction with our lives as they are, rather than constantly chasing after elusive goals or material possessions in the hopes of finding happiness.

Moreover, gratitude helps to cultivate a sense of abundance rather than scarcity. When we approach life with a mindset of gratitude, we are more likely to see the abundance of blessings and opportunities that surround us, rather than focusing on what we lack. This can lead to greater feelings of fulfillment and joy, even in the absence of external achievements or possessions.

Redefine the win

Some of us are just really goal oriented. The idea of not being after something, not chasing something, is almost too foreign to contemplate. Rather than fighting this tendency, perhaps we can harness it.

Much of the time, we play stupid games. Then we’re surprised when we win stupid prizes. The things we spend our time, effort, money and energy pursuing are often not the things that will ultimately make us healthy or happy. We set goals for ourselves that, if and when we achieve them, do not substantially improve our wellbeing.

The good news is, if we spend time to thoughtfully define what the game is that we are playing, or what the prize is that we are chasing, we stand a much better chance of actually being happy. Suppose we define our goal as building a strong community, rather than making a lot of money? What if we define our goal explicitly as happiness, and then work backwards from there? What makes us happy? How might we do things differently if we were chasing human connection and intimacy, rather than power or wealth or status objects?

Swim in the right pond

While most of us are aware (on some level) that happiness cannot come from an external object, our happiness (and health) is nonetheless heavily dependent on the world around us. While it may be true that happiness can only come from within ourselves, this thought process risks minimizing the impact the environment surrounding us has on our happiness. Humans are social animals, and we are not happy when we are lonely; its hard be to happy and hungry, or happy and unhealthy. Our happiness is diminished when those around us suffer. We have control over how we make sense of this, and how we choose to respond, the fact is some conditions are substantially more conducive to happiness than others.

We can intentionally find and create environments for ourselves that promote happiness and health. Imagine being surrounded by social norms that celebrate art, generosity, or community. The milieu in which we spend our time matters. The social signals that we all receive have a powerful influence on what we strive for, and what we find important. Unfortunately, many of the signals we receive push us toward goals that do not promote happiness. What if this were different?


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