Learn to enjoy the journey- not just the destination.
We’re all familiar with this simple formula for happiness and success: set a goal, work hard, achieve that goal, then celebrate your achievement. (Just don’t go crazy with the celebrating because you have more goals to set.)
We slowly make our way through life, setting and reaching goals along the way and getting a dose of that familiar but fleeting sense of satisfaction with each new objective we can check off the list.
The message we get from society from a young age boils down to this: “Sure, you can feel happy, but only after you’ve accomplished/bought/experienced something. Otherwise, what is there to celebrate? Life itself??”
Now, I enjoy fulfilling a goal as much as the next person, and I definitely don’t think we should stop acknowledging those milestones, but what about all the time in between? The transient moments when we’ve just completed an objective make up a much smaller portion of our lives than all the time we spent actually working towards it, so why not infuse that part with a little more joy?
I myself am very guilty of falling into the trap of “I’ll be happy when ___.”
“I’ll be happy when I have a job that pays me more.”
“I’ll be happy when I finally make a habit out of exercising regularly.”
“I’ll be happy when I move to a tropical island and can drink out of a coconut every morning.”
These are all great things to aspire and look forward to, but in putting off my happiness until those things happen (if they ever do happen), I’m holding myself back from feeling fully joyful until they do.
This “I’ll be happy when…” mindset never actually allows us to be happy, because even if we do arrive at one of those goals, there will always be more to set. What it does allow us to do is to totally cruise by the present moment (i.e., our actual lives) with no recognition of or responsibility for how we’re feeling right now.
So how in the world do we wake up to and enjoy what’s actually happening in our lives instead of handing our happiness over to some future version of ourselves that may never exist?
1. Recognize what a privilege it is to even be thinking about this
This is important. There are people who spend their days thinking about where their next meal will come from. If you’re spending yours thinking about how to be happy today instead of a month from now, you’re doing pretty okay and that’s worth acknowledging.
2. Practice mindfulness and gratitude
No happiness listicle would be complete without them. There are plenty of ways to add a bit of mindfulness to your days, and the benefits are countless. Staying mindful can keep you focused on where you are today rather than where you’d like to be tomorrow. Instead of stressing about why you haven’t reached your goal yet, you can be conscious of and thankful for the steps you’ve taken toward it today.
This is where a gratitude practice comes in. Get into the habit of making even a small list of things you’re grateful for every day. It’s a great way to shift your perspective from “Why haven’t I completed xyz yet?” to “I haven’t completed xyz yet, but how lucky am I to have abc?” If you’re having trouble getting started, go back to #1 on this list.
3. Celebrate the small stuff
I’m talking miniscule. If you intended to write for an hour but could only get through ten minutes, you can either bully yourself for being a lazy, worthless human who can never follow through on anything (may or may not be speaking from experience here…), or you can pat yourself on the back and say, “Well, that’s ten more minutes of writing than I’d done ten minutes ago. Maybe tomorrow I’ll even do eleven!” and carry on with your day. You don’t need me to tell you which one will make you a) feel better and b) more likely to sit down and write again next time.
We as a society are obsessed with productivity, and we as individuals have (consciously or unconsciously) set these productivity thresholds that must be reached each hour/day/week before we can feel good about ourselves and what we’ve done. We may have been productive in one area of our lives on a given day, but if we haven’t been productive in all of them, something is missing and we can’t be fully happy with what we have done.
This sounds like a recipe for disappointment to me. Life gets in the way of our productivity all the time, so the next time you find yourself getting mad about the three items on your to-do list you weren’t able to complete, try instead being proud of the two that you did get to.
4. Reflect regularly
We take small, seemingly insignificant steps toward our objectives all the time. Without any concrete achievement (like writing a novel or learning to play a new song on the guitar) it’s easy to overlook the steps it takes to get to that concrete achievement (like completing a few pages of your novel or learning a new chord on the guitar). These big accomplishments can’t exist without the building blocks, and they’re absolutely worth recognizing.
This is why it’s so important to frequently reflect on how you’ve been working toward your desired result. My favorite way to do this is to physically document each tiny step along the way. Currently, that looks like writing a little “W” in my planner on the days I’ve written, because my goal is to write even a little bit every day. You’d be surprised how rewarding that little “W” is, and how much it motivates me to sit back down and write again the next day.
You can also use a friend to help you with this one. Have a designated friend who will hold you accountable, but also cheer you on for whatever you have accomplished thus far. Shoot them a quick “Hey, I practiced piano/read 10 pages of my book/played some basketball today!” message each time you work toward your ambition, and celebrate your efforts together.
When reflecting on your endeavors, remember point #2- celebrate whatever baby step you’ve taken, and no getting down on yourself for however small it may have been. Even if you’re not exactly where you want to be right now, recognize how far you’ve come and be proud of yourself for it.
5. Stop comparing yourself to others
I know, I know. I even triggered myself writing that. This can feel completely impossible sometimes, but the objective here is to practice it so it becomes more natural.
Actor Dax Shepard regularly talks on his podcast about comparing his current self to his past self, rather than comparing his life to another person’s. I think this is something we can all aspire to. We’re all on different paths in life and have different dreams we want to fulfill, so it really doesn’t make sense to analyze where we are against where someone else is.
Take my writing, for example. Part of my goal in writing more was to publish posts to Medium. If I compared myself to successful Medium writers who have been doing this for years, I would a) feel totally unproductive and down on myself for not being more disciplined like them, and b) probably never actually start publishing, because it would feel futile.
Instead, I’ve been trying to compare my current self to my past self. Sure, right now I only have a small handful of posts on my Medium page, but just a few weeks ago I had none! This achievement may be minor to others, but that’s irrelevant, because I am not “others”. I can use my own past attainments as motivation to continue bettering myself.
Try these approaches whenever you find yourself falling back into the “I’ll be happy when…” trap, and take notice of the changes it makes in your overall demeanor. By being patient with and proud of ourselves along the way, we can infuse more joy into our daily lives and even have a little fun on the way to completing our goals.