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Happiness Now or Happiness Later? That's the Question!

One of the most prevalent and recurrent dilemmas that traumatize humans involves the trade-off between present happiness and future happiness. Should one splurge on a cruise or save the money for retirement instead? Should one eat that luscious cake or avoid it for the sake of future health and happiness? Should one tell the boss what one really thinks of him or rein in the anger for the sake of a future promotion?

Notice that, at least as far as we can tell, other animals don't experience this type of dilemma. This is because animals go by their instinct. They don't ruminate on whether to eat an unhealthy snack or not: they just eat till they are not hungry anymore. Similarly, animals don't rack their brains over whether to fight, or beat a hasty retreat from, an aggressor—they just make a snap decision to do one or the other. Of course, it is the ability to worry about, and plan for, the future that has given us humans a leg up over the other animals: it is the reason we dominate other species. Indeed, even among humans, findings show that those who show concern for the future, delaying present happiness for the sake of future happiness, generally tend to do better in life, as measured by conventional yardsticks of success.

However, by the yardstick of happiness maximization, it's not clear who "wins". Is it the planner, who postpones present happiness for future happiness? Or is it the hedonist, who "seizes the day," maximizing present happiness?

There's no clear answer. What most people would agree with, however, is the following: there's no point worrying about the future if doing so results in never being happy in the present. Similarly, most people would agree that there's no point being so shortsighted that the future is completely discounted for the sake of present happiness. But where is the sweet spot between the two? Under what conditions should one be willing to sacrifice present happiness for the sake of future happiness?

That's the billion-dollar question. Perhaps there never will be an answer with which everyone agrees. But I think there are some broad guidelines that can help us all figure out a solution that works best for us. To better understand these guidelines, consider the picture below. On the x-axis is Present Happiness: low vs. high. On the y-axis is Future Happiness: low vs. high.

The Fundamental Happiness Dilemma

In this picture, the bottom-left quadrant (quadrant 1) is not important: it represents activities (e.g., eating tree-bark, just to pick a random example) that are neither enjoyable in the present nor have the potential to enhance future happiness. None of us would ever think of engaging in such activities, let alone spend too much time thinking about them.

The other three quadrants are, however, very important. We would obviously like to spend most of our time in the top-right quadrant (# 3), but often—more often that we would like—end up making a choice between activities that fall into quadrants 2 and 4.

So, how do we populate our life with "Quadrant 3" activities?

The obvious approach, which is also the one that most social scientists have explored, involves two steps: 1) identifying activities that have the most potential to enhance both present and future happiness, and 2) investing (time, money, and effort) in these activities. This may surprise some of you, but it turns out that most of us are generally bad at investing in activities that have great potential for enhancing both present and future happiness. A plethora of findings indicate that we derive a great deal of enjoyment from spending time with friends and family, and it turns out that this activity—which can be seen as investing in social capital—has very good potential for enhancing future happiness, as well present happiness. Yet, most of us spend less time on this activity than we should. Similarly, other findings show the importance of developing a hobby, especially one that involves interacting with others, such as tennis. Hobbies, like spending time with friends and family, enhances present and future enjoyment, and yet, most of us invest less resources in developing hobbies than we should.

There are two major reasons why we tend to under-invest in "Quadrant 3" activities. First, societal messages, especially in capitalistic cultures, tend to undercut the importance such activities in comparison to activities that involve enhancing our public profile. We are constantly bombarded by messages that remind us of the importance of being important. This leads us to accord a great deal of weight to the most prominent yardsticks by which society evaluates us: money, achievements, power, fame, beauty, etc. As Bob Frank, author of Luxury Fever argues cogently,  the quest for superiority over others on these dimension drives us to focus on extrinsic (vs. intrinsic) rewards when choosing our careers, and to work much harder than is good for us, leaving us with limited time to focus on relationships or hobbies.

Second, once we have developed a particular lifestyle, it is very difficult to break away from it. Those of us caught in the rat race to prove our superiority over others are likely to be surrounded by those similar to us. Their company, in turn, reinforces the importance of chasing the extrinsic rewards that they too are chasing. This sets up a vicious cycle that makes us all richer in terms of extrinsic rewards, but poorer in terms of well-being. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to escape this lifestyle—it's the only way we, and the people we associate with, know to live. Of course, there are several other reasons—adaptation to expensive habits, lack of energy and time to do anything other than work, etc.—that make lifestyle changes so difficult.

Not surprisingly, therefore, nothing much has changed despite the recommendations of the social scientists. Society continues to exhort us to chase after extrinsic rewards, and we obey these exhortations like well-trained monkeys. An additional problem with pursuing extrinsic rewards is that they goad us to work harder now for the sake of future happiness, but the promised future never really comes. Or if it does, it lasts for far too short a time. Thus, for those caught in the rat race, what begins as a promising journey, a journey involving a temporary delay of present gratification for the sake of relatively permanent future happiness, ends up in a never-ending sprint on a hedonic treadmill. You find yourself running faster and faster to merely stay in the same place. Indeed, we often don't realize that we have been duped into sacrificing both our present and our future happiness until it's "too late." This is the reason why many people nearing the end of their lives say that, if given a chance to relive their lives, they would focus more on enjoying the simpler things in life than on chasing big rewards.

Despite all of these disadvantages, the rat race has proven irresistible. We are a hyper-social species, and as such,  can't help but follow society's dictates. This is the main reason why  social scientists' recommendation—to identify "Quadrant 3" activities and spending more time in them—has largely failed.

So, is there another way by which we can get to spend more time in Quadrant 3 activities?

Surprisingly, there is. Or, more precisely, I believe that one approach appears to have the promise of working. This approach involves developing something called mindfulness. Mindfulness means bringing one's complete attention to the present experience-regardless of how enjoyable or un-enjoyable it is-on a moment-to-moment basis. It means focusing on the conversation you are currently having even if other issues are weighing on your mind. It means bringing your attention to the current point in a game of tennis even if losing the point means losing the match.

There are three major reasons why mindfulness is likely to enhance your present and future happiness. First, when you are mindful, you are not weighed down by future worries. This follows directly from the definition of mindfulness: focusing on the present. The present may be unpleasant, but you only magnify its unpleasantness by focusing on future worries. Usually, when we are engaged in an unpleasant activity-such as, a boring conversation-our mind keeps bringing up all the pleasant things we could be doing instead. This comparison of where we currently are (an unpleasant state) to where we could be (a pleasant state) makes us feel even more miserable. If, instead, we focused completely on just the boring conversation, we would feel less miserable.

People who practice mindfulness on a regular basis—meditators—say that you discover a surprising insight when you have practiced mindfulness for a while: even activities that you originally felt were unpleasant turn out to be much less unpleasant when you stop focusing on the future. In other words, activities (like working out) that you would originally have placed in Quadrant 2 (low present happiness, high future happiness) turn out to be activities that you now could place in Quadrant 3.

There seems to be a relatively straightforward explanation for this. Mindfulness leads us to be more actively engaged in the present, which makes us take responsibility to shape the present moment to our liking. When we are disengaged from a boring conversation, it is because we are caught up in other worries. In this state, we can neither ask meaningful questions, nor are we alert to opportunities to artfully end the conversation. If, instead, we were completely mindful to the conversation-and to the sights, smells and sounds around us while we were having it—we could engage with it in ways that enhanced our enjoyment from it, while also making us more capable of finding a polite way to end it. This is because in a mindful state, we can more easily generate interesting and relevant associations, and, in turn, use these as inputs to make the conversation more engaging. Likewise, when we are mindful, are in a better position to use cues from the environment (e.g., the bells from the clock tower-is it 4 pm already?) to end the conversation.

The third reason is perhaps the most important reason why developing mindfulness has the potential to steer us toward "Quadrant 3" activities. Practicing mindfulness leads you to have better clarity on how to make the tradeoff between present and future happiness. I don't know exactly why or how this happens, but it seems that the very act of willing your consciousness to be in the present makes you realize how much present misery you are willing to endure for the sake of future happiness. Mindful people generally tend to take on fewer assignments, but they do them well. In Covey's parlance, mindful people are better at focusing on things that are important, rather than on things that are urgent. Developing mindfulness also leads you realize that money, fame, power, etc. are not the only, or even the main, sources of enjoyment in life. You discover that the state of complete absorption in whatever it is that you are doing can be its own source of satisfaction and joy. So, you slowly move away from extrinsic rewards and towards intrinsically ones. This, in turn, means that you put yourself in a position to develop authentic expertise in a field of your choosing.

The process may be slow, but if you start practicing mindfulness now, you will likely have a very different lifestyle from the one you are having within 10 years from now.

But, for all its positives, developing mindfulness is not easy. First, it's not clear how to develop it. A good place to start is the exercise recommended by Marshall Goldsmith in his excellent book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. I've briefly outlined this exercise toward the end of another article I wrote: The Will That Powers Success. The neat thing about this exercise is that it can be practiced anywhere and everywhere—on a flight, when you want to take a short break from work, etc.—and it only takes a minute or two each time.

Another reason mindfulness is difficult is because it can be very frustrating initially, so most of us give up soon after taking it up. For most of us, our mind is so beyond our control that it seems impossible to make it focus on the things on which we want it to focus. The mindfulness exercise can thus make us feel miserable in the present. But, it has the best potential—more than that of socializing or developing hobbies—for enhancing your future happiness.

And if you are mindful about practicing mindfulness, it can become enjoyable in its own right.

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