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You might have said them yourself, or you might be better acquainted with their cousins “When I get through ____________, I’ll feel better” or “If I just had ______________, life would be great.”
We say these words all the time casually, carelessly. They seem innocuous enough, just an expression of a desire or dream. But in fact, this habit of saying “I’ll be happy when …” is far more insidious than it seems on the surface.
That’s because “I’ll be happy when …” isn’t just a phrase. It’s a mindset — and that mindset keeps us waiting for happiness instead of cultivating joy in our lives right now.
Reaching a milestone can feel good, but eventually we start to look for the next milestone, and then we’re back to thinking “I’ll be happy when …” all over again.
Happiness is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives over time. It’s synonymous with what psychologists call “subjective well-being” and encompasses a range of different factors, including how we feel about our health and our work, whether we feel we have meaning and purpose in life and how connected we feel to other people.
If happiness is how we feel about our lives over time, joy is how we feel in the moment. Joy is an intense, momentary burst of positive emotion.
We can tell we’re experiencing joy because we feel it in our bodies as well as our minds. We smile and laugh, our posture opens, and we may feel warm or light. Joy makes us feel like the best version of ourselves — energized, invigorated, and alive.
Because happiness is somewhat big and complex, it’s not always easy to know what will make us happy.
Many of us have been conditioned to see happiness as tied to certain big milestones in life such as finding a partner, getting a promotion, buying a house, having a child.
We tell ourselves that securing these things will complete the puzzle and give us our “happily ever after.” But the reality is, we’re not always especially good at predicting what will make us happy.
It’s also important to note that we don’t actually have a lot of control about how or when these big things happen to us.
n our pursuit of happiness, we end up postponing joy.
Research has shown that while happiness tends to spike in the wake of this kind of big life event, it tends to return to its natural set point not long after. Reaching a milestone can feel good, but eventually we start to look for the next milestone, and then we’re back to thinking “I’ll be happy when …” all over again.
Every time we say to ourselves “I’ll be happy when …” what we’re really saying is “I can’t be happy now.”
So often we dismiss joy because it seems like a distraction from the big happiness we’re hoping for. But even though moments of joy are small, they do something significant: They expand our world.
And whether that happiness comes sooner or later, in the meantime you’re living a full life, one that is rich in joy.
But what I’ve learned about leaning into the present rather than waiting for the future is that something unexpected always happens.
Sometimes it’s adventure, and then you’re left with memories you never would’ve had if you’d just waited for happiness to find you. Other times, we find new friends, new opportunities, new inspiration — things that may actually help you get to the happiness you’re seeking faster or help you uncover a new definition of happiness.
But I’ve realized that waiting for happiness is a habit, and like any other habit, we can break it. Now, when I catch myself saying some version of “I’ll be happy when …” I try to imagine myself in the future, looking back on right now.
Then I ask myself: “How will I wish I’d used this time?” Asking this question always brings me back to joy, because the answer is never “Waiting for things to change.” Usually, it’s more like “Living the best version of my life as it is right now.”
See, waiting for happiness is often rooted in a kind of perfectionism, which works backwards from an imagined perfect life and measures everything else against it. Anything that falls short of that so-called perfect life is a disappointment. And since perfection is unattainable, even when you do get the thing you were hoping for, you’re constantly operating at a deficit.
Joy, on the other hand, starts where you are. Joy begins with a beautifully imperfect life and asks: How can we can make this life more vibrant, more fun, more full of the things that make us excited to wake up in the morning? It’s a creative mindset, not a comparing one.
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